Master GA4 vs. Universal Analytics: Key Differences & New Metrics

Nail GA4 with our latest guide. Learn the key differences between GA4 vs. Universal Analytics and new metrics. Hear from real marketers.
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Master GA4 vs. Universal Analytics: Key Differences & New Metrics

Nail GA4 with our latest guide. Learn the key differences between GA4 vs. Universal Analytics and new metrics. Hear from real marketers.

Overwhelmed with GA4? You’re not alone. 

Since the sunset of Universal Analytics on July 1st, marketers have been scrambling to get their reporting up to standards as before. According to the Search Engine Land x MarTech survey, only 23% of marketers have fully set up GA4 and are using it. Many have set it up (54%) but are still navigating the pits of the platform—and some are even swearing off GA4.

Screenshot from a Search Engine Land and Martech study of GA4 usage - Adriel

If you have yet to set up GA4, or are struggling to get the most out of the platform, we’re here to help. 

In this article, we’ll take you through:

  • The main differences between GA4 and UA
  • New metrics, features, and attribution models
  • Pros and cons of GA4 over UA
  • Metrics you should track on your GA4 dashboard

Throughout the article, you’ll also hear from real marketers and Head of SEOs what they think about GA4, and learn from their experiences too. 

Let’s get into it. 

Looking to create GA4 reports and get real-time insights right away? Try Adriel's GA4 dashboard template. Or book a demo with a product specialist.

What is the difference between GA4 and Universal Analytics? 

GA4 brings significant changes to Google's analytics suite compared to its predecessor, UA, primarily through its shift from a session-based to an event-based model. Now, every user interaction, not just clicks or form submissions, are treated as events, offering a more holistic view of user behavior. 

Another critical change lies in the expanded options for attribution models in Google Analytics 4, so marketers can enjoy more flexibility and precision in analyzing the impact of different marketing channels. 

Let’s dig deeper into:

  • Key scopes 
  • New metrics 
  • New features
  • New attribution models

1. Key scopes 

Before we go into the key scopes on GA4, it’s first important to understand the distinction between scopes and metrics as it informs how you gather, measure, and analyze data. 

In GA4, scope determines the level at which that data should be related or grouped. In other words, the scope defines the context or level at which a particular piece of data is applied when processing your reports.

On the other hand, metrics are quantitative measurements of data, showing you how the users’ interact with your website or app. Examples include the number of users, sessions, pageviews, revenue, conversion rate, and much more.

According to this documentation, Google Analytics organizes acquisition information into user, session, and event groups (or scopes) and adds prefixes to some dimensions so you can understand which groups the data applies to.

  • Event Scope: This scope applies to individual events. An example might be the page_title [an event-level custom dimension], which would be set for a page_view event and describes the page that was viewed.
  • User Scope: This scope applies to all events by a specific user. For example, if you have a user-level custom dimension for loyalty_status, then all events from a Gold-status user would have the value "Gold" for the loyalty_status dimension.
  • Session Scope: This applies to all events within a single session. For example, if you have a session-level custom dimension for session_type, then all events in a "Checkout" session would have the value "Checkout" for the session_type dimension.

Here’s what’s changed compared to UA:

GA4 vs. Google Analytics, key changes in scopes - Adriel

Matthew Olson, Founder of Signalfire, an award-winning marketing agency in the US, is optimistic about this change. He says:

Google Analytics 4 presented a fundamental shift in how we evaluate website traffic. Once we got our heads around the shift from user-based to session-based reporting—it’s been a fantastic improvement.
Our agency team has come to love the platform. When paired with the data visualization of Google’s Looker Studio, we can deliver a very detailed marketing performance report that is easy to understand and even easier to share with management.

2. New metrics

GA4 introduces several new metrics and data models that were not available in Universal Analytics (UA). Here are some of them:

  • Engaged Sessions: GA4 introduces the concept of "Engaged Sessions," which are sessions that lasted longer than 10 seconds, or had 1 or more conversion events or 2 or more page views.
  • Engagement Rate: This metric helps you understand the percentage of all sessions in which the user engaged with the site or app in a meaningful way.
  • Engagement Time: It calculates the total engagement time, which is the sum of all engagement hit values during the session.
  • User Engagement: This is a new event in GA4 that helps you understand how users interact with your site.
  • Scroll: GA4 automatically tracks scroll depth, which wasn’t a default metric in UA.
  • File Download: GA4 automatically tracks file downloads as events, which was not default in UA.
  • Site Search: Unlike UA, GA4 automatically tracks site searches without additional configuration.
  • Video Engagement: GA4 has built-in video engagement tracking, including metrics like video starts, quartile completion, and video completes.
  • Outbound Clicks: GA4 automatically tracks clicks on links that lead away from your website.
  • User-centric Privacy Features: GA4 allows you to configure how you want to handle user data, providing more flexibility in dealing with privacy-related adjustments.
  • User Lifetime Metrics: GA4 provides insights into user lifetime metrics, such as lifetime value and revenue, which were not available in UA.
  • User Explorer: GA4 offers a more detailed user explorer report, allowing you to drill down into the user journey on a granular level.

These new metrics and features in GA4 provide a more comprehensive and user-centric view of how individuals interact with your website or app, offering marketers enhanced insights and the ability to make more data-driven decisions.

Ilaria Pignalosa, Head of SEO at Bobble Digital loves these new metrics. She comments:

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think GA4 is way better than GAU. The tracking system makes more sense and is smarter and more creative!

3. New features 

GA4 introduces several new features, including:

  • Web + app data unification: This allows for cross-platform reports.
  • Machine learning: Provides intelligent and predictive insights.
  • More accessible integrations: For example, with BigQuery or Firebase.
  • New flexible reports: Such as Explorations.

However, new features don't necessarily equate to better user experience. 

Matthew shares:

The biggest challenge with GA4 has been with our clients is that they don’t understand why the historic data is not compatible and didn’t get carried through into the new platform. While there are workarounds to providing historic data, the need for personnel familiar with BigQuery or very comfortable with build-your-own databases.

4. Attribution

Attribution models are rules or sets of rules that determine how credit for sales and conversions is assigned to touchpoints in conversion paths. Here are the different attribution models, according to this Google documentation:

  • Data-driven attribution: Data-driven attribution distributes credit for conversion based on data for each conversion event. It’s different from other models because it uses your account's data to calculate the actual contribution of each click interaction. 

Each Data-driven model is specific to each advertiser and each conversion event.

  • Cross-channel last click: Ignores direct traffic and attributes 100% of the conversion value to the last channel that the customer clicked through (or engaged view through for YouTube) before converting. 

See examples of how conversion value is allocated:

A screenshot of how conversion is allocated in Google Analytics 4 - Adriel
  • Cross-channel first click: Gives all credit for the conversion to the first channel that a customer clicked (or engaged view through for YouTube) before converting.
  • Cross-channel linear: Distributes the credit for the conversion equally across all the channels a customer clicked (or engaged view through for YouTube) before converting.
  • Cross-channel position-based: Attributes 40% credit to the first and last interaction, and the remaining 20% credit is distributed evenly to the middle interactions.
  • Cross-channel time decay: Gives more credit to the touchpoints that happened closer in time to the conversion. Credit is distributed using a 7-day half-life. In other words, a click 8 days before a conversion gets half as much credit as a click 1 day before a conversion.

Note that the calculated Conversion Value (and the number of conversions) for each of your marketing channels will vary according to the attribution model used.

With GA4, selecting the default attribution model is now possible. The default one for UA was the last non-direct click, except in some reports.

Judging from these changes, GA4 does bring a lot more advantages compared to UA. What are they and how do they compare? 

What are the benefits of GA4 over Universal Analytics? 

According to the 60 marketers and Head of SEOs we talked to, here are the pros and cons of GA4 over UA: 


Superior event tracking

Unlike UA, where event tracking often required additional code snippets or Tag Manager setup, GA4 is built to recognize a multitude of interactions right out of the box, without needing extra configurations.

Jared Tangir, Founder of Elevated Audience, a PPC agency in the US, says:

With the proper configuration, GA4 provides extremely valuable and nuanced data, often surpassing the insights available from Universal Analytics. The event-based tracking model and the enhanced audience-building capabilities are genuinely helpful.

Enhanced Security

Google Analytics 4 recently rolled out “data redaction” to minimize the risk of unintentionally transmitting Personally-identifiable IDs (PIIs).

This means you can now set up your web data streams to execute client-side text redaction on email addresses and user-defined URL Query Parameters. Email redaction is automatically enabled by default for new web data streams. Check out this documentation for details.

GA4 is also designed with a strong emphasis on user privacy and data compliance. It provides more robust and flexible user data control options, ensuring that businesses can more easily adhere to data protection regulations like GDPR and CCPA.

Higher Accuracy

GA4 offers the unique capability to exclude specific demographic and interest data from reports, especially those derived from signed-in, consented users. This is not available on a Universal Analytics property.

If you already have Google Signals, you can simply disable “Include Google Signals in Reporting Identity” on the Admin’s Data Collection page. If you are currently using a server-side Google Tag Manager set up, you’ll first need to activate Google Signals on your GA4 property. 

But here’s the kicker: even with this option turned off, GA4 continues to collect Google Signals data. This means your audiences and conversions still benefit from a wealth of data, without cluttering your reports with potentially non-strategic information. 

Plus, sharing this refined data with linked Google Ads accounts not only boosts your remarketing efforts but also fine-tunes your bid optimization.

Free Access to the Google BigQuery

If you have set up a Google Analytics 4 property, you’ll get free access to the Google BigQuery, a fully-managed, serverless data warehouse that enables super-fast SQL queries. With BigQuery, marketers will be able to easily join and visualize data from different sources to create custom reports.


Data discrepancies

GA4 and UA diverge significantly in their data measurement models, resulting in noticeable discrepancies in reported metrics. 

While UA employs a session-based model, focusing on user sessions and page views, GA4 adopts an event-based model, which organizes data around user interactions or "events." This foundational difference in data collection and processing can lead to discrepancies  when comparing user metrics side-by-side between the two platforms.

Jared shares:

The data discrepancies, especially between User Acquisition and Traffic Acquisition reports, are a significant point of frustration. The frequent attribution in Traffic Reports as Unavailable is a source of frustration for both our data analysts and clients.

Lack of historical data

One substantial drawback of GA4 concerns the lack of historical data when making the switch from Universal Analytics.

Upon migration to GA4, marketers and analysts are met with a blank slate, as GA4 does not import historical data from the UA properties. This absence of past user engagement and performance data means that businesses lose the ability to compare new data and trends with previous performance directly within the GA4 platform. 

According to Shawn Cagle, a fractional Marketing Strategist, this is a significant pain point for eCommerce marketers.

The biggest problem I continue to face in the ecommerce business I manage is comparing year-over-year analytics. Unfortunately we’ve more or less given up comparing GA4 to UA. I look forward to when we have a complete year of data so we can see YoY trends again.

Steep learning curve

Transitioning to GA4 from Universal Analytics introduces a steep learning curve for many marketers and data analysts. The shift from a session-based to an event-based tracking model, alongside a redefined interface and feature set, demands a re-education.

Also, new terminologies and functionalities, such as AI-driven insights and privacy-centric features, require a fresh knowledge base.

Susan M. Staupe, Owner & Director of Beyond SEO, voices her concerns.

Even though I have a GA4 specialist who is helping me every step of the way, it’s still too hard to track legit numbers and data, hard to set up destination based conversions, goals and events. Once Google can work out all of the kinks, I believe it will be better, but I expect more from a company of this size. What a nightmare of a rollout it was too!


In the end, there’s no such thing as whether one platform is better than the other. 

Amanda Sexton, Founder of FocusWorks, puts it perfectly when she says:

It’s not about which platform is better or worse–it’s about evolution. GA4 feels like the future, especially with its emphasis on predictive metrics. However, Universal Analytics still holds its ground regarding familiarity and ease of use.

But if you’re looking for a GA4 dashboard with zero-hassle and learning curve, try Adriel. 

Build a stunning GA4 dashboard in minutes with Adriel 

A ready-made marketing dashboard showing key metrics from all marketing channels - Adriel

A ready-made GA4 dashboard like Adriel can save you hours on visualizing your website performance data–without needing to re-learn Google Analytics 4 or tinker around with Looker Studio and Data Studio. 

On Adriel, you can not only build an accurate and stunning GA4 dashboard in minutes, but also map out your website data with paid media data. It’s 100% code-free, incredibly easy to use and shows real-time data. 

You can then design your dashboard your way using drag-and-drop widgets or just get started right away with ready-made templates.

Which metrics should you track on a GA4 dashboard?

Your Google Analytics dashboard should track all the important metrics for 

  • How users are discovering you on Google
  • How they’re interacting with pages on your website
  • How long they are reading your content
  • How many times they visited you before converting

Here are the common site-centric data that marketers track: 

1. User metrics

The behavior and characteristics of individual users on a website or app, such as the number of active users, user retention, and user engagement. Examples include: 

  • Total users
  • New users
  • Active users
  • Sessions per user

2. Session metrics

User interactions within a specific visit to a website or app, offering insights into user engagement and website/app usability. 

Examples include:

3. Event metrics

Specific actions or events that occur within a website or app, providing insights into user interactions and behavior.

Examples include:

  • Total events
  • Screen & page views
  • Outbound clicks
  • Scrolls 

4. Conversion metrics

The success of specific goals or actions that are important to a business, such as purchases, sign-ups, form submissions, or other desired outcomes, providing insights into the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and user behavior in achieving those goals.

Examples include:

  • Conversions
  • User conversion rate
  • First time purchaser conversions
  • Purchaser conversion rate
  • Session conversion rate

5. Source/medium

The channels through which visitors are finding your website, such as organic search, social media, or referral traffic.

6. Bounce rate

The percentage of sessions in which a visitor left your website after viewing only one page.

7. Top landing pages

The pages on your website that visitors are landing on most frequently.

8. Exit pages 

The pages on your website that visitors are exiting from most frequently.

Start tracking these metrics in seconds on Adriel's GA4 dashboard template. Or talk to us for custom integrations and dashboards!

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