Updated: Google delays final cut-off for Universal Analytics

Industry thought leaders weigh in as Google Analytics 4 switchover delayed by nine months for enterprise customers

Four months after delaying the final demise of third-party cookies, Google has now pushed back sunsetting Universal Analytics by nine months to give enterprises more time to switchover to Google Analytics 4.

The search and advertising giant introduced GA4 three years ago as its next-generation analytics tool, the most significant analytics overhaul in a decade. Positioned as an approach more in line with growing consumer privacy concerns and a post-cookie world, GA4 does not collect cookies nor IP addresses. It also provides fresh tooling for users to choose and manage what data is collected and how it’s used through custom channel grouping, for example, brings in ‘consent mode’ for data usage, and employs behavioural modelling and machine learning.

Google had planned to discontinue UA in July 2023 for users of its free version, and from 1 October 2023 for enterprise customers using Google Analytics 360. While users will retain access to historical data for a period after that date, they will be unable to bring new data into UA.

However, in a blog post this week, Google confirmed it’s extending the deadline for enterprise customers to transition to GA4 to 1 July 2024.

“We're focusing our efforts and investments on Google Analytics 4 to deliver a solution built to adapt to a changing ecosystem. Because of this, throughout 2023 we'll be shifting support away from Universal Analytics 360 and will move our full focus to Google Analytics 4 in 2024. As a result, performance will likely degrade in Universal Analytics 360 up until the new sunset date,” Google Analytics director of product management, Russell Ketchum, stated in the blog post.

Google said it’s also launching additional resources and tools to help users take on GA4 and highlighted the Setup Assistant in the admin section of Universal Analytics can automate some required setup steps and help users track progress.

From early 2023, the Setup Assistant will also be creating a new Google Analytics 4 property for each standard Universal Analytics property that doesn’t already have one by default, a further nod to the fact many organisations are yet to make the transition to the new analytics tools. Google said this will also enable equivalent basic features such as goals and Google Ads links.

Google also confirmed it will shortly launch an integration with Campaign Manager 360 via Floodlight, allowing marketers to bid towards GA4 conversions in display and video 360 automated big strategies. There are already integrations between GA$ and Google Ads, Display & Video 360 and Search Ads 360.

CEO of digital marketing agency The Pistol, Jaime Nosworthy, said the industry should have seen the delay coming. 

“Attribution is critical to help marketers justify their budgets and demonstrate ROI. Migrating analytics is never going to be a seamless process, and between macro-economic factors, talent shortages, and the changing demands of their consumers, marketers have plenty of priorities that are competing with GA4 migrations,” he told CMO.  

“In addition, GA4 is hardly a polished product, and enterprise brands leveraging GA360 no doubt have complex setups that require program maturity to avoid disruption.” 

Getting prepared

As Nosworthy stressed, there’s a mindset shift required in the transition to GA4 – not to mention building trust and confidence in the artificial intelligence capabilities this analytics platform is going to be relying on.  

“We're moving away from unique data to many data sets powered by mathematical modelling and AI. This can be challenging when marketers are becoming more and more accountable for the tangible business impact of their investment, and it will require ongoing education business-wide to ensure stakeholder buy-in,” Nosworthy continued.  

“Despite the need to transition to mitigate impact when cookies are appreciated, the product is still missing some core functionality which is likely a key driver of the slow uptake.”  

For Gartner senior director analyst, Eric Schmitt, when any software release or sunset is delayed, underlying causes may relate to a number of factors, such as the vendor’s product readiness as well as the customer’s readiness to move. 

“In this case, the delay has been offered specifically to customers of the paid version of Google Analytics,” he commented. “The opportunity to buy some time could create an incentive for some customers to switch from the free to the paid version. While there has been no confirmation, the interdependencies of Google Analytics and third-party cookie deprecation in Chrome could have naturally played into Google’s decision.”

Commenting on the transition in June, Schmitt along with fellow Gartner analysts, Joseph Enerver, Lizzy Foo Kune, Benjamin Bloom, Matt Wakeman and Adriel Tey, described GA4 as an urgent and necessary overhaul to longstanding marketing data collection, measurement baselines and operational approaches, promising deeper tiers to Google’s ad ecosystem to boot.

Gartner has made it plain implications of the GA4 migration mandate are immense, even by comparison to other major Google declarations, delays and revisions. Estimates of Google Universal Analytics adoption by BuiltWith show it exceeds 25 million websites. Of 900 brands whose martech stacks were captured in Gartner’s 2021 Digital Performance Benchmarks dataset, 65 per cent use Google Analytics.

“GA4 highlights the data usage and consent gaps between acquisition-oriented advertising and retention-and-growth marketing, but provides bridging mechanisms such as lookalike modelling, retargeting, pathing and attribution,” the Gartner analysts stated in their report, ‘Choose your Google Analytics 4 Path now’.

Schmitt suggested to CMO marketers’ readiness to make the transition to GA4 right now varies widely. 

“We find many marketers view the transition from Universal Analytics to GA4 as a typical software migration exercise, and are aiming to simply replicate existing data collection, data processing and visualisation. This is unfortunate,” he said. “The wiser path is for organisations to take advantage of the longer timeline to re-imagine how they tag data, harvest insights and orchestrate GA4 deployments and configurations in concert with other Google products, including Tag Manager, Looker Studio, and BigQuery – as well as Google Ads, Search and DV360.”

In their recommendations earlier this year, Gartner analysts highlighted GA4’s more robust, generalised events model as one that requires careful configuration. For example, hits and page views become ‘events’, or ‘event combinations’. Further, sessions become defined by event combinations, sequences and engaged time. The migration to a new data model also means substantial updates to tag management and data collection.

In addition, audiences are being redefined for ad targeting, analysis and comparisons. They can be built on demographics, technology variables or by the acquiring campaign and medium, Gartner explained. Users can also define audiences based on custom events or event sequences, and new ‘predictive audiences’ features have been incorporated. These audiences are now more integrated with Google’s advertising and software portfolio.

For similar reasons, Nosworthy strongly recommend the shift to GA4 be made sooner rather than later to limit data loss and ensure brands optimise the platform for their unique business needs.  

“This is not a set-and-forget approach, but rather set up, compare and optimise to ensure you don't have any data gaps when the transition is completed,” he added.

In a recent interview with CMO, Digital marketing, analytics and optimisation expert and co-founder of Loves Data, Benjamin Mangold, was another who believed the transition to GA4 was still catching some people unawares.

“There are still people who are not where they should be,” Mangold told CMO in September. “It is not a Universal Analytics upgrade - it is an entirely separate thing. So there is a bit of a learning curve.”

Over time, Mangold has said marketers will need to build their understanding of the other significant changes that GA4 delivers, including its powerful reporting capabilities.

“For example, the way you name things in reports is entirely flexible, whereas Universal Analytics had quite tight parameters around the amount of information you could send and where things showed up,” he said. “There is also a whole lot of stuff happening automatically - things like measuring clicks and scroll and all those interactions – that used to require more effort in Universal Analytics.

“There is definitely a mind shift though, because in essence it is a totally new product.”

Read more: Explainer: Everything you need to know about Google Analytics 4

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