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The need for Google Analytics 4 – tracking in a cookie-less world

November 19, 2020 - 4  min reading time - by Helen Pollitt
Accueil > Technical SEO > GA4: tracking in a cookie-less world

On October 14th 2020 Google announced the introduction of Google Analytics 4. This version of the much-used analytics platform is built upon the App + Web property that was released in beta last year.

There are some stark differences in the current and new versions. Notably, its use of machine learning to help bring to light insights from the data collected. It is also claimed by Google that the new version of the programme is “privacy-centric by design”. That is, as the collection and sharing of people’s data becomes more regulated, Google Analytics will be able to fill in the information gaps.

Why has Google had to adopt this approach?

Google Analytics works by setting cookies on a user’s browser when they visit a website that uses the platform. Cookies are packets of data that allow a website to “remember” information about a visitor. Cookies can simply inform a website if a visitor has visited before. More advanced cookies can store information about the visitor, their preferences and how they have interacted with the site.

Cookies are widely adopted on the web. They do, however, pose a privacy risk. Users may not be aware that their behaviour is being tracked. As such, a law was introduced in the EU in 2011 to ensure website were giving users the freedom to accept or decline cookies.

The EU Cookie Law

Directive 2009/136/EC, which became known as the Cookie Law, meant each country in the European Union needed to set laws about cookie tracking. In general, the EU Cookie Law requires websites:

  • To tell visitors that cookies are present
  • Explain what the cookies do
  • Get the visitor’s consent to use cookies

The tricky aspect to this is the idea of “consent”. It isn’t enough to just assume users are giving consent because they are continuing to use the website. According to the guidelines, consent must involve some form of positive action, i.e. checking a tick box or clicking a button.

If a user does not consent to cookies, then cookies should not be set on their device.

The issue with cookie acceptance

The ability to opt-out of cookie tracking needs to be easy for European websites to comply with the EU Cookie Law. As the world becomes more aware of privacy issues, users are increasingly using this method to protect their privacy. They are opting out of sharing data with third parties.

In some instances, websites will declare that they use cookies and the only alternative for users not wishing to consent to cookies is to leave the site.

This means, not every visitor to a website that uses Google Analytics will consent to the cookies needed to track them. Due to this, Google Analytics data is increasingly only reporting on a subset of visitors to the website. That is, visitors who agree to cookie tracking. This results in gaps in the data that is being recorded.

Tracking in a cookie-less world

This is one of the main reasons Google Analytics has had to adapt. In order to remain useful to website owners whilst increasingly reporting on less data, changes had to be made. According to Google’s blog the new version of Google Analytics will be using blended data to construct reports:

“Because the technology landscape continues to evolve, the new Analytics is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers. It uses a flexible approach to measurement, and in the future, will include modeling to fill in the gaps where the data may be incomplete. This means that you can rely on Google Analytics to help you measure your marketing results and meet customer needs now as you navigate the recovery and as you face uncertainty in the future.”

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What should you do?

Google’s blog goes on to state; “The new Google Analytics is now the default experience for new properties and is where we’re investing in future improvements.” The tech-giant recommends that you set up a GA4 property alongside your current Google Analytics implementation. By doing this you will give yourself the best coverage of data. For example, GA4 might fill in some gaps in user behaviour that are caused by users not accepting cookies.

Don’t immediately switch off your current Google Analytics set-up. Running them both together will help you to identify ways in which your reporting may need to change with the new Google Analytics 4. For instance, Google Analytics 4 reports will not display Category, Action, and Label. If this is something your measurement plan relies on then you will not be able to migrate fully over to GA4 just yet. You may need to reconfigure your event tracking to work well with GA4.

Look at both sets of data pulled from your current Google Analytics set-up and the new GA4 platform. How big a difference is there in things like user volume, pageviews etc?

Remember, your current tracking is not 100% accurate because data accuracy is lost at several points in Google Analytics, not just because of cookies. Google not understanding referral data properly can lead to mis-categorisation of traffic channels. Sampling can result in only part of the data collected being shown in reports. However, GA4 will not be completely accurate either.

The use of machine learning to fill in the gaps means it is still not reporting on the user behaviour of actual users on the site.

Conclusion

The internet needs to get less reliant on third-party cookies. Regulations and changes to user behaviour means less cookies are being set. As such, tools and website owners need to look again at how they measure interactions with websites. To remain competitive, Google Analytics has done just that. Google Analytics 4; tracking in a cookie-less world.

Helen is a tech-focused Managing Director at Arrows Up with a passion for all things digital. With over 10 years experience in marketing, she is focused on creating strategic solutions for clients, building teams and delivering comprehensive training and talks.
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