In November 2020 Google surprised the analytics world by making the beta of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) the default for all new web properties. Many GA4 ecommerce features are yet to be released, but I think there are compelling reasons to start using GA4 now, especially for data-driven Shopify Plus stores.

Google is clear that GA4 is the future for integrating marketing data with Google Ads. Yet there's more to the picture, including custom funnels and other key features which were previously restricted to GA360 (costing $100k and upwards per annum), but are now free for anyone to use in GA4.

Here are my top 10 benefits of GA4 from a data analyst’s perspective:

  1. Faster reporting
  2. Custom funnels *
  3. Analysis module *
  4. Export raw data to BigQuery *
  5. No event collection limits *
  6. Track mobile app events alongside web events **
  7. Streamlined audience building
  8. Predictive insights
  9. More custom dimensions *
  10. There’s more to come

* Previously only available with GA360
** Requires a roll-up property in GA360

Read on to dive into the details of each reason. We'll look at what's new in GA4 and how we expect these features to be useful to ecommerce managers and data scientists.

1. Faster reporting

If you’ve used GA with high-traffic sites, especially with GA 360 properties, then you’ll be all too familiar with the ‘Loading…’ bar -- waiting many minutes for some reports to load.

Ultimately Universal Analytics was built on 10-year-old data processing, and although the GA4 user interface looks similar, Google has rebuilt it from the ground up for speed and flexibility.

Faster ecommerce reporting in GA4

In GA4, standard reports generate more quickly and are more powerful at the same time, bringing us to Reason #2: Custom funnels.

2. Custom funnels

Goal funnels have always been a useful feature of GA, but the full power to choose a series of events to analyze was previously restricted to GA360, due to high processing costs.

With GA4 you easily build a funnel using any combination of events or pageviews, filtered by any event property (see reason #9), with clever features like measuring elapsed time through the funnel.

Custom funnels in GA4

This is equivalent to the funnel functionality that made Mixpanel and Amplitude really popular, and is a massive upgrade on the previous version of GA -- where you could only add events or pages but not both. And where you had to set the goal funnel up in advance to see any report at all!

3. Analysis module

The funnel reporting is part of a new ‘analysis’ tab in GA4 that brings more powerful report-building functionality. Compared with the previous ‘custom reports’ in Google Analytics (Universal Analytics), it is more intuitive to add dimensions, with more report templates like the Segment Overlap report below.

Analysis module in GA4

Hopefully Google extends the template gallery to allow other analysts to share reports, as we’d love to see more reports for ecommerce metrics.

4. Export raw data to BigQuery

This is a big one. Power users who wanted to go further and run their own algorithms, or build unsampled reports from raw, row-level data, previously needed a GA360 account.

In GA4 you can set up an export to Google BigQuery, steaming events within a few minutes of them being recorded from your website. You pay for the BigQuery transfer and storage, but this is free for smaller sites and merely hundreds of dollars a month for larger sites.

This makes GA4 + BigQuery a very viable data warehouse solution for ecommerce, and an insurance policy if you want to own your own data for future analysis.

5. No event collection limits

In the free version of Universal Analytics you are limited to 10M hits (pageviews and events) per month, and 500 hits in any one session.

For GA4, Google’s policy is ‘there is no limit on the total volume of events your app logs.’ Google has made no announcements on GA360 support for GA4, so these event limits may be subject to change. However, I see unlimited event collection as fitting with Google’s strategy to enable more ad retargeting and head off competition from tools like Heap (which has always advocated maximum possible event collection).

There are limits to data export via the reporting API, with higher quotas for GA360 customers. But those limits could be bypassed by maintaining a BigQuery export (see above).

6. Track mobile app events alongside web events

GA4 was originally called ‘app+web’ as it built on Firebase’s tracking for mobile apps and extended this tracking for web. Google calls this ‘customer-centric measurement’ as it allows the user-identified app sessions to be measured side-by-side with public website / web app sessions, where user-identification is harder.

You could do something similar with roll-up properties in GA360 previously, but getting user identification right was a pain.

I don’t rate this as a key feature for ecommerce, because most stores only run a public website, but if you are investing in a native mobile experience for loyalty then this is a killer feature for you.

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7. Streamlined audience building 

It is telling that one of the first features launched for GA4 was linking a Google Ads account. Google wants to make GA4 the key way you build audiences for retargeting, and export them to Google’s other products.

Audience building in GA4

In GA4, Audiences can be configured with any combination of events, demographics or channel, and then synced with Google Ads.

For example, let’s say you want to retarget users over the next 30 days who added a product from the ‘handbags’ category to cart, with a value of more than $100 -- but never purchased. No problem! Go ahead and include users who have triggered the add to cart event with a certain product category and product price, and exclude those that triggered a purchase.

8. Predictive insights

GA4 adds a number of features for predictive insights. For example, in analysis and audience building you can add predictive metrics: purchase probability and churn probability. Purchase probability is the chance that a user will purchase in the next 7 days, based on their patterns of behavior so far. Churn probability is the chance that they will no longer be an active user in 7 days.

Predictive insights in GA4

This further improves the kind of audiences you can build. How much more would you be willing to pay to re-engage customers that were in the top 10% of people most likely to buy?

For ecommerce analytics, we see predictive insights being used alongside metrics already enabled by Littledata's tracker, such as LTV by channel. Yet another reason to be excited about GA4 for DTC growth.

9. More custom dimensions and user properties

At Littledata we add custom dimensions about user behavior over time (their lifetime spend, date of last purchase, and more) to aid in audience building and LTV analysis. This used to eat into the 20 custom dimension slots provided in Google Analytics, but with GA4 you can specify as many hit-scope dimensions with events as you like (not just limited to Category, Action and Label).

You can also add up to 25 user properties that are persisted with each user as they get tracked across your site.

Custom dimensions and user properties in GA4

The only downside is there is no support for product-scope custom dimensions (like sizing or gross margin) as such. You can add multiple item_category fields, which could be used as extra product fields, but I hope custom product properties are on the roadmap.

10. There’s more to come

Google stopped developing Universal Analytics a few years ago and any new features will only launch on GA4. Although GA4 is not yet perfect I am really excited about the direction and speed of travel of the product.

As Spencer Connell at Praxis Metrics puts it:

“GA4 feels like a house which is 60% built - missing a couple of walls, and maybe the roof … but you definitely don’t want to wait until the house is 100% finished before you start moving in.”

At Littledata we’re so excited that we have built a beta GA4 connection for Shopify, and we will launch it just as soon as GA4’s APIs are ready. Please get in touch in you're interested in access to the beta release.

What you can do now

If you want to watch the GA progress from the sidelines, keep checking for GA4 product releases and jump in when you’re ready. But I recommend getting started right now by tracking your site on GA4 in parallel with Universal Analytics (or ‘doubling tagging’ in marketing analytics speak).

Josh Katinger at our Google Analytics Sales Partner, Cardinal Path, explains:

“Why now? You need an overlap of data. Moving to GA4 is really equivalent to a migration from Adobe Analytics - it’s a platform migration. And when you have a platform migration you want to have overlap, so you have time to understand the difference in the data model, understand the data variations and how to handle them. We are counseling everyone to double tag if you can.”

Note that adding GA4 tracking to a Shopify store will not slow down your pages, as Littledata shares the same gtag tracker and server-side tracking for both versions of GA.

Have you already started playing around with GA4? Let us know what you've discovered.

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