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Comparing GA4 to Other Modern Analytics Tools

What is GA4?

With the forced changeover to GA4 fast approaching (July 2023) one question seems to keep coming up: What is GA4?

The simplest explanation is GA4 is Google’s approach to event-based (and tangentially user-based) tracking. This differs from the previous, session-based method of UA. While most people assume the switch to GA4 is simply the next evolution of Google Analytics, this is inaccurate. This explanation fails to provide insight into why Google is doing what they are doing and that they are, in fact, late to the game in terms of event-based analytics.

Event-based analytics has been seen as the future of analytics for some time now. It offers:

  • Extremely granular data
  • Enhanced multitouch capabilities
  • Added flexibility for data collection and portability

The granularity of the data produced also means it is far more easily manipulated by data scientists and analysts to provide meaningful insights. Many pioneers of the space have been pushing the envelope in terms of event-based analytics for years. Snowplow, Rudderstack, Segment are prime examples. It is important then, to note that GA4 is NOT some new advancement by Google, set to revolutionize the analytics world. It is their attempt to CATCH the pioneers that have been developing event-based analytics for years.

Google has seen where the market has been shifting for years and is trying to capitalize on their name by making the UA to GA4 transition seem like a simple upgrade when it is an implementation of an entirely new system. Data collection, storage, and visualization will be an integral part of companies’ digital strategies for years to come and GA4 is an example of Google acknowledging this.

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What are the advantages of GA4 over other event-based analytics systems?

With the transition from UA to GA4 consideration should be made about whether GA4 is the best event-based analytics system for your company. There are, of course, advantages to using GA4 over another event-based system.

  • The tool is designed to work passably out of the box, something many other event-based systems do not do.
  • It comes with data storage and basic visualization already taken care of by Google, a real positive for companies that do not have the resources or time to do it themselves. This convenience, however, does come at a cost.

So, what are the costs?

  • You are still giving Google your data. If you pay for an upgrade you do have direct access to this data but so does Google. We’re not suggesting Google is doing anything malicious with the data, merely pointing out that they have access to it.
  • GA4 will require nearly the same setup as any other event-based data collection system to get the most out of it. As with any other tool, you will need to set up events on your web/app and specify the data these events send. There is no major functional difference in data collection other than when using GA4 a lot of the events have prebuilt schema (think of it as a checklist of what data an event is supposed to contain to be considered valid). While this can be convenient, it also means that if you want to use nuanced schema it is a bit harder since you will once again need to upgrade.
  • There are a few pre-built views in GA4, and while these may help nascent users, any serious analysis is still going to require building custom reports. This isn’t a negative, but it may give people the assumption that they can do way more with GA4 than their current staffing level or expertise allows.

None of this is meant to deter anyone from using GA4 as their data collector of choice. There are plenty of benefits that a tool put out by a company as stable and meticulous as Google provides. With the end of UA, the default crutch for digital analytics the world over, comes a chance to make the right choice about what analytics setup is actually right for a business’s unique needs. Don’t waste this opportunity.

What are the alternatives to GA4?

If you are a SaaS executive, particularly one offering a trial, does it make sense to transition to GA4 for the front end web experience or is this the perfect opportunity for marketing and product to finally have alignment on data collection?

Alternatives to GA4 typically come piecemeal, which is both a good and bad thing. The bad is that it means typically you will need to stand up several different systems and link them together to get a full event-based analytics tool. In short, more time and more pieces to account for. The good here is that because there are different pieces, each one is typically very specialized at what it does and you can select the exact one that works for you based on available budget, talent, timeline or anything else. It also means you will be inherently more flexible than a prebuilt system like GA4. In general terms to mirror what GA4 does you will need 3 major components:

  • A data collector
  • A data storage location
  • A tool that reads and visualizes the data

The data collector exists to take actions a visitor performs on your website, capture relevant information about these actions and turn this information into a language and structure that works well with how computers can and want to store information. The overarching goal here is to never have a situation arise where you can’t capture some piece of information that you want and your data collector should strive to achieve that.

For GA4 the collector is built in and the JS snippets you use to pass events into the platform are the only pieces you really have any control over. Some good alternatives to this piece of the machine are:

  • Snowplow – Open source, commercially supported options, very flexible
  • Rudderstack – Privacy and Security focused Segment-alternative
  • Segment – Now part of Twilio, Subscription based, good customer support, includes lots of integrations

Data storage is covered by GA4 via BigQuery. If you don’t ever want to directly access your data it is free however if you do want to access it an upgrade is required. I would highly recommend any analytics system having access to their own data so a proper setup here necessitates an upgrade in any ‘properly executed’ setup. Alternatives here would be:

  • AWS Redshift
  • Snowflake
  • Databricks
  • Microsoft Azure

Data visualization is also covered by GA4, with the caveat being that their visualization tool is probably the most generic and least customizable among the other major players (currently). The major thing to consider when choosing a tool here is comfort. They all do extremely similar things, especially if your data stream is set up well. Often the recommendation for which to choose comes down to whichever tool the power users within a given business will be most comfortable with. Alternatives for data visualization include:

  • Looker
  • Mixpanel
  • Amplitude
  • Indicative
  • Streamlit
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