If you have read any of my other GA4 related blog posts, you will appreciate that I have a growing respect for the platform.
It would be a stretch to say that I love it, but my initial hatred has most definitely subsided and it is yet another example in life that sometimes you just need to embrace change rather than resist it.
There are, however, still days where I find myself screaming at my screen, cursing GA4’s very existence. It is far from perfect and it can be beyond infuriating.
As a bit of Friday fun, I wanted to share what I consider to be my top five issues and, crucially, share how to get around such issues wherever possible:
1] User Interface Catastrophe
Whilst I admit that ‘catastrophe’ is perhaps a little excessive, there are far too many areas where I feel that GA4’s user interface (UI) feels as though it has been designed by an intern. It simply feels unfinished and not ready for the forced adoption that we are facing from 1st July.
Here are a few examples:
If I had to take a guess at what one of the top date selections that marketers will make when analysing their website’s performance, I would go for a monthly snapshot. ‘Last month’ is definitely my most frequently used date range in UA. Guess what, it doesn’t exist in GA4.
This issue is further compounded by the date selection in the calendar view – it just doesn’t seem to work intuitively 9 times out of 10. Furthermore, date selections that you make often get dropped when moving between reports, so I find myself constantly raging about how hard such a simple interaction feels.
I can only assume that some features are hidden in order to help create a zen-like air of serenity, but there are too many examples of fairly critical buttons / links being disguised, with only a very small arrow being present to indicate that there is actually much more helpful data just one click away. You have to be constantly on the lookout for drop downs such as this:
It looks a bit more obvious with my yellow circle highlight around the arrow, but it is most definitely not obvious when you are new to GA4 and this is but one of many, many examples of an attempt to keep the interface clean which ends up making crucial data really difficult to find.
As with the enigmatic drop down highlighted above, I can assure you that you will question your sanity when trying to find features that you *know* you have used before and are 99.99999% sure were found in a particular subset of the navigation.
For some reason, Google has chosen some very odd default display options. For example, you may wish to remove traffic from specific IP addresses from your data. The most obvious use case for this feature is to strip out traffic from your own office(s). You can do this by configuring the ‘internal traffic’ identifiers.
I will save you Googling it and tell you that this is found in the ‘configure tag settings’ section, which itself can be found within the data stream settings. If you find your way to the ‘configure tag settings’, this is what you will see:
Hmmmm. What do you do now to define your internal traffic? You told me that I needed to go to the ‘configure tag settings’ section?
Did you notice the little drop down arrow? At least they have made it a bit more obvious this time with a ‘Show all’ text prompt and made the button blue, but why on earth does it need this option, when the full list only adds the following:
There it is! The internal traffic definition section that you were looking for. Having to press the ‘Show all’ link just feels ridiculously unnecessary and I know, from endless personal experience, that some of the ‘extra stuff that you really do want to find’ links are far from obvious.
If you are happy configuring IP addresses to strip out internal traffic from your GA data, I am pretty certain that you are happy with a bit of vertical scrolling? It feels as though a brief has gone out to keep the UI clean and uncluttered. I am all for simplicity, but common sense needs to prevail and too many features are not immediately accessible.
I am afraid that there is no magic wand on this one, other than to breathe deeply when you are getting frustrated about finding whatever it is you are looking for and to keep the eyes peeled for little drop downs. The information is invariably there, but it is invariably masked behind a
bloody near invisible drop down arrow. I am afraid that you simply need to go through the pain barrier. Humans do not like change, but change you must and you will get used to the interface with the passage of time.
The worse news is that some of the data / reports that you are most likely very familiar with in UA simply cannot be found in GA4. Some of these (I am thinking of you, bounce rate) are not really the end of the world. Some of these (I am thinking of you, assisted conversions report) are much more of a concern. No solution to these right now, but I will cover these in another blog post.
2] Delayed Data
I have been doing a lot of GA4 configuration work as we near the sunsetting of UA. We actually set up basic GA4 configurations in May 2022 so that we have year on year comparisons available now, but a final polish of event / conversion tracking has been taking up quite a lot of my time.
A major headache in this whole process is the delay before data is reliably available in reports / explorations in GA4. Google’s own advice suggests waiting 24-48hrs for data to arrive, but GA4 definitely feels much worse in this respect when compared to UA. Maybe I am feeling this more as I have been doing so many tweaks, but boy is it annoying to have to wait for so long to really know if your funky event tracking wizardry is doing what you want it to do. This is especially true for parameter data, which I use quite a lot – it is easy to think that it is not working and then, suddenly, the data is there in reports.
I consequently find that complex configurations can take weeks to finish rather than days as I want to wait for at least 48hrs before making any tweaks. If that tweak also fails to achieve the desired objective, you are forced into another 48hr waiting cycle. Rinse and repeat…..
Thankfully, I find that real time reporting in GA4 is actually pretty good. Yes, there is a bit of a delay, but it is a couple of minutes at worse rather than a couple of days. The debug view is also pretty decent and definitely worth looking at if you are trying to enhance the basic tracking that is available out of the box.
I actually find myself doing most debugging in Google Tag Assistant (within Google Tag Manager) as most GA4 set up work is actually carried out in Google Tag Manager (GTM). Although it definitely takes a bit of getting used to, GTM’s preview mode, which is Google Tag Assistant, is really good. I typically look for evidence that tags are firing as planned in GTM and don’t event bother checking in GA4 itself for a couple of days.
3] Data Thresholding
If you have been a long time user of UA, you will no doubt be familiar with the frustration of sampled data. I am afraid that I have a new nightmare to introduce to you – the spectre of GA4’s data thresholding.
This one is not immediately obvious and I only really noticed it when I was doing some testing of some new event tracking. I could see the tags firing in Google Tag Assistant and then in real time reporting in GA4 but they had all gone the next day when I was trying to build a nice shiny custom report. I waited 48hrs (see point 2 above), but they had still apparently vanished. I thought that I was going mad as I was convinced that I saw them in real time tracking and the tags / triggers all looked good in GTM.
It was then that I noticed the
symbol of death red exclamation mark and triangle:
It is the curse of the drop down again. Clicking on the warning reveals the following:
I would encourage you to read https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/9383630?hl=en to understand more about data thresholding, but it is never good when the subtitle of the article is “Why data may be withheld from reports and explorations”.
In a nutshell, Google is telling you that some data will not be used in GA4 reports. I am really struggling to understand why and it is insanely annoying to know that Google has chosen to simply ignore some data points. It really only affects low numbers, so you could argue that it doesn’t really have a material impact on reports, but you may well be missing some small numbers that actually have a massive impact on the performance of your business. Just because an event is low frequency, it does not mean that it is not important and I think that it is fair to expect GA4 to show you events that you have taken the pain to set up specific tracking?
There are a couple of ways to solve this particular problem. The first is to turn Google signals off, as explained in their help article. Whilst this does appear to remove the data thresholding, it feels counter intuitive to want to turn off something that feels as though it must be a good thing. Google signals is yet another consideration that warrants its own blog post, so I will save that for another occasion, but I don’t want to have to turn it off just to be able to see low volume event data in GA4? Not an ideal solution.
Personally, I prefer to use the second option, which is to head on over to the GA4 admin section and click on ‘Reporting Identity’, whereupon you have the option to select ‘Device-based’ (which is, infuriatingly, *not* shown until you click on a ‘show all’ link – see point 1 above….):
This is arguably going to miss out on some traffic as it will ignore Google signals and other data, but I have found it to reliably remove the data thresholding problem and, in my testing, has very little impact on the numbers in general. It simply feels that you shouldn’t have to do this – the data is there, so why can Google just not show it, even if it feels that it may be insignificant. I thought they were supportive of the ‘quality, not quantity’ concept?
4] Event Parameters / Custom Dimensions
I actually love event parameters and custom dimensions as it helps reveal data that may not be readily available out of the box. So why I am including this in my top 5 gripes about GA4?
It is because it feels so clunky to use. It feels as though you have to go through far too many steps to actually make use of them and it is yet another victim of the ‘keep it lean’ mantra. Let me give an example…
I want to track clicks on mailto:links across a site. That in itself is easy to do and there are actually a few ways that you could fire an event on each click. For the sake of this post, let’s agree that we are going to fire a GA4 event of ’email_click’ each time a user clicks on a mailto: link. All you need to do, in GTM, is create a trigger that looks for links containing ‘mailto:’ and use that to fire an event tag. Easy peasy.
But what if you have multiple mailto: links with different email addresses? The above would give you a grand total of clicks across all mailto: links, but would it not be helpful to know the clicks on each different link? This is where parameters come in to play and it is very easy to add additional information to your event tracking. In this case, you could add a parameter of ’email_address’ to the event and use the click text, so that the text displayed in the link will be passed to GA4. Again, this is easy to do.
If you are using real time to test this, you will hopefully see the parameter coming through with each ’email_click’ event. Bingo – you can relax in the knowledge that GA4 is doing a great job of capturing the extra level of detail that you wanted. But……. you then try to find this data in reports. It appears to have vanished?
If you actually want to use this data outside real time reporting, you have to create a custom dimension, which you can do in the ‘Custom Definitions’ section of the admin area. You need to create the custom dimension and then wait a bit. You should then hopefully see the extra detail when looking at reports in GA4.
For example, I have created a custom dimension that allows me to actually see more information for a ‘form submitted’ event on this website. I therefore see this extra panel when I drill down into the event:
Without the addition of the custom dimension, I would simply see a total of 32 form submissions, without being able to see any further detail.
I know that I may sound petty, but this just feels like an extra step that isn’t really needed. Why cannot GA4 reports not show parameter data by default? The data is there and is readily available in real time reports, so it is frustrating to have to manually add in the custom definitions each time you actually want to use any data in the parameters that you create.
My last point is a bit of a cop out as it is really just me being lazy and resisting change but I *really* didn’t like the whole ‘Explore’ section until I had clocked up a number of hours using it. It feels overwhelming and very, very raw. Why can there not be more ‘off the shelf’ reports that make it easier / quicker to delve into your data?
It almost feels deliberately out of reach of the average brain and is likely to intimidate the novice web marketer. I think it is great to have the ability to create highly custom reports and I applaud the way in which reports can be shared, but I really do think that there should be more default reports from the outset.
It is another example where I find that GA4 just feels unfinished. Is it really ready for market or does it need more polishing before it will be accepted without the hate that is so often heard when anyone uses GA4 for the first time?
I am afraid that there is no solution. You simply need to embrace change and invest the hours that are needed to get more familiar with GA4’s interface and features. I know that it is tough and I know from personal experience that the learning curve feels a whole lot steeper than UA ever did, but there is a lot to love and I have to admit that I now feel a little alien when dipping back into UA.
They say that familiarity breeds contempt. In relation to GA4, I think the total opposite is true. The more that you use it and the more familiar you are with it, the less likely you are to loath it in the way that you may well do right now. I hope that this post helps reduce the period of frustration. At the very least, you should relax in the knowledge that you are not alone in your moments of rage.
Have a great weekend folks.