In July 2023, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) was rolled out globally.
For many, the learning curve has been steep. And when it comes to data analysis, there are some notable gaps in reporting.
As agencies and in-house marketers prepare to compile monthly reports, there are several areas where they find themselves unable to present core KPIs in the way they did with Universal Analytics.
Problem #1: Data delays
One of the biggest challenges with GA4 is how long it takes for data to populate in the user interface (UI).
Events and custom dimensions can take up to 72 hours (and I’ve known it to be even longer on occasion) to appear in the standard reports, and Explore reports have a delay of up to 24 hours too (i.e. you cannot view data for the same day and previous day might be incomplete).
Data delays are a source of major frustration for a number of reasons.
- If you make changes to, or create new events in GA4 or Google Tag Manager, you may not see this data for a few days, which prevents you from being able to mark them as conversions
- Year on year and month on month data can take a while to catch up, so if you are producing comparative reports within the first few days of each calendar month, the numbers are likely to change in the following days
- When GA4 is still processing data, you will see (not set) values, especially for custom parameters
- When integrated with other platforms, including Google Ads, there is a lag in data, resulting in (sometimes very large) discrepancies in data between the two platforms
- Some reports or metrics may update faster than others, leading to temporary inconsistencies between different views or summaries of your data (for example, between standard reports and Explore reports)
- Due to the differences in the way filters work in Explore reports, coupled with data sampling and some dimensions and metrics being unavailable, you might not see the same numbers when compared to a standard report
Unfortunately, there isn’t anything that can be done about this. Ideally, you will want to leave it a full 72 hours before analysing data, but if that’s not possible, you’ll need to include a caveat explaining that due to delays in data processing, metrics may change.
Obviously, this is a real pain in the arse when the norm is to get monthly reports out the door ASAP.
Problem #2 – Data gaps
Aside from the dreaded ‘(not set)’ values due to data delays, there are other occasions where data is missing, or just doesn’t add up.
However, there is also the cursed ‘Unassigned’ traffic channel to contend with, which makes attribution difficult.
So what exactly is ‘Unassigned’ traffic? Put simply, it’s traffic that does not fit into the standard channels and is usually down to poor implementation of UTM tagging.
GA4 expert, Himanshu Sharma, provides an excellent overview of UTM tagging for GA4 here, so make sure you are using it!
I’d also recommend bookmarking this help article from Google and sharing it with everyone in the organisation who uses UTMs, as well as creating a spreadsheet to keep track of campaigns.
Another issue you may come across in reports is data being shown as ‘other’. ‘Other’ happens when less common values are grouped together. This typically happens when using secondary dimensions if numbers are low. Read this to find out more.
Ultimately, the GA4 UI has a lot of restrictions when it comes to drilling down into data.
If you’re fed up with the data restrictions within the GA4 UI, a better option might be to utilise BigQuery. More information on that here.
And finally, even if you can see all of the data, because annotations are not available in the GA4 UI, it can be a real pain to keep track of whether any increases in traffic or conversions correlate with when new pages were published, an email was sent to the database, or a press release was issued. Fortunately, there are a few third-party tools and a Chrome extension you can use – not an ideal solution, though, by any means.
Problem #3 – Lack of compatibility with third-party reporting tools
Many agencies and organisations will have invested in third-party solutions when it comes to reporting. Universal Analytics had lots of standard reports that were easy to segment and filter, and as a result, integration with these platforms was straightforward.
GA4 lacks a lot of standard reports, which means you often need to utilise Explore reports to drill down into data. Because Explore reports are created at user level, while they can be shared in the GA4 UI, they are view only, and as far as I know, cannot be imported into third-party reporting tools.
Segments, Audiences, and Comparisons are not available across all report types in GA4, further compounding compatibility issues.
Google’s own reporting platform, Looker Studio (previously known as Data Studio) can be used for reporting, but you’ll need to build custom reports from scratch rather than relying on a third-party tool to populate the report with common KPIs automatically for you. And that in itself is a steep learning curve.
You could also export GA4 data to Google Sheets and modify the data there instead, but the data is not presented in a very digestible or board-friendly way in this format.
The unfortunate result is that reports are taking longer to compile than ever, with data now having to be exported from GA4 for analysis, or screenshots of Explore reports being included in reports when showing more complex data.
Overall, GA4 has lots of great features and you can really dig deep into the data, with a far greater deal of customisation and flexibility than was available in Universal Analytics. However, when it comes to reporting, without the means to analyse and present this data with absolute confidence that it’s accurate, it becomes a burden.
Has GA4 impacted the way in which you report on KPIs? Let me know!