Marketing in a Cookieless(ish) world

In 2020, Google announced that Google Chrome would no longer support third party cookies – cookies which are capable of tracking users from different websites, usually for the purpose of tracking, profiling and advertising to users on the internet. 

In 2021, Google followed this up by announcing that they were planning to end behavioural targeting via third-party cookies. Both of these decisions were made with pressure from legislative bodies, especially since the rollout of GDPR in Europe and the UK, which occurred in 2018. 

However, it’s a mythconception that GA4 is entirely cookieless in its approach… at least, as at the time of writing.

Differences between UA and GA4

The major difference between Universal Analytics (UA) and Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is how the data collected from browser sessions, and the way it is structured. UA uses a top down approach to explain a user’s behavior on a website, made up of three key components: the user, the session and the action (or event). G4 offers a ‘flatter’ data model, which we will explore below.

The User

In UA, the first layer is the ‘user’, who is accessing a website and triggering a UA cookie by visiting a website on a browser. If a cookie is retained on a user’s device, it’s possible to track repeat visits (so long as the browser, IP address, device and other identifying characteristics  are exactly the same the next time the user visits). 

The Session

The second layer is the ‘session’ or the time that the user spends on the website. In UA, the session expires whenever a traffic source changes or a new day begins. A source is considered to have expired whenever UA detects that a new session has begun using a different source: an organic clickthrough vs a paid clickthrough, social referral vs direct URL, etc. 

This means it’s possible to record multiple sessions in UA from the same user if they are opening your website in different tabs from different search results, bookmarked pages, via social media, or clicking around on different advertisements which lead to the same URL (as users tend to do!) Each of these actions (triggered by the same user) would appear under different sessions. 

The Event

The third layer is the ‘action’ or ‘event’ layer. This describes what a user is actually doing on the website. Events can be anything from simply loading a page, to clicking a link, subscribing to a mailing list, purchasing a product… Almost any event can be noted, tracked  and recorded in Google Tag Manager (GTM), given enough time (and patience).  

Diagram illustrating how Universial Analytics works and the data flow

GA4: A Streamlined Approach to Tracking

In comparison, GA4 is quite different – it uses a much more streamlined, flat, ‘event based’ approach to modeling users behavior and actions on a website.

What does this mean? With GA4, everything that happens on your website is now considered an ‘event’, including the first time a user visits your page and their actions therein.

This doesn’t remove the requirement for users or sessions – it instead ties the whole relationship between each individual user and their actions into one, linked to an individual session ID and user ID.

Tracking Users

With GA4, you can pin down specific events to specific users – for example, you could watch as a user visits your website for the first time, heads to store, purchases something, subscribes for your mailing list and then clicks off to another exit URL (such as Facebook, Yelp, your YouTube channel etc.) This helps to link each specific action with a specific user and a specific session.

No More Broken Sessions

Due to its ‘event based’ approach to data analysis, GA4 means it’s now possible to understand a user’s behavior and their subsequent actions without having to perform the mental gymnastics required when a user browses your website via different devices or using different ‘sources’. After switching to GA4, you might notice fewer sessions than before with UA – however this data is going to be far more accurate.

Because each event is tied to a specific user ID and session ID, Google can now more accurately track when a user – for example – clicks on two different advertisements that end up on the same website. Under GA4, both would be given the same session ID and user ID.

Cross Platform Tracking

In GA4, there’s also an abundance of ways to track user’s behavior and actions across multiple devices and browsers.

Modern netizens tend to have a multitude of devices at their disposal, which they use to visit websites, consume content, and shop online. If your website allows users to sign up and log in to their own unique user accounts, you can use GA4 to track users across multiple devices and different browsers via a unique login ID, rather than the default user ID (which might disappear once a user clears their cookies, goes from a static IP to a dynamic IP or uses a new device to access a website).

Diagram illustrating how UA4 works and the data flow

Okay… so what?

What does the switch from UA to GA4 mean for marketers and website owners?

  1. Tracking Users: Cross-device tracking will become far easier for companies who offer login capabilities for their websites. This will allow marketers to study user behaviour more accurately, and highlight which areas of UX need attention.

  2. Accurate Data: sessions will no longer break due to the changing of a source, which means that KPIs around impressions, ‘hits’ and ROAs will be far more accurate for marketers. Marketers will therefore offer more reliable data to their clients, and also be able to use this data for proper AB ad testing.

  3. Conversion Tracking: More Accurate: GA4 has far more options for event tracking than UA. As each event in GA4 is recorded and tracked by GA, there’s far more flexibility for marketers to define custom events using GTM, or the possibility to combine two or more events into a larger ‘meta’ event’: such as a user making a purchase AND subscribing to a mailing list in the one session, for example.

  4. Tailored Funnels: GA4 allows marketers to build and develop more tailored funnels, designed around specific and granular events. For example, you might wish to trigger a specific remarketing advertisement to appear once a user has visited a specific page, but has NOT signed up to a newsletter.

  5. Better ‘Engagement Rate’ Tracking: the metric ‘bounce rate’ has been replaced by ‘engagement rate’ which offers a far more accurate understanding of user behaviour. Under UA a user is considered to have ‘bounced’ after visiting a page and doing nothing else.

  6. GA4 Flips This Metric on its Head:  a user is considered to be ‘engaged’ with the page once they perform a positive action, such as actively viewing the page for more than 10 seconds, or when triggering a subsequent conversion event. This means it’s far easier to explore which content users are actually engaging with, rather than what content is driving them away from your website.

  7. Improved Attribution: With GA4, it’s now far easier to understand how a conversion has taken place. Traditionally, under UA the last step in a user’s journey from cold to converted is given all the glory – this might typically be an advertisement or a bookmarked link. Under GA4, however, the entire journey can be tracked and traced from beginning to end, under one session, which might show a different story – such as a user researching a product or service thoroughly on social media, Google or some other source, before they committed to purchase.

Summing Up:

While it might take a bit of time for some, the change from UA to GA4 is nothing but positive for users, website owners and marketers. GA4 offers far better attribution and understanding for marketers, which will help to improve advertising and UX, while also delivering better results for their clients.

If you need more information about Google Analytics, tracking, and pixels, or want to power up your digital marketing, we can help you with your marketing goals – feel free to reach out:

Ben Mursa