Google Analytics 4 – The beginner’s guide

Using GA4 for the first time? Find out how to set up and navigate Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

Starting on 1st July 2023, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) officially replaced Universal Analytics. Existing Analytics users had known the switchover was coming for a while. GA4 was officially released in mid-October 2020 and people were advised to switchover by July 2022 to have a full 12 months to build up analytics data before the final 2023 deadline. 

During this time, Google offered a helpful set-up assistant for people to manually make the switch. On 1st July 2023, Google automatically switched all outstanding Universal Analytics properties to GA4. 

This guide is for those of you who are using GA4 for the first time. This might mean that you’re setting up an account from scratch or that you made the switchover but haven’t had a chance to explore the main features yet. 

I will add a disclaimer! Google is constantly updating Google Analytics 4, so steps outlined in this guide may be subject to change. All the screenshots are correct as of November 2023. 

Google Analytics 4 Guide

1.1 Setting up a new Google Analytics 4 account 

In order to track how visitors are interacting with your website, you have to place a Google tag on it, either using your CMS (e.g., WordPress) or directly into the code of your site. Before you can do this, you need to get up a Google Analytics 4 (GA4) property for your site. 

If you haven’t used other versions of Google Analytics before, then you can set up Google Analytics 4 with the following steps: 

  1. Go to google.com/analytics and click Get started today to create an account. (If you already have a Google Analytics account, click Sign into Analytics.) New Analytics accounts default to GA4. You will be prompted to sign in using a Google account (if you don’t already have one, Google will walk you through the steps for this). 
  1. For new GA4 accounts, you will be prompted to complete a five-step set up process: See the image below.

    Under the Account Creation (Step 1 of 5), the Account name should be your company name. If you represent an agency, it’s recommended to set up a separate account for each company. Click Next when you’ve filled out the required fields. 
For new GA4 accounts, you will be prompted to complete a five-step set up process
  1. On the Property Creation screen (Step 2 of 5), the Property should be the name of the website or app that you want to track. You can add multiple websites and apps properties under one account if they’re all connected in some way (perhaps different online services for the same business).  

    Once you’ve entered the Property name, you’ll need to set the time zone and currency with which your business operates. If you have offices all over the world, you might want to choose the time zone and currency used by your head office. When this is done, click Next.  
Create a property in Google Analytics 4
  1. On the Business Details screen (Step 3 of 5), you will need to answer some simple questions about your business, i.e., the industry it falls under and its size. Click Next to move on. 
Describe your business
  1. The Business Objectives you set in Step 4 of 5 will determine the reports you see in the Reports section of GA4. You can select any or all of the top four options (Generate Leads, Drive Online Sales, Raise Brand Awareness, or Examine User Behaviour) or opt for Get baseline reports, which cover the reports that were available when GA4 first launched.  

    When you’re happy with your report selection (which you can change as you become more familiar with GA4), click to Create and accept the terms and conditions. 
Business objectives
  1. Finally, you will land on the Data Collection screen (Step 5 of 5). Here, you will need to choose the type of data stream you want to collect. There are three options – website, android, or iOS – and you can potentially choose all three for one property. In this guide, we will be primarily focus on the website data stream

    To find out more about the different data streams, I would recommend that you follow the steps for the best option for your property as explained in Analytics Help

    Once you set up a data stream, you will receive a unique tracking ID. 

1.2 If you already have a Google Analytics account 

  1. If you already have a Google Analytics 4 and you want to track the traffic on a new website or app (perhaps because you’re working on behalf of several businesses), you should log into Google Analytics and go to Admin, which you’ll find at the bottom of the left sidebar next to the cog icon. 
  1. The Admin screen will look one of two ways. You will either see a layout that looks like this: 
Create account option

or it will look like this: 

Admin screen
  1. Depending on your view, either click Create Account in the Account column or click on the + Create button. 
  1. You will then be taken to the five-step set-up process that we described in Section 1.1 above. 

1.3 Data streams 

You can view the data streams you’re tracking under Admin>Data Collection and Modification>Data Streams. If you haven’t set a data stream up yet, the first time you click on this option, the screen will look like this: 

Start collecting data (1)

As outlined in point 6 of section 1.1 above, choose whether you want to track data for a website or app. 

I’ve chosen Web for the purposes of this guide. 

On the resulting screen, you will need to enter the URL for your site and give the data stream a name: 

Web data stream

GA4 includes some automatic event tracking features (click on the blue +4 more to see all the events that will be included). If there are any that you want to disable, just click on the cog symbol and uncheck the appropriate option. 

Next, GA4 will show you Installation Instructions for adding the stream tag to your website. You can either install the code manually on your site (usually this will be handled by a web developer) or use a plugin if your site is built using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Wix or Squarespace.  

Some content management systems or individual themes within a CMS have some form of GA4 integration where you can enter the tracking code to have it applied across the site. 

Once you close the Installation Instructions screen (after following the instructions), you will return to the Web stream details screen. The panel at the top of the screen tells you the Stream Name, Stream URL, Stream ID, and Measurement ID. 

You will need the Measurement ID to use in the Google Tag Manager

2.1 Using Google Analytics 4 

Throughout the rest of this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the main features of GA4, where to find them and an overview of how you might use them. 

You’ll see that the main navigation menu has been dramatically pared down from the options available in previous versions of Analytics and now consists of: 

Main menu in Google Analytics 4

You’ll also find the link to view your Admin settings at the bottom on the main navigation menu (bottom left of the screen on a desktop). 

2.2 What are conversions and events in Google Analytics 4? 

Much of the data in GA4 is built around conversions and events, so you’ll notice that these are mentioned a lot in the various set-up guides. 

What does Google mean by these terms? 

Customers may interact with your website or app in different ways; some of these interactions will be important to your business, others less so. 

In GA4, important interactions are called conversions

  • For a marketing or lead generation site, a conversion could be when someone completes a form to give their contact information. 
  • For an ecommerce site, the conversion might be a purchase. 
  • On a mobile gaming app, there could be a conversion each time a player completes a level. 

Conversion events are actions people might take to be able to complete a conversion. For example, in order to make a purchase (a conversion on an ecommerce site), the conversion events leading up to it could include: 

  • Page views 
  • Adding to cart 
  • View cart 
  • Go to checkout 

Events replace the Goals you might be familiar with in Universal Analytics. 

For a step-by-step guide to setting up conversions and events in GA4, I recommend using Google’s support information on these topics. 

2.3 About conversion modelling in Google Analytics 4 

As there are growing restrictions around user privacy and data protection, it may not be possible to observe every conversion or conversion event. To address this, GA4 uses sophisticated modelling to predict conversions without identifying users. 

Google says that modelled conversions are only included in reports when there’s a high confidence of quality. 

To give some examples, conversion modelling might occur when: 

  • Interactions are happening across multiple devices 
  • Browsers limit or time-restrict cookies 
  • Cookie consent regulations differ from one country to another 
  • App-tracking policies require developers to obtain certain permissions 

2.4 Experiment with the Google Analytics 4 demo account 

To help you get to grips with using GA4, Google offers free training and the use of a demo account. This is a great way to explore the different features, so I recommend checking it out and having a ‘play’. 

The rest of this guide is an overview of what you will find. 

3.1 The main dashboard/Home screen 

Demo site_Home screen

As you can see from the screenshot above (taken from the GA4 demo site), the Home screen gives a quick overview of your users, average engagement, event count, and where the users have come from. 

You’ll also see the report you’ve recently accessed; Suggested for You reports and data; insights and recommendations.  

If your site is relatively new and/or has a low amount of traffic, you may not see insights on the Home screen straightaway. In this case, you’ll be shown a panel where you can click to See suggested insights. 

GA4 will present you with a list of things you might want to track that you can activate or ignore by clicking on the appropriate checkboxes. 

You also have the option to set custom insights. These could be things such as: 

  • Monthly – When the 30-day total number of users increases by 25% 
  • Daily – When the revenue is less than 100 
  • Weekly – When the average engagement rate changes (up or down) by more than 10% 

It’s up to you what you choose to see in your insights and there are a large number of possible permutations – the above are just examples. 

3.2 Reports 

Under the Reports tab, you will find menu options that look like this: 

Reports

Or a pared down version of baseline reports that looks more like this: 

Reports

The options in this menu will depend on what you set as your Business Objectives when you were setting up GA4. 

  • Reports snapshot 

As the name suggests, the Reports snapshot gives you an overview of the key data from the reports available via the Reports tab. What you see may vary depending on which reports you have set up and what data you’re tracking. 

Broadly speaking, the Reports snapshot will show you data about: 

  • How many users your site has had over the last month 
  • Revenue trends (if set up) 
  • Average engagement time 
  • The users on your site during the last 30 minutes 
  • Where users come from 
  • Your top campaigns/pages 
  • How well you retain visitors 
  • The top events of your site (e.g., page views, scrolls, clicks) 
  • Bestselling products (on e-commerce website) 
  • How activity differs across platforms 

You can access all of the main reports from this screen. 

Customising reports 

Although you can’t see this in the demo site for GA4 because it doesn’t give us permission to edit it, in your own GA4 properties you should have the ability to customise any of the reports in the Reports section. 

To do this, click on the pencil icon on the top-right of any of the Reports screens. 

You can find out more about customising reports here.  Each Google Analytics property can have up to 150 custom reports set up. 

  • Real-time 

As the name suggests, this report shows you what’s happening on a GA4 property in real-time. This includes valuable information, not only about geographical location or channels by which people enter your site, but also: 

  • Audience segments 
  • Which pages are being viewed 
  • What events and conversions are taking place 
  • The total number of active users 

Audience segments, for example, could tell you which users have viewed two or more pages or which users viewed a particular product or campaign before making a purchase. The information you see in these reports will depend on how you have set up your audiences, events and conversions. 

About audiences in Google Analytics 4 

Audiences enable you to segment users in ways that are important to your business. GA4 automatically creates audience groups for All users and Purchasers

To see the existing audiences set up for your property, go to Admin>Data display>Audiences

In the GA4 demo site, this is how the existing audiences look: 

Audiences in GA4

The first time you go into this screen on your own site, if you haven’t created audiences before, it will look like this: 

No audiences yet set

To create a new custom audience, click on New audience (the blue button on the top right of the audience table). This will bring up a screen where you can either build new audiences from scratch or choose GA4’s audience suggestions to create segments. 

Build new audience in GA4

As you begin defining an audience, if there’s enough available data, you should see a Summary card that shows how many users fitted into that audience criteria within the last 30 days. This is a helpful way to assess potential audience sizes. 

Once you’ve created an audience, its data should start to show up in reports. 

You can also add up to 20 triggers to your audience reports. A trigger event might be becoming a high value customer (i.e., whenever someone has spent more than £1,000 on your website) or making multiple purchases over three months, for example. 

You can read more about audience triggers here. 

One other feature of GA4 is that it can predict audiences. For example, it can determine which customer actions are likely to lead to a purchase or which customers are likely to buy from you within the next seven days. 

Click here to find out more about predictive audiences. 

User snapshot in real-time report 

User snapshot in real-time report

There’s a feature in the real-time report where you can click on View user snapshot in the top right-hand corner of the Realtime overview screen (see above) and watch how a randomly picked user is moving through your site. 

  • Life cycle reports 

If you opted for the baseline reports when setting up your Business Objectives, you’ll see a series of Life cycle report options in the main menu: 

Reports snapshot

Life cycle reports are available if you set up different objectives, but they may sit below App Developer and Games Reporting options. 

These reports aim to show you how users enter the conversion funnel and how they behave once they’re in it. 

There are various reports here focused on: 

  • Acquisition (e.g., overview, user acquisition, traffic acquisition) 
  • Engagement (e.g., overview, conversion, events, pages and screens) 
  • Monetisation (e.g., overview, e-commerce purchases, in-app purchases, publisher ads) – Currently, the Publisher Ads report just covers revenue made from ads in a mobile app 
  • Retention – This focuses on the behaviour of returning users 

Note: GA4 replaces the Life cycle collection of reports with the Games reporting collection when either your industry category is set to Games or at least 50% of your app streams are associated with apps that are categorised as Games. 

  • Search Console 

As with Universal Analytics, it’s possible to link GA4 with Google Search Console so that you’re able to access reports about search queries and organic traffic from Google. 

To set up this link:  

  1. In Admin, under Product links, click Search Console Links. 
  1. In the link table, click Link. 
  1. If you are a verified owner for one or more Search Console properties, in the row for Link to Search Console properties I manage, click Choose accounts, then select the account you want to link your property to. 
  1. Click Confirm. 
  1. Click Next. 
  1. Select the web data stream for your site. 
  1. Click Next, then review and submit your configuration settings. 
  • User reports 

While the Life Cycle reports above are about user behaviour, the User reports focused on Demographics and Tech are there to help you learn about the people who visit your site or app. 

As you would expect, the Demographics reports can give you an overview of user location, age, gender, language and (where this data is available) interests. Low-traffic sites may not be able to access full demographic information. 

The Tech reports give you information about users by platform, operating system, device, browser, screen resolution, app version, app stability and more. 

3.3 Explore 

The Explorations feature (found in Explore>Explorations) in GA4

The Explorations feature (found in Explore>Explorations) in GA4 is a collection of advanced techniques that go beyond standard reports to help you uncover deeper insights about your customers’ behaviour. 

When you want to explore data in more detail, you can use explorations to: 

  • Quickly perform ad hoc queries 
  • Easily configure and switch between techniques 
  • Sort, refactor, and drill down into the data 
  • Focus on the most relevant data by using filters and segments 
  • Create segments and audiences 
  • Share your explorations with other users of the same Google Analytics property 
  • Export the exploration data for use in other tools 

When you go into the Explorations main screen, you will see a choice of Exploration report templates for you to use and edit: 

Explorations

The Explorations templates can help you explore data in the following ways: 

  • Free-form exploration (including pie charts, geo maps, line charts, etc.) 
  • Funnel exploration – learn more about the steps people take to move through your sales funnel (as well as how different audience segments perform) 
  • Path exploration – track user journeys on your site in a tree graph (ideal for seeing where people get stuck or the steps that lead to a specific event) 
  • Segment overlap – find where your audiences overlap with each other 
  • Cohort exploration – find out about the behaviour and performance of groups of users based on common attributes 
  • User lifetime – learn more about user behaviour and value over the lifetime of their relationship with your business 

You can also create your own custom explorations. 

These reports can look daunting at first because there are so many options for how you filter and present the data. 

You can find Google’s Getting started with Explorations guide here. 

The GA4 demo site gives you the opportunity to experiment with different combinations of data and the various Explorations templates. 

Understanding the Exploration “canvas” 

Understanding the Exploration “canvas”

The screenshot above shows the fields you might come across when creating an Exploration in GA4. This is a broad overview of what each section means: 

  1. Variables: The variables column is where you will select the data you want to use in your analysis. This covers the date range, audience segments, dimensions and metrics (see the points below to understand more about these). 
  1. Settings: The Settings column is where you will specify the analysis technique (e.g., pie chart, line graph, etc.) and any data you want to compare (for example, behaviour of different audience segments) 
  1. Segments: Segments are different groups of users. Drag and drop different groups of users to your report to compare and contrast how they are behaving. If you don’t see the segment you want to use, you can add your own by clicking on the plus icon. 

    Here, you pick up the segments you want to look at and drop them in the Segment comparisons field in the Tabs Settings Column. 
  1. Dimensions: Dimensions are the things you want to analyse. This could be things like events, country or devices customers use, as just a few examples. Again, if you don’t see the Dimension you want, click on the + sign, choose the appropriate Dimension from the list of options and click Import. 

    You can drag and drop Dimensions as rows or columns in the Tab Settings area. 
  1. Metrics: Metrics provide the numbers in your analysis. Add metrics to the Values area in Tab Settings. (You’ll find Values below Columns (8) in the Tab Settings area.) 
  1. Visualisation: Choose what the report will look like. Exploration options include table, pie chart, line graph, and more. 
  1. Rows:Note: The name of this section will change, depending on what kind of visualisation you choose. For many of the charts/graphs, this section would be called “Breakdowns”. 

    Drag the metrics that you want to display in the report (for a table, this would be the data to want to appear in the rows). Cell type can be displayed as a bar chart, plain text, or heat map. 
  1. Columns:Note: Again, the name of this section will change depending on which type of visualisation you choose. 

    For a table, drag and drop the Dimensions you want to appear in the columns. 

    Below this, you will also find the Values section where you can drag and drop the Metrics you want to explore. Below this, you can drag and drop any Filters that you want to apply. 
  1. Tabs: The tabs at the top of the screen display your visualisations. For example, you could visualise the data as a line graph on the first tab, then as a Cohort Exploration in the second tab, a Segment Overlap in the third tab and so on. 
  1. Display: You can interact with the data by right clicking a data point in the visualisation. This enables you to create a new segment from the data, for example, or view the users that make up that group. 

Using Reports or Explorations to track bounce rate 

Although this guide is intended primarily to get you logged into Google Analytics 4 and to familiarise you with the different features, I think this is the right place to address a common question about GA4, “Why can’t I find my website’s bounce rate anymore?” 

GA4 doesn’t automatically have any data about bounce rates in the standard reports. This is because Google sees it as a flawed metric.  

The bounce rate in Universal Analytics measured when a visitor only interacted with one page before leaving a site. However, Google recognises that a visitor might spend five minutes reading a blog article or interacting with a long-form sales page and they’re actually highly engaged with the content. 

This is why bounce rate is measured differently by GA4, reflecting the percentage of sessions that were: 

  • Less than 10 seconds long 
  • Had zero conversion events, and 
  • Had less than two page or screen views 

To find bounce rates in GA4, you have one of two options.   

  1. Add it to your Report data by clicking on Reports>Engagement>Pages and Screens, then clicking the pencil icon, and choosing Metrics>Add metric>Bounce rate in the right-hand column (this tutorial from MonsterInsights walks you through it

3.4 Advertising 

The reports in the Advertising section should help you to understand the ROI of your media spend across all channels so you can make informed decisions about budget allocation. 

You’ll find three different reports within Advertising: 

  1. Advertising snapshot 
  1. Attribution>Model comparison 
  1. Attribution>Conversion paths 

You can find a Get Started with Advertising guide from Google here. 

Linking to a Google Ads account 

To get the most out of these reports, Google recommends linking your GA4 property to your Google Ads account(s). 

To do this: 

  • You will need to make sure that you have the right permissions in both Google Analytics and Google Ads. To link a property to Google Ads, use a Google account that has the following permissions: 

In Google Analytics, you need to have Edit permission for the property that you want to link. 

In Google Ads, that same Google account needs administrative access. 

The steps to link GA4 to a Google Ads account are then: 

In Analytics, click Admin

  1. Go to Property Settings>Product Links and click Google Ads Links
  1. Click Link in the top right-hand corner of the Google Ad Links panel. 
  1. Click Choose Google Ads accounts, then select the Google Ads accounts you want to link. 
  1. Click Confirm
  1. Click Next
  1. The option to Enable Personalised Advertising should be on by default. 
  1. Expand the Enable Auto-Tagging option to enable auto-tagging or to leave your auto-tagging settings as they are. If you enable auto-tagging when you link to a manager account, then auto-tagging will be enabled on all Google Ads accounts directly linked to the manager account. 
  1. Click Next then review your settings. 
  1. Click Submit to link your accounts with the current settings. 

Google Ads conversion tracking starts importing the data from your Analytics account starting from the day you clicked Import. Historical data from before this date isn’t added to conversion tracking. 

About attribution and attribution models 

Some of the advertising data in GA4 uses attribution and attribution modelling

What is this? 

Well, when tracking customer behaviour and conversions, businesses often make the mistake of attributing a successful conversion to the last thing the customer did/saw before acting. For example, the credit might go to the last Facebook ad or Google ad the person saw, or the last Google search they made. 

But the picture of customer behaviour is more complex. Every touchpoint along the customer journey is likely to have had some impact in moving a person along the sales funnel. 

This is where attribution modelling in GA4 comes into play. 

Essentially, an “attribution is the act of assigning credit for conversions to different ads, clicks and factors along a user’s path to completing a conversion”. Not only can all the touch points be given credit, but the credit can also be weighted according to how much contribution to the conversion the data suggests it made. 

You can find the attribution settings in Admin>Property Settings>Data Display>Attribution settings. Google explains more about how to use attribution settings here. 

The Attribution reports within the Advertising workspace are designed to help you better understand how all of your advertising efforts are working together. 

Now, let’s take a quick look at what all of the Advertising reports are about. 

  • Advertising Snapshot 

The Advertising Snapshot should give you an at-a-glance view of your conversion performance and help you to better understand your customers’ journeys. 

There are three summary cards in this snapshot: 

  • The Conversions by Default Channel Grouping panel highlights which channels (e.g., organic search, direct visits, referrals, etc.) led to the most conversions. 
  • The Insights panel pulls out key insights from your advertising campaigns, such as users who are more likely to make a purchase than others or likely to spend more, for example. 
  • The Conversion Paths panel gives you an overview of which touchpoints your customers take to convert. 
  • Model comparison 

The Model Comparison report compares how different attribution models impact the valuation of your marketing channels. 

For example, you might want to see how different campaign initiatives are working in different regions or whether people behave differently on different devices. 

Google has a guide to using the Model Comparison report here, including how to customise the report for your business.  

  • Conversion paths 

Use this report to see your customers’ paths to conversion and learn how different attribution models distribute credit on those paths. 

your customers’ paths to conversion

The visualisation at the top of the screen (marked in red on the screenshot above) is a quick view of which marketing channels initiate (early touch points), assist (mid touch points) and close (late touch points) conversions. 

The data table below this shows you the paths users take to complete conversions, as well as the following metrics: Conversions, Purchase revenue, Days to conversion, and Touchpoints to conversion

You can find a guide to using the Conversion Paths report here. 

Conclusion 

So, there you go. You’ve now had an introduction to all of the core screens in Google Analytics 4 and what information you can expect to find in them. 

Even though I’ve been using Google Analytics 4 since it became available, it’s a daily learning curve. This guide offers an introduction to GA4, but I recognise that I’ve barely touched on Google Tag Manager, customising reports, explorations, and more. (There’s a whole blog series in there, I’m sure!) 

As I’ve mentioned earlier in this guide, the GA4 demo sites (for a fictional business called Flood It or the Google Merchandise Shop) are the perfect place to try out the different settings and reports.  

Google has guides and walkthroughs for every feature, and there are some really good tutorials from a wide range of people on YouTube. 

Remember, if you’re looking for information that GA4 doesn’t collect and report on automatically, you can custom your own events and conversions. This enables you to track which buttons or links people are clicking on, donations, interactions with new features, and so much more. 

GA4 offers so much potential, but it can be overwhelming. Start slowly, get to know the basics and the plethora of data and features that you can access by default. As your confidence grows, you’ll start to recognise new opportunities

Need some help?

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