Technology and privacy concerns are converging to create a generational change in the way marketers collect and analyze data. Google’s key tool in this regard, Google Analytics 4, is at the epicenter of this change. ddm interactive manager Paul DeLeeuw talks about how analytics is changing, and what marketers need to know.
Q. We’re hearing a lot about Google Analytics 4. In a nutshell, what is it and how is it different than its predecessors?
Google Analytics 4, in a lot of ways, is a response to updated privacy regulations that are happening around the world. In Europe, you have GDPR. In California, you have CCPA. There are a handful of other regulations in various parts of the world around user privacy—when you can collect information, what you can and can’t collect, when users have to give you permission, etc.
Q. We’ve heard of going ‘cookieless.’ Is that what we’re talking about here?
That’s a part of the picture, but not the whole picture. Cookies are the gold standard of identifying a user. A cookie is a small piece of text placed on your browser that collects information about your online activities. We’re seeing movement toward “cookieless platforms,” Platforms are doing what’s called device fingerprinting, which is collecting information on the user of a specific device. But there’s a gap between what you can collect this way versus what you can collect with cookies. Google needs to be able to operate without cookies in order to satisfy these regulations—and really, to protect users’ privacy—or they need to give users a lot of control about what can and can’t be collected.
Q. When one technology goes away, marketing-minded technology companies tend to offer another that’s even better. Is that the case here? What’s the new technology?
There are some things that are getting better. What we’re seeing with Google Analytics 4 is the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Google is trying to create actionable intelligence for marketers to use, without it being specific to individuals.
What Google is really focusing on is the conversion piece of the equation. It’s encouraging marketers to provide information about certain events. For example, “When I see a user do ‘x’ on a website, I want to consider that a conversion of some kind.” That way, the machine learning algorithms can learn what’s important and factor in all the rest of the activity that’s happened along the way. That gives you data on how to transform activities into meaningful conversions.
Q. Okay, so on one hand there are fewer pieces of data we can collect, but on the other hand Google is getting input from marketers and employing machine learning to get more out of every piece of available data?
Yes, that’s right. They’re doing more to correlate the users’ actions to the ROI in your business. Google Analytics 4 will be able to give you anonymized trend information. It will be harder to specifically target your demographic—but you still will be able to prove your ROI because they’re doing more to correlate a user’s action to those conversions.
Q. What other advantages does Google Analytics 4 bring that its predecessors didn’t?
It’s more integrated with data from other platforms. Advertising activities are going to provide a lot more data into Google Analytics 4, using machine learning algorithms. So, if you as a user clicked on a Google ad to get to a website, that’s going to be tracked as it always has been and the data from that interaction is going to be compared alongside data from users that came from other avenues. And this includes integrating other app data.
The new piece is tracking who is coming from which apps and associating their actions with other users who come from search, advertising, and organic clicks, and compare how they interact with your site. Think of it as a more holistic view of your sources.
Q. That means we’re getting a better view of where everyone came from and how they’re behaving on our sites, right?
Q. But it’s anonymized—so we won’t know the identity of the user visiting our sites?
Actually, there’s another part to it. You could collect and use first-hand data, and Google encourages this. While Google itself won’t see cookies and device fingerprinting to identify end-users, Google Analytics 4 enables you to use your own first-hand data, as well. If a customer is logged into a website, for example, the website administrator has a lot of extra information available about that customer’s activity. If you use an email where every recipient received a unique link, you could upload unique identifiers for everyone who interacted with that email.
There are still potential privacy and regulatory concerns, and you would have to collect a good amount of consent from your users, but Google will integrate that data as long as the onus is on the website owner for properly collecting it.
Q. It sounds like first-hand data is going to be key to our effectiveness. What are your thoughts?
That’s going to be very important. We’re heading toward a world where most of the analytics are going to be anonymized in some way. If you can fill in some personalized data, Google’s machine learning algorithms will paint a better picture with the anonymized data. It’s going to use, as best it can, the personalized data you provided to map onto the anonymized data that is otherwise collected.
We often won’t have the ability to say this specific person will correlate with these paths—so those first-hand ways of collecting information will be vital. Use social media. Build your email list. Create website forms. Make use of whatever you can to connect with a person on an individual basis; Google Analytics is promoting this and will be able to use this type of information. Once you’ve provided some information, it can use that to better train its model and give you more insights into getting the results you want.
Q. Google Analytics 4 has been out for a couple years now, but a lot of professionals recently picked it up, or have plans to do so. To anyone who hasn’t gotten into the world of Google Analytics 4, any words of advice?
If you’re using an older version of Google Analytics, the best advice I can give you is to start a GA4 profile that runs alongside whatever you’re using today. You can correlate the metrics from old to new and figure out what you’re going to measure. Use it in conjunction. It’s certainly different, but a lot of the same information will still be there.
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