Even a GA4 Consultant Thinks GA4 Isn’t Great Out of the Box

eyes and top of girl's head peeking out of a box against a gray background suggesting how GA4 consultant Annalisa Hilliard feels about GA4
Like buying an older house and turning it into a home, GA4 needs a lot of work before it can deliver on its promises. Annalisa Hilliard shares her frustrations with the tool and what it takes to transform it into powerful marketing asset.

The transition to an event-centric model, while innovative, presents challenges because GA4's default events are inherently broad. That means, out of the box, GA4 is unlikely to align with the specific data needs of your business.

I did something really big at the end of 2022. I bought my first home, which was originally built in 1948. Raised like many Americans to see home ownership as a dream come true, a personal sanctuary, and a wise investment, I quickly discovered the reality of buying an older home (especially one that had been a rental for 10 years) was a bit overwhelming. My vision of a perfect place with a backyard for my dog and a garden immediately collided with the reality of costly, disruptive renovations that lasted for more than a year. Only now—after months of those clichéd blood, sweat, and tears—is this house starting to look and feel like the home I imagined it would be.

At the same time all that was going on, I had to make another move, thanks to Google, and it turned out to be filled with plenty of its own complexities. On July 1, 2023, Google stopped processing new hits via Universal Analytics (UA). That was the moment Google had been working toward since it beta launched App + Web in 2019 and introduced Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in October 2020. Throughout the entire process, Google made lots of promises about long-term benefits, and the marketing world greeted GA4 with high expectations. Unfortunately, much like my home-ownership scenario, once GA4 began functioning completely on its own, it revealed a landscape rife with unforeseen issues.

So, as a GA4 consultant with a GA4 certification, here’s my GA4 review in a nutshell: the interface has a lot of potential but also leaves a lot to be desired. This new analytics system requires a significant investment of time and resources to get meaningful, actionable insights for your business or organization. It demands a deep dive into GA4 custom events, learning a whole new method of data analysis, and possibly even rethinking your entire approach to digital analytics.

Take the Good with the Bad of GA4

How businesses can benefit from using analytics on their website

GA4 introduces a user-centric, event-based data model, a departure from Universal Analytics (UA)’s session-based approach. This shift does provide more comprehensive tracking of user interactions across platforms and devices, reflecting the complexity of the modern web landscape. Flexible GA4 custom events and custom dimensions help the platform balance the delivery of useful insights into user behavior with privacy and data compliance for a future without individual tracking cookies.

Enhanced integration capabilities of GA4

GA4 is also designed to better integrate with other Google products and third-party tools. This isn’t merely an upgrade; it’s a reimagining of data flow across platforms for a holistic view of user behavior and digital performance.
Streamlined workflows with Google products

Google Ads Integration
GA4 facilitates a smoother data transition between platforms with the goal of helping marketers create targeted ad campaigns based on direct insights from GA4, optimizing ad spend efficiency. One caveat here: Google makes a significant portion of its profit from ad spend across its properties, including YouTube, and you can be sure Google isn’t truly looking to make less.

Google Search Console
Linking GA4 with Google Search Console provides rich search data alongside analytics. As a long-time SEO, I find this integration is vital for helping clients identify successful content and improvement areas by showing organic search performance and user behavior post-click.

BigQuery Export
All GA4 properties can export data to BigQuery, a feature once exclusive to Google Analytics 360 (Google’s premium version). This integration allows for advanced data analysis and machine learning, enabling complex queries and insights previously out of reach. However, there is a cost for using BigQuery, and a strong knowledge of SQL (Structured Query Language) is necessary to work with the data you are housing in BigQuery.

Enhanced accuracy and comprehensive insights

Cross-Platform Tracking
As I mentioned previously, GA4’s integrations enable tracking across multiple platforms and devices, offering a unified customer journey view. This comprehensive tracking allows for more accurate attribution modeling and a deeper understanding of what’s driving conversions.

Improved Data Collection and Analysis
Integrating with BigQuery, for instance, opens new analysis possibilities beyond traditional analytics confines. Businesses can now perform sophisticated analyses like predictive modeling and cohort analysis for more informed decision-making. Unfortunately, the cost of using BigQuery may be outside of most small business budgets.

Explorations Hub
This is another feature within GA4 that allows users to perform complex analyses and create custom reports directly within the GA4 interface. It’s designed to help users explore their analytics data more deeply, using tools like funnel analysis, path analysis, and segmentation. These reports use aggregated and anonymized data. These characteristics ensure that Explorations Hub reports provide valuable insights into user behavior and website performance while respecting user privacy and complying with data protection laws. This approach allows website owners and marketers to make informed decisions based on trends and general user behaviors without accessing sensitive or identifiable user data.

In addition, using aggregated and anonymized data helps mitigate the risk of inadvertently breaching privacy regulations when analyzing or sharing analytics data. It aligns with the broader shift in the digital analytics industry towards prioritizing user privacy and data security.

As with Universal Analytics, when working with smaller data sets (typical for many small businesses), it can be difficult to get reliable insights.

Real-Time Data Processing
Real-time reporting in Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is a helpful tool for testing and debugging tracking implementations. However, while it’s tempting to get excited about real-time data and instant insights, this feature remains limited and, ironically, subject to delays. For small businesses, the necessity of navigating these limitations, coupled with the need for advanced customization to make the most out of real-time data, can often outweigh the benefits. The real-time report’s primary value lies in its ability to provide a quick check on user activity and campaign tracking, rather than serving as a comprehensive analytics solution.

As a GA4 consultant, I want to share a quick perspective on real-time reports in GA4 (or any other analytics platform). I believe it’s crucial to adopt a data-informed approach rather than a data-driven one. This perspective values real-time insights as a tool for strategic planning rather than for making hasty decisions. By leveraging up-to-the-minute data judiciously, businesses can enhance marketing and operations with a balanced view, prioritizing thoughtful analysis and long-term objectives over immediate changes.

So far, given the constraints of GA4 real-time reporting, I’ve seen no need to recommend investing in it to my clients. Plus, the real-time report’s inability to be customized beyond basic comparisons limits its utility for in-depth analysis. For small businesses focused on practical, actionable insights, the emphasis should be on straightforward, reliable tracking setups that support strategic decision-making without the need for constant monitoring or complex configuration.

More options with third-party tools

GA4’s compatibility with third-party tools extends its capabilities further. Through APIs and data connectors, GA4 integrates with CRMs, CMS systems, and other marketing technology tools, automating data syncing and reducing manual entry errors, including:

Customized Reporting
Pulling GA4 data into Looker Studio (formerly Google Data Studio) and third-party reporting tools allows for the creation of customized dashboards, ensuring stakeholders have access to relevant insights for informed decision-making.

Better User Segmentation
Integrating GA4 with CRM and customer data platforms enables the creation of detailed user segments for personalized marketing campaigns and improved user experiences across channels.

Read more in GA4 Transition: How It Can Enhance Your New Data Analytics Journey

Other GA4 reviews echo my frustrations

I know all that sounds great, and hopefully GA4 will be great someday. But, in the meantime, there are definitely issues. I’ve compiled a list of my top four biggest frustrations, which are similar to the complaints I’ve read about from other marketers and Google Analytics consultants. 

User Interface (UI) Problems

The GA4 user interface has been a significant point of contention, described as slow and not intuitive. I have found it cumbersome to navigate, with tasks that were straightforward in UA becoming time-consuming and frustrating in GA4. The process for selecting segments, dimensions, and creating or editing reports has been particularly complex and lacking in user-friendliness.

Data Update Lags 

When navigating GA4 setup and custom events and dimensions, I’ve encountered delays in data reporting, often waiting between 12 to 24 hours to see the effects of my adjustments, which can be frustrating. While marketing isn’t a matter of life and death, and the urgency for real-time data might be exaggerated, these delays hinder my ability to quickly verify whether changes are functioning as intended. 

Lack of Resources and Basic Options

Google Analytics support and GA4 educational resources are lacking, making it difficult for some to learn how to effectively use the new platform. If you truly want to become a Google Analytics expert, I’ve compiled a list of recommend resources below. 

Missing Features and Challenges with Reporting

Compared to UA, GA4 lacks certain features, making it harder to create reports and dashboards. As a GA4 consultant, I especially take issue with the removal of attribution features and the cumbersome process of adding filters or changing report metrics.

Challenges of Default GA4 Custom Events, Dimensions

The main reason a basic GA4 setup isn't useful

I think Google will eventually solve those initial problems. However, even when they do, businesses will still have to deal with a completely new data model.

As I noted earlier, GA4 marks a pivotal shift in how user interactions are tracked on websites and apps. Unlike its predecessor, UA, GA4 adopts an event-based model for all user interaction data, categorizing each web activity as an event. This fundamental change means that from the moment of implementation, GA4 begins tracking a predefined set of interactions as events, including things like clicks, file downloads, form submits, page views, scrolls, user engagement, video interactions, and more. (See Google’s complete breakdown of default GA4 events.)

At its core, GA4’s event-based model is an attempt to offer a flexible framework for tracking digital interactions, reflecting the evolving ways users engage with content online. Every interaction, from viewing a page to completing a video, is recorded as an event, encompassing a wide array of user behaviors within a single, unified analytical approach.

However, the transition to an event-centric model, while innovative, presents challenges because GA4’s default events are inherently broad. That means, out of the box, GA4 is unlikely to align with the specific data needs of your business.

For instance, GA4 automatically registers when a page is scrolled through to 90 percent. Understanding that most visitors won’t reach the bottom of every page, it’s crucial to note that GA4, in its standard setup, does not provide insights into the specific scroll depths where user engagement drops off. Similarly, while form interactions are tracked, understanding the drop-off points within specific form fields or the impact of form submissions on user journeys requires additional setup and analysis beyond the default events.

This gap between the data automatically collected by GA4 and the nuanced insights desired by businesses underscores the need for customization. The default events offer a starting point, but they almost always fall short of the insightful analysis that businesses need to make informed decisions, understand user behavior in detail, and optimize their online presence effectively. Without leveraging GA4’s capabilities for customization and enhanced measurement, you’ll find yourself with a lot of data but lacking the knowledge needed to drive strategic action.

GA4 Custom Reporting You Probably Need

Having spent the better part of a year crafting custom GA4 setups for clients in diverse industries, each with unique needs and goals, I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of GA4 customization. Tailoring GA4 enables businesses to unlock detailed insights into user behavior and website performance, far beyond the scope of default settings. From dissecting session sources to integrating Google Search Console data for SEO insights, each customization—like tracking session trends or analyzing page engagement—serves as a strategic tool tailored to meet specific business objectives.

Implementing custom events can be done using various methods, depending on your setup, and involves naming the event, defining parameters, and possibly creating custom dimensions or metrics for deeper analysis. Custom events can also be marked as conversions, highlighting their importance to your business.

Understanding the limits on event collection and cardinality is essential to accurate data reporting and analysis. Some of the custom GA4 reporting parameters I’ve created for clients include:

Sessions by Medium
Tailoring GA4 to segregate session data by medium helps marketers dissect the pathways through which users arrive at their site. This analysis is foundational for optimizing allocation across various traffic sources, be it direct, organic, referral, or paid channels.

Sessions Overview by Medium
This customization provides a comparative view of session metrics across different mediums, offering insights into which channels are most effective at driving engagement and conversion. It’s a strategic tool for evaluating the efficiency of marketing efforts in a nuanced manner.

Performance Overview of All Channels
A comprehensive look at the performance across all marketing channels enables businesses to pinpoint their strengths and areas for improvement. By customizing reports to aggregate channel data, companies can streamline their marketing mix for enhanced ROI.

Session Source / Medium
Detailed tracking of each session’s source and medium illuminates the direct and indirect contributors to website traffic. This insight is invaluable for refining SEO and PPC strategies to capitalize on the most lucrative traffic sources.

Monthly Session Overview (Past 12 Months Through Today, Year Over Year)
Monitoring session trends over the past year, with a year-over-year comparison, offers a macroscopic view of growth patterns and seasonal fluctuations. This long-term perspective aids in strategic planning and forecasting.

Page Events, Views / Percentage of Page Scrolled
By customizing GA4 to monitor page interactions, such as events triggered and the extent of page scrolling, marketers gain a deeper understanding of content engagement levels. These metrics are instrumental in assessing content performance and identifying areas for enhancement.

Integration of Google Search Console Data
Merging Google Search Console data with GA4 enriches analytics with search query performance, including the specific queries that lead visitors to your pages and how well those pages rank in search results. This synergy between search performance and user behavior analytics is crucial for optimizing content and SEO strategies.

Page Engagement by Month (Event Count by Month with Year Over Year Comparison)
Analyzing page engagement metrics monthly, alongside a year-over-year comparison, provides insights into how engagement trends evolve. This data helps identify what resonates with audiences and informs content strategy adjustments for sustained engagement.

The possibilities with reporting on custom GA4 events are virtually endless. However, before creating a custom event, it’s crucial to check if your desired data is, by chance, already captured by default to avoid duplication. Learn more about custom events from Google.

Resources for Learning GA4

As someone in the GA4 consulting business, I can honestly say mastering GA4 will probably seem daunting at first, and I encourage you to think about the time, energy, and potentially money you’re willing to invest, weighing it against the return on investment you believe managing GA4 can bring to your business or career. With that in mind, here’s an array of learning resources available, both free and paid, to help you get started on a journey toward GA4 proficiency. 

Jeff Sauer, DataDrivenU 
My top recommendation goes to Jeff Sauer’s Google Analytics 4 Certification Course at DataDrivenU (DDU). I chose Jeff’s training because I’ve taken some of his other courses, and he’s a reputable instructor I trust. The program costs about $1,000, but I have access for life. It continues to be a great resource for troubleshooting GA4 issues. (The irony of taking a class from a company that has “data driven” in its name isn’t lost on me.)

GA4 Training from Google

Google directs people to its free GA4 training available on Skillshop / Exceed LMS. This does include instructional resources, plus access to the analytics demo account and help center. It’s a decent starting point for new users, but it’s mainly prep for the GA4 certification assessment. While that’s great if your organization wants you to become certified (or joining the ranks of GA4 consultants is your goal), it won’t be particularly helpful for actually learning implementation, management, and reporting.

Other paid, third-party training courses and tools

LinkedIn Learning and Udemy
Both offer GA4 courses for beginners and advanced users. With LinkedIn Learning, a subscription is required, even if you only want to purchase individual course. Udemy offers similar training and the ability to purchase courses à la carte.

The Content Technologist
Aimed specifically at content professionals, focusing on using GA4 data to make informed business decisions about content impact.

Analytics Mania
A self-paced course with practical tasks on a sandbox website, including step-by-step instructions for mastering GA4. Taught by Analytics Mania founder Julius Fedorovicius.

You can learn about other potential paid courses at Funnel.io and Search Engine Journal.

Free resources for learning GA4

For those specifically seeking free resources, consider the following:

Ken Williams’ Analysts Guide to GA4
Covers the fundamentals of GA4, data analysis, insights, and the migration process from Universal Analytics to GA4. It’s a great resource for analysts.

Skillshare and Coursera
A variety of beginner-level courses for Google Analytics that you can start for free. 

Shopify GA4 Crash Course by Analyzify
Guides you through setting up GA4 on Shopify, including e-commerce tracking and the transition from UA.

When to Consider a GA4 Consultant

I’m passionate about data analysis, so if you’re ready to learn GA4, I will definitely be cheering you on! But I also know not everyone has the time or interest to learn GA4. For those individuals, the decision to invest in hiring a GA4 consultant becomes a strategic move. Leveraging the expertise of GA4 consultants not only saves time and resources but also ensures that businesses can quickly benefit from the advanced analytics capabilities of GA4, tailored specifically to their needs.

Choosing the right fit among GA4 consulting services

When seeking a GA4 consultant, prioritize expertise in GA4’s nuanced features and a strong track record of effective custom implementations. A proficient consultant should offer strategic insights into leveraging GA4 for comprehensive data analysis, aligning with your specific business objectives. Look for individuals or agencies that demonstrate a clear understanding of GA4’s advanced capabilities, such as GA4 custom events, conversion setup, and integration with other data sources.

Key qualities and skills

A good GA4 consultant should possess a strategic mindset, focusing not just on technical setup but also on how analytics can drive business growth. They should be adept at translating complex data into actionable insights and strategies. Communication skills are vital; the right consultant will ensure that stakeholders at all levels understand the analytics data and its implications for the business. Additionally, the consultant should stay updated on the latest GA4 developments and best practices, ensuring your setup remains cutting-edge.

What Matters Most: Customizing GA4

Thinking about my journey from the initial excitement of purchasing my first home to the reality of its painstaking transformation, I see a parallel in navigating the complexities of GA4. Just as my home required significant investments to become a place where I actually wanted to live, getting the most out of GA4 demands a similar commitment. The process can be overwhelming, filled with unforeseen challenges and sometimes the need for expert guidance. Yet, the return on investment—whether in the form of a home that fits my life well or an analytics setup that drives strategic business decisions—is clear.

Choosing to dive into GA4’s depths on your own or deciding to engage a consultant is an important decision. Both paths hold value, depending on your expertise, resources, and what you hope to achieve. For those who see the immense potential in GA4 but prefer not to specialize in its intricacies, partnering with a GA4 consultant can be a helpful and strategic move. In the end, the key to getting the most from your Google Analytics lies in recognizing the value of customizing GA4 and determining how you’ll get that done. 

Learn how The Dames can help you get more from GA4.