What GA4 represents for SEO.
Google Analytics has been a staple of the digital marketing realm almost as long as there has been digital marketing. Over time, it has evolved and improved, and at the back end of last year Google rolled out the latest version of Google Analytics, called GA4. There have been lots of great articles posted online about the new features found in GA4, so we’d like to use this post to discuss what this development symbolises for digital marketing as a whole.
What is Google Analytics?
Google Analytics (GA) is a reporting software developed by Google, which reports on how users are interacting with your website. You can find a vast number of metrics – including time on page, pages visited, user flow and bounce rate – to glean as much information as possible about what’s working and what may need to be improved across your site. This is different from Google Search Console (GSC), which provides data on what users do before they get to your website.
Why develop GA4?
As with anything associated with Google, frequent small updates are constantly rolled out on its various platforms to help improve accuracy and usability. Occasionally, Google rolls out significant changes that can have a large impact on the digital marketing industry. An example of this is the large updates on how the Google search engine operates, such as Hummingbird and mobile-first indexing, which had a massive knock-on effect on the wider SEO industry.
GA4, while just a reporting software, represents a similar seismic shift in digital marketing as a whole, with a particular emphasis on SEO.
Privacy is a huge focus in digital marketing at the moment. Events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and documentaries such as The Social Dilemma have meant internet users are becoming increasingly educated about where their data goes and how it is used. This has led to a huge increase in the amount of privacy that internet-based programmes, such as internet browsers, are providing. Cookies are a perfect example here. Cookies are snippets of data about a user that are logged whenever they visit a website. They help software and programmes like GA track which pages a user visited on a website, how long they spent on various pages and how they interacted with a page. Depending on the user’s browser settings, GA can also obtain age, gender and geographical location.
But with increased privacy settings, not to mention GDPR, more and more data is being blocked. This means the data with GA is becoming less accurate, making it harder for marketers and SEOs to make educated improvements to services.
What does this mean?
Because of this increase in privacy and a lack of data being pulled through to reporting platforms, Google has had to change the way in which it reports on user data. This is why GA4 was developed. There are a lot of similarities between GA4 and its predecessor GA, but there are also some huge differences. There are three we feel are the most significant:
The new GA4 uses a form of artificial intelligence (AI) to fill in the blanks that privacy settings now create. There are on average roughly 5.6 billion searches carried out on Google every day, and GA is 10 years old. That is a lot of data Google has been able to amass. By reading this historical data, it will have been able to develop a very accurate AI model and replicate user behaviour on any given site, helping SEOs and marketers improve websites for a better user experience. A similar change happened on the Google Ads platform last year, in which it stopped reporting on low-volume keyword data. However, AI used within Ads has proved to be more than adequate in filling the shortfall of data and allowed us to help our clients’ budgets go further and campaigns return more than ever before.
Google’s aim has always been to provide the best user experience possible for its users. This has meant that, over time, its algorithm has changed and updated to help websites that provide the best user experience (UX) get to the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs). This point has been further emphasised by the Core Web Vitals report on GSC. Now, GA4 has followed suit and reports on metrics in a more UX-focussed way than previous GA iterations. Look at the improved reporting on engagement seen in GA4, for example. You can find data on engaged sessions, engagement rate, engaged sessions per user and engagement time – all of which are data points for SEOs to look at, assess which parts of a site users enjoy, and then expand on them to improve UX as a whole.
As much as we wish it otherwise, the purchase funnel is not as linear as it was previously. Users bounce around websites, blogs, social media, video platforms, apps, desktop and mobile, for example, before committing to a purchase. This is obviously because of how seamlessly people can move between platforms and also because of the vast amount of information available online. This is ultimately a good thing, as it allows users to make more informed decisions about their enquiries and purchases. However, it makes it hard for SEOs and marketers to understand their clients and customers and improve their service offering accordingly. GA4 has improved cross-device and cross-platform reporting, again, paving the way for improved user experience.
What does this mean for the future?
We see this as a continuation of what has felt like a shift in general SEO practices. SEO used to be a distinct service, separate from the other areas of website design and development. But the lines are blurring between these disciplines as it seems to get a site ranking well you simply have to create a site people enjoy using. Now an SEO needs to look deeper than base level UX, such as load speed, and instead look at what keeps users on pages, what encourages them to scroll and click through, and generally engage with the site. This means UX and CRO specialists need to work closer than ever with SEOs to develop websites that truly provide an experience that people want to use.