The Higher Education Guide to Google Analytics 4

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The most astute colleges and universities have known for a long time that one of the best sources of actionable data comes from their website visitors. From what I’ve seen working on analytics projects for higher education institutions across the country is that only a small percentage fall into this category. Most lay in a spectrum from their website tracking being a “total mess” to “somewhat usable.” That’s why the impending need to transition over to Google Analytics 4 is both a blessing and a curse.

The Google Analytics 4 Deadline Is Approaching

The clock is ticking on your transition to Google Analytics 4

On July 1 2023 the current version of Google Analytics, called “Universal Analytics,” will stop collecting new data and stop functioning except for as a repository of historical visitor knowledge. Before this date, higher education institutions must update to Google Analytics 4.

Talking with universities across the country, few are prepared for this event and some had not even heard of the deadline. This is a huge concern, because there isn’t much time left to make this change. It will require good processes and a thoughtful approach to deploy GA4 successfully.

GA4 Will Be a Difficult Transition for College and University Websites

GA4 is a big lift for higher ed websites

Google Analytics 4 is no minor version upgrade. It changes almost everything about your web tracking, and essentially no elements will carry over intact. That goes for measurement of interactive elements, contact actions, goals and conversions, and more. Any reporting dashboards will also need a complete update to function correctly. The lift required should raise alarm at every educational institution across the country.

Time For A Close Look At Website Analytics

This forced transition to GA4 creates a prime opportunity to reevaluate the primary purpose and goals for their website. I have seen several cases where no one on the college’s marketing team was involved in setting up Google Analytics in the first place. Many others had someone come up with conversions or other tracking years ago, but they are now completely outdated. As a result, reporting is also completely broken.

When the .edu website has unusable or untrustworthy analytics, it can’t be used for essential business decisions. Because Google Analytics 4 requires starting from near scratch, it’s a great time to step back and make everything work.

Moving Your Higher Ed Website to Google Analytics 4

Is your college website ready for Google Analytics 4 to launch?

I recommend deploying GA4 for your college or university website in three phases. These are designed to maximize the benefit gained from the transition while minimizing the complexity.

Phase 1: Current State Evaluation

For a large website like the primary site of an educational institution, the best way to start is with a comprehensive audit. This should include:

  • Historical data for at least two years pulled from Google Analytics that shows all website goals and events
  • Consolidated analysis of the purpose of each goal and event, whether it is actively used and reported on, and if it needs to be carried over to GA4
  • Team consultation on current and future goals to consider

Carrying over existing tracking from Universal Analytics wholesale would be a mistake. Much of what I have seen in legacy tracking on .edu websites is out of date or deprecated. The transition process is a great time to discard what’s no longer needed, update what is, and consider what new tracking is beneficial.

Phase 2: Base Google Analytics 4 Setup

The second phase is designed to establish baseline tracking within the GA4 tags while a more robust final solution is being worked out. I recommend deploying the basic Google Analytics 4 tag quickly and running it alongside your existing Universal Analytics tags.

Should You Activate Enhanced Measurement?

It’s questionable whether Enhanced Measurement needs to be turned on for your college or university website. While this provides an easy way to get up and running with some additional tracking, it may not match up with your historical tracking 1 to 1, which can make seasonal comparisons difficult.

If you have custom tracking already in place for interactions such as:

  • Scroll Depth Tracking
  • Video Views
  • File Downloads

And similar, think about the data collection implications before activating Enhanced Measurement. It might still work better to create custom tags for these items.

Phase 3: Custom Tag Deployment And Launch

This is the phase where it all comes together. It also may take far longer than the previous two. In Phase 3, I recommend following this chain of actions:

  1. Create your final list of tracking elements that will be carried over or created new in your Google Analytics 4 property
  2. Develop and test each tag on your website, with an eye towards developing tags that are versatile and will not become dated quickly. This means, for example, making sure that anything seasonal or with a fixed date uses a tracking system that can be adapted for multiple purposes.
  3. Launch each tag in your Google Analytics 4 property as soon as they are ready, or in batches.
  4. Create duplicate reporting dashboards that use your new GA4 property and tags to replicate and improve on your existing Universal Analytics setup
  5. WAIT at least 30 days, preferably 60 before completely removing your prior tracking code

Following this process should get your higher ed website to a successful switch to Google Analytics 4 with the least pain possible, and the most benefit going forward.

Need Assistance With Your College or University Google Analytics 4 Transition?

I’m happy to help with your move to GA4 for your higher ed website. Set up a free consultation with me to discuss.

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