May 3, 2023
On July 1st of 2023, Google’s Universal Analytics will stop collecting website data and Google Analytics 4 will take over. Universal Analytics accounts will remain open with access to all historic data through June 30th, 2024.
That sounds straight forward, one of your tools being replaced with another newer version, and the older tool will still hang out in your toolbox for about a year.
Until you give it a beat and it sinks in, all the historic website performance data collected by Universal Analytics since 2005 gets taken away from you on July 1st, 2024.
All. Data. Gone.
We should start by acknowledging that losing access to historic site data is a double whammy. First, there is the obvious loss of access to information on historic site performance, a loss that is likely to affect forecasting in the near term. Then there is the less obvious blow, which is the emotional side of the change, we tend to think of that data as “mine” or “ours”. When someone threatens to take away what we hold to be a possession or a right we get defensive, and while this emotional undercurrent might be less obvious, it tends to live just below the surface and colors our thought processes and planning.
Anyone who has looked at a chart that plots website session counts by day, and from that chart deduced that their website is far less busy on weekends, has made an analysis.
Analysts use website data collection to learn the behaviors of site visitors, the impact of marketing, and to forecast a path toward achieving an organization’s online objectives. You don’t have to be a full-time Analyst to read and understand most of the charts and graphs about website performance. However, an Analyst goes one important step further by taking that same data and preparing forecasts. “Historically, we did X amount of marketing and got Y new students, so we forecast that if we do X+1 marketing we would earn much more than Y+1 new students”.
It would be fair to say that Analysts look backward so that they can see forward. All things being equal, the greater the amount of time in that lookback timeframe, the more likely the resulting forecast will be accurate. By removing access to a large block of historic data, Analysts will need to discover other signals in current day data to help them generate forecasts.
I just referenced “all things being equal”, hold that thought.
Many of us have spent years collecting website data, working to ensure that the data is clean and error-free, and that it is accessible to whoever needs it. We have an ownership-like investment in the data, and that is an emotional tie.
“It’s my data, how can Google take it away from me?”
That’s right, it is your data, generated from your website by your site’s visitors. But that isn’t the whole story.
The data has been collected by a free software platform, using free digital storage, offering free access to anyone with the right set of free credentials. Yet it costs Google hard currency to own and operate the tens of thousands of physical servers used by Google Analytics, and in turn support the infrastructure required to maintain them.
It’s still your data, Google simply won’t continue to store the old Universal Analytics data, and they will discontinue the software required to access it. If an organization wants to download and preserve their historic website performance data they can, but that storage and access solution won’t be free. Google can move your data to their BigQuery cloud database for a fee. BigQuery requires the use of MySQL language to access the stored information, or it can be connected to Looker Studio.
Another option is to download most of the data to a platform like Domo which also offers storage and access for a monthly fee.
Yes, it is still your data, but after July 1st, 2024, keeping it will incur cost.
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Perhaps something has been overlooked, buried beneath the threat of data loss, questions about data ownership, and the future costs of maintaining storage and access to the data.
Why would you want to keep all that the data in the first place?
Fear of loss can lead to making quick decisions that in the long run don’t benefit the organization. So before committing to preserving historical website data here are a few items to consider:
The data collected in today’s Google Analytics 4 is fundamentally different than the historical data in Universal Analytics. A few of the differences:
If these most basic data points are collected and counted in very different ways, how accurate will it be to compare historic site behaviors to today’ site behaviors? If we don’t have consistency in the data all we’re left with is trends, not scorecard metrics. Maybe we don’t need the details (data), maybe we just need to preserve the trends.
When was the last time your organization used website performance data from two years ago to create a strategic plan?
Because the way people use the web changes almost daily, as performance data ages it risks becoming less relevant as a forecasting tool. While it might be nice to know that you have data on how Organic Traffic performed in 2017, it isn’t terribly useful in today’s decision-making process.
In both subtle and extreme ways, COVID changed everything.
Simply put, indications are that people changed how they use the web, becoming more adept at finding what they need, faster. If the pandemic acted as an incubator period by promoting more advanced usage of the web, then the data on performance during and before COVID becomes far less relevant in assessing and forecasting today’s behaviors.
Google will allow us continued access to our Universal Analytics data for one year after the platform stops collecting data. That provides some breathing room to make a considered decision on how – or if – the data should be preserved. We don’t need to rush toward a solution, but then we shouldn’t simply kick the can further down the road either.
Before committing to the effort and cost of preserving historic Universal Analytics data, an informed internal conversation is needed. Discussion points should include details of exactly what is to be archived, an estimate of the cost to warehouse the data, and any gaps in personnel that need to be filled (by training or new hire) to successfully access and use the stored data.
The second part of the conversation is the more important one to have, this is where the “Why?” question is asked and answered. How is older data used today, is it simply to create more impressive looking charts? Or is there a supportable business need that mandates access to what happened on the website back in 2018?
“This is how much it will cost each month/year to download and store Universal Analytics data. We will need to train two or more people on our team in how to use MySQL programming language to access and use the data.
This effort is so that we can create better looking charts for our quarterly board meetings. We need to do this because the historic Analytics data acts as a check and balance to our CRM solution.”
When it comes to determining the right path and method, there is no blanket recommendation we can make. That said, the important first step remains: “Start the internal discussion as soon as possible.” Stamats can help guide the conversation and offer consultation on each of the processes described. The Stamats Analytics team can also audit your new Google Analytics 4 installation to help make sure it is collecting all the data it should be. We are here to help, simply reach out to your account representative to get the ball rolling.