The Switch to GA4: What You Need to Know About How Engagement Tracking Has Changed

Mark Barrera headshot
Mark Barrera
September 11, 2023
Blog, Marketing & Sales Best Practices
7 min read

The Switch to GA4: What You Need to Know About How Engagement Tracking Has Changed

So, you’re familiar with Google Analytics, right? It’s been the de facto tool for sites to measure how many people are visiting your site or app, what they’re looking at, and for how long. Google rolled out a new version called Google Analytics 4 (GA 4) a couple of years ago and finally started to cease sending data to Universal Analytics (UA GA) in the summer of 2023, forcing users to rely on GA 4 for any new site or app data. This new Google Analytics has changed a lot in the way it measures website activity.

Because it’s a new version, the way it measures things like how much time people spend on your website has changed. Don’t stress, though, as I’m going to break down what’s new and different in GA 4.

Event-based tracking

GA 4 takes an event-based approach to data collection, moving away from the session-based approach of UA GA. In GA 4, interactions are tracked as individual events, giving marketers more flexibility in tracking user behavior and measuring engagement. This shift allows for a more accurate understanding of how users interact with your website, providing deeper insights into user behavior.

Time-on-site and session duration

With the new event-based approach, time-on-site and session duration metrics are now calculated differently. In the old GA, the time-on-site metric was calculated based on the difference between the timestamps of the first and last hits in a session. However, GA 4 calculates time-on-site by aggregating the durations of all engagement events during a user’s visit. This means that time spent on non-interactive pages will not be included in this metric. As a result, time-on-site and session duration metrics may appear shorter in GA 4 compared to the previous version of GA, even though user engagement might be the same.

Measuring time in GA 4 is much more accurate. Every time a page is viewed or an event happens, a timestamp is sent. GA 4 comes with built-in events like tracking outbound link clicks, file downloads, and form submissions, which automatically make time tracking more precise. Also, GA 4 has solved for only tracking users who are actively engaged with a site. Previously, if someone were to leave the page and open a new tab, the session would continue to track on the tab in the background. With the new implementation, this is not the case. Only time spent actively using the tab in the foreground of your browser is tracked. 

Beyond the custom events you set up, GA 4 also has automatically collected events. One of them is the “user_engagement” event, which is triggered when a user closes the browser or goes to a different website after being on yours. This gives us a new way to understand how people interact with your site, something UA GA couldn’t do.

Let’s look at an example with actual numbers. Imagine someone comes to your site and you’re using UA GA to track their engagement. They spend one minute on your first page, then leave that tab and spend 10 minutes on another site in another tab. After that, they return to your site, view a second page, and spend five more minutes before leaving. In UA GA, their average session time and time-on-page would be calculated as 11 minutes. But in GA 4, it would be different. The time the website was actively being used to calculate the average session duration would be six minutes (one minute on the first page + five minutes on the second page).

Shifting sands of engagement metrics in GA 4

The world of measuring user engagement is undergoing a remarkable transformation within the realm of GA 4. Departing from familiar metrics like bounce rate and average session duration, GA 4 is introducing fresh, innovative ways to gauge engagement. The spotlight is now on metrics like “Engaged Sessions” and the intriguing “Engagement Rate.” These newfound metrics offer us a much-needed window into user interactions, emphasizing meaningful engagements across all sessions.

A user-centric approach

GA 4 is more than just a tool, it’s a user-focused journey. It’s designed to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of user behavior, keeping a watchful eye on users across various devices and visits. This panoramic view empowers marketers to gain a deeper understanding of how customers engage with content. This aspect holds particular significance for businesses keen on honing their multi-channel marketing strategies and unraveling the long-term impact of customer interactions.

In a nutshell

As we wrap up the discussion, the evolution to GA 4 is bringing about pivotal changes in the landscape of data analysis and reporting, warranting attention from businesses far and wide. The striking emphasis on events, the refinement of engagement metrics, and a user-centric narrative in GA 4 grant us a more accurate vantage point into user behavior and website performance. Navigating this shift is crucial for businesses venturing into the realm of GA 4, as understanding these transformative changes is key to unlocking the full potential of insights that GA 4 brings to the table.

About the Author

Mark Barrera headshot
Mark Barrera
Mark leads the Audience and Review Generation teams at TrustRadius and is a seasoned digital marketer on both the agency and brand side. Mark has a passion for educating others on digital marketing best practices and is the founding Chairman of the State of Search Conference (stateofsearch.org) and past President of the DFWSEM and Social Media Club of Dallas. He has led digital marketing efforts for sites such as PCMag, Mashable, BlackFriday.com and countless other websites over the last 15 years.