Analyzing User Behavior: Universal Analytics vs. Google Analytics 4

Google Analytics 4 (GA4), the latest version of Google Analytics, is bringing a whole new approach to how user interactions on a website are tracked and interpreted. Unlike Universal Analytics (UA), GA4 now uses event-based tracking. In other words, rather than simply telling you how many sessions a certain page has, GA4 will provide more detail on who the users who made those sessions actually are. This new approach requires some new behavior metrics, ones that reveal more about the user than just the session itself. Unfortunately, some of these new metrics in GA4 are very different from what we have gotten used to in UA and can be hard to grasp. Fortunately, our digital marketing experts are here to help!

To give you a quick idea, user behavior describes how people interact with a website when they visit and can refer to a number of things, like how much time they spend on a page and how many pages they visit, as well as the actions they take. Our digital marketing experts explain some of the primary differences between behavior metrics in UA vs. GA4 and what they mean.

Google Analytics 4 Metrics: Engagement Rate vs. Bounce Rate in GA4

As part of GA4’s transition to event-based tracking, bounce rate from Universal Analytics is being replaced with “engagement rate.” While bounce rate shows a user’s lack of action on your website, the new engagement rate will show the opposite.

What is bounce rate?

Bounce rate represents the frequency bounces occur on a website. It is calculated by dividing bounces by sessions. A “bounce” occurs when a user views just one page on your site before exiting, and this was the primary metric analysts used for measuring user engagement in legacy versions of Google Analytics. Bounce rate however provides inconsistent results as it depends on multiple factors. This makes it difficult for users to distinguish between good data and bad data.

For example, bounce rate is heavily dependent on your website’s event structure. Let’s say a user visits your website by accident and remains on the landing page for over 10 seconds before leaving your site directly from that same page. This user’s session would count as a bounce. But, if another user visits your website, reads the landing page in its entirety, then gets distracted long enough for the session to time out, their session would also be counted as a bounce. These are two very different users. The first is someone who is not a potential customer, and the second is a potential customer who is being grouped with the first based on bounce rate.

In this instance, bounce rate is accurately representing the first user who didn’t have any intention to buy your service or product. However, the second user is being misrepresented because they are strongly considering your service or product but are simply too early in their customer journey to have made a conversion on the landing page prior to leaving your site.

What is engagement rate?

Engagement rate on the other hand represents the percentage of users who visit a website and meet at least one of the following criteria during their session:

  • Actively engage with your website or app in the foreground for at least 10 seconds
  • Fire a conversion event
  • Fire two or more screen or page views

All of these are actions of a valuable potential customer. This eliminates the possibility of bad data being mixed in with good data and shows a much clearer story of how users are truly behaving on your website before leaving.

The criteria above make engagement rate a much more reliable behavior metric. There are still going to be some differences from website to website in how events/conversions are set up that can ultimately impact engagement rate. However, it is now a much more consistent and clear way to measure user activity on your website.

Where to Find Engagement Rate

Engagement rate can be found in a number of reports in GA4. One of the easiest ways to view your engagement rate and other engagement data in GA4 is by following these steps:

  1. Go to “Acquisition” under “Reports” on the left-hand side.
  2. Click “View user acquisition.”
  3. View your “average engagement rate” and other engagement data.

Engagement rate is calculated by dividing the number of engaged sessions in a given timeframe by sessions.

Google Analytics 4 Metrics: Average Session Duration vs. Average Engagement Time Per Session in GA4

Average session duration from Universal Analytics is being replaced with “average engagement time per session” in GA4. While average session duration represents the average amount of time a user is on your website per session, it doesn’t tell you if those users were actively engaging with your website during that time. Learn how the new average engagement time per session metric makes up for this.

What is average session duration?

A session is defined as the time from which a user lands on your website to when they leave your website or the session “times out.” The session times out when there is no activity from the user for a predefined duration (30 minutes by default) to prevent your average session duration from being artificially inflated in cases where, for example, someone accidentally left your website open on his/her work computer for the weekend. Session duration takes into account the entire time that a person spends on a website. It is effectively the sum of the time on page for the different pages a person visits on a website during a single session. The time on page from which the user exits will always be counted as zero, which is one caveat to this rather tricky metric. The only way for Google to calculate the time on page for the last page is if an action, such as watching a video, clicking a link or filling out a form, takes place.

Let’s say a user visits your website with the intent to learn more about the digital marketing services you have to offer. Your business offers both website development and search engine marketing services. The user landed on your web development service page and read it before clicking a link to your search engine marketing service page. Unless they take an action on the second page, you would never even know they spent time on it because the session would end as soon as they exited your site and the time on that page would count as zero.

In UA, marketers could make up for this by viewing both average session duration and average time on page together, which still didn’t account for the full picture. To clear things up, GA4 is replacing average session duration with average engagement time per session.

What is average engagement time per session?

Average engagement time per session is the average length of time the app was in the foreground or the website had focus in the browser during each session. Again, GA4 wants to show marketers and website owners how users are engaging with their brand by showing data that most accurately represents users’ presence on the site. In other words, GA4 significantly reduces any chances for misleading data. With the new average engagement time per session metric, you can see how long users are spending on your website on average with the assurance their time was spent being engaged.

Where to Find Average Engagement Time Per Session

You can find your average engagement time per session and other engagement data easily in GA4. Just follow these steps:

  1. Go to “Acquisition” under “Reports” on the left-hand side.
  2. Click “View user acquisition.”
  3. View your “average engagement time” and other engagement data.

Average engagement time per session is calculated by dividing the total engagement time in a given timeframe by sessions.

Google Analytics 4 Metrics: Pages Per Session vs. Views Per User in GA4

Pages per session in Universal Analytics is being replaced in GA4 with “views per user.” This is probably the best example of the types of changes we’re seeing in GA4. While pages per session is a metric that focuses entirely on the pages of your website, views per user focuses entirely on the user.

What is pages per session in Google Analytics?

Pages per session is the average number of pages a person views in a given session. This metric is calculated by dividing the number of pageviews by the total number of sessions. This metric can be helpful for gauging how sticky and engaging your website is. In general, any content site that relies on AdSense, advertising or affiliate revenue wants to increase the number of pages each user sees. More eyeballs and time spent browsing pages on your site means more revenue. For example, if your website has an average pages per session of three, this means the average user visits three pages before leaving your website.

What is views per user?

Views per user is the average number of screens viewed by each user. A screen view in GA4 is much like a page view in UA, but instead of counting the number of viewed pages on your website, screen views track what users are viewing in one of your mobile apps. A high views per user means the user is interested in your site beyond just the piece of content that got them there and indicates a smooth customer experience that allows them to quickly navigate your site or app.

Where to Find Views Per User

You can find your views per user easily in GA4. Just follow these steps:

  1. Go to “Engagement” under “Reports” on the left-hand side.
  2. Click “Pages and screens.”
  3. View your “views per user” by page and other user data.

Views per user is calculated by dividing the total number of engaged sessions in a given timeframe by users.

Learn More About User Behavior in Google Analytics

With all that said, you can still create Universal Analytics properties alongside GA4 until July 1, 2023. Still, we recommend getting started with GA4 as soon as possible so you can start collecting historical data and get familiar with the platform. For more information about analyzing user behavior in GA4, our team of experts is happy to help! Give us a call at (515) 868-0010, or click the button below to let us know how we can best help you and to keep up with any GA4 updates.

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Kevin McMurray

Kevin McMurray is a Digital Marketing Specialist at Blue Compass. He enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on Cyclones sports and leisure sports.