How Does Google Analytics Actually Work?

If you have a website, chances are you’ve heard of the tool, Google Analytics (GA). But what is Google Analytics used for, and how does it work? 

Google Analytics is a way to collect data on who is visiting and using your website, as well as organizing said data to better understand what’s going on. It can segment this data into audiences, events, and sessions that provide a lot of insight into how your site and its individual pages are performing. 

This is a comprehensive guide to all things Google Analytics with particular emphasis on GA4, the latest iteration of Google Analytics. Universal Analytics, GA4’s predecessor, was sunsetted July 2023, but we’ll address all of this below. 

How Google Analytics Works

In short, Google Analytics/GA4 is a free tool for any website that captures data about your site – traffic, sessions, audience, etc. It then takes all the information from relevant data streams and organizes it into easier-to-understand data segments that provides insight about your pages overall performance. 

But how does Google Analytics/GA4 work?

When you create a Google Analytics account, and set up Google Analytics for your website you are provided a small line of code to be placed in the header of every page on your site. This Google Analytics tracking code, allows the platform to collect data about each landing page in terms of how users interact with it. Cumulatively this is the data we can examine in Google Analytics. 

Tracking in Google Analytics

The measurement code Google Analytics provides tracks user interactions with any page with said code on your site; it can examine volume, engagement, length of interaction, and more. The code tracks by page visits; that’s why it’s installed on every page.

One of the standout features of Google Analytics (GA4) is its emphasis on data collection and cross-platform tracking. Users are constantly switching between their devices. Traveling from laptop to mobile phone and having multiple touchpoints with a website across devices. GA4 leans on machine learning to pull together tracking data on users across platforms, websites, apps, and devices.

Reporting in Google Analytics

The data gathered from tracking page visits and user’s journeys across your site can then be aggregated and segmented in a variety of ways to help you report on your page’s metrics.

These comprehensive reports help businesses better understand a user’s path from the first time they visit your site, crafting a more comprehensive customer journey from multiple traffic sources, platforms and devices.

Google Analytics allows you to track individual user journeys, segmenting user data to get a sense of broader audience. You can look at conversions (that you can create), page traffic, bounce rate, page views, engagement, and more to construct reports exactly to your (or your client’s) needs.

screenshot of reporting snapshot in Google Analytics 4

What is Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?

Google Analytics 4 is the latest iteration of Google Analytics. Before GA4, there was UA, or Universal Analytics. 

One major difference between Universal Analytics and GA4 is its combination of mobile/app data and web data into one view– Universal Analytics kept them separate. It presents Google’s latest approach to helping its users analyze their sites and make better choices in SEO and overall site design. 

While migrating from UA to GA4 might be a tedious process, there’s plenty to love about this new incarnation. 

Features of Google Analytics (GA4)

GA4 boasts many useful features any user might want to explore. Here are some of them: 

  • Bigquery
    • Bigquery is a cloud-based large data warehouse that allows you to run queries on massive datasets. You can export your Google Analytics data to BigQuery and pull from there to get your data analyzed
  • Data privacy
    • While GA4 provides lots of insight about user behavior, it strictly prohibits tying any kind of identifiable information about said users to Google Analytics. Additionally, GA4 users are considered data processors and therefore have full rights over their data- including its deletion
  • Custom Reports
    • Every site has different needs, and GA4 allows you to custom-create its reports. Not only that, but you can compare data side-by-side in GA4, showcasing, for example, mobile users as opposed to desktop users, to better gain insight into each audience type’s journey through your site. 
  • Automated tracking
    • Once you add that piece of tracking code to the header of your site, it will automatically begin tracking data and reporting on it in real time. Not only that, but it will automatically track every time a user clicks on an ad or files for download. Other items that can be automatically tracked by enabling Enhanced measurement include: scrolling behavior, outbound clicks, internal site searches, and video engagement.
  • Funnel Analysis
    • “Funnel” broadly refers to the steps a user might take to complete a given task (buy a product, sign up for an email list, etc). You can analyze the funnel in terms of pain points at each level of interaction to see where the user succeeds or fails at the task, which will give broader insight into the UX and ease of use of your site. 
  • Integration
    • GA4 integrates with a variety of other apps and platforms for both managing GA4 accounts AND managing report data. Some integrations of this API – ie, creating a connection between external apps and GA4 include: Mailchimp, Slack, Shopify, WooCommerce, etc
  • Anomaly detection
    • GA4 uses statistics to inform its approach to detecting time-based anomalies in data reporting. Traditionally this is done on a weekly basis but, over time, can be trained to do so daily. 
  • Explorations
    • “Explorations” refers to Google’s term for analytics you can perform that goes beyond surface level, including ad-hoc queries, filtering and segmenting data, and filtering and segmenting audiences. It allows you to visualize your data in new ways, drill down deeper into your data, and export it to wherever you might need that data.
  • Creating Events
    • An event is a specific (and labeled) interaction a user might have on your site, like page loads, clicking on certain links, signing up for a newsletter or even clicking “add to cart” on a page. You can then track these events and see their metrics over time across your user base. Conversions are events that are profitable to your site, like purchasing an item. GA4 lets you create and customize events for more engaged tracking. 
  • Debugging
    • GA4 offers DebugView, which allows you to troubleshoot events and fix problems that arise for users. When you enable Debugview through tagassistant.google.com or within your Tag Manager preview mode, you can navigate your site as if you were a user and monitor the events that are triggered while you navigate to debug any issues you might have with your tracking implementation.

Benefits of Google Analytics (GA4)

Google Analytics / GA4 has many strengths. Not only is it free, but it’s all-encompassing and can give you about as much data as one might desire. You can manipulate the data to show you anything from page traffic to a user’s journey through your site, and it can help you make decisions that will improve your business. 

While competitors like Semrush, Clicky, or Matomo offer similar data insights, they all require a paid subscription. This might make sense if you want a truly advanced or fully customized way to analyze your site, but Google Analytics will deliver the basics and then some.

What We Like About GA4

There’s a lot of things we (the SEO team of Digital Third Coast) like about GA4, some of which include:

1. Events: Setting up events is a breeze in GA4 which makes tracking on-site behavior much more streamlined.

2. Explorations – GA4s custom reports are leveraged a lot by our team. Whether for problem solving or creating a custom report for clients, we like this!

Ryan Dornan

“Explorations can be used to discover new audience segments based on source, behaviors, demographics or devices. Following the reverse path for a conversion can provide insights on where users came from, where they went after landing on your site, and what paths led to the highest conversion rates. You can also discern who did not convert via page paths.

Ryan Dornan, SEO Account Manager

Andrew Najdovski

“GA4 encourages us to set up and organize the reports and tracking we like in a way that suits our needs best. I’m able to create exactly what I need through Explorations or Reports so I have the data I need on a daily/monthly basis at my fingertips.”

Andrew Najdovski, Senior SEO Analyst

3. Creating Audiences – The ability to create such custom audiences is so easy.

Keith Fenner

GA4 makes it simple to create custom audience segments based on specific user behavior parameters. For example, you can focus on audiences that enter the site via a specific page or suite of pages.”

Keith Fenner, SEO Account Manager

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