Must Read! GA4 Channels Function Differently than Universal Analytics

Must Read! GA4 Channels Function Differently than Universal Analytics

Oct 30, 2023 | By Andrew Peek

It has now been over three months since the official deadline for switching from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4. I hope your transition from UA to GA4 has been flawless like everyone else’s has been…😆

I am joking. I am fairly confident that almost every builder has had challenges with this change, mostly dependent on how deep of a user they were within Universal Analytics, their website platform, and then their marketing or IT team’s familiarity with GA4 and Google Tag Manager.

Now, onto the problem we face today. 

I had hoped that this would resolve itself, as Google seems to still be pushing out minor changes every few weeks without notice. 

Issue #1 - Not being able to customize the Default Channel rules.

This is actually a pretty big deal. In UA, we would be able to set up a filter of what traffic sources would be grouped into which Channel. The filters were pretty robust and would allow almost any type of combination of rules to create the outcome we are looking for. See screenshots of what UA used to allow compared to GA4.

Universal Analytics - Channel Grouping Settings. Editing capabilities - nice!

Google Analytics 4 - Channel Grouping Settings. No editing capabilities. 

In GA4 however, we cannot do this.😮

The end result is that a significant amount of traffic is being grouped into the Unassigned Channel.

If you are not familiar with this, view screenshot #1 below. 

As you can see with this builder that has quite a bit of traffic, the Unassigned Channel is their FOURTH most popular traffic source. To protect the privacy of this builder, I will blur out some of the reports, but in the second screenshot, you can see I added a secondary dimension to view what traffic is being grouped into the Unassigned Channel.

That’s the issue we are facing today. What can we do to solve this? There are a few solutions - both have their positives and negatives and I’ll provide my personal preference. Your individual situation is unique to you and the more complex your setup is, the more time you will need to consider the best solution to implement. 

This mostly affects those who use what I will call “less than standard” source/medium names in their UTMs from their paid or non-paid traffic sources.

The first step in choosing your solution is to reference this article from Google on how the Default GA4 Channel Groupingsfilter based on either the source/medium in the UTM or what Google Interprets as the referring source of traffic. 

Solution #1 - Fix your Source/Mediums in your UTMs.
This one can be pretty complicated to do, depending on how many campaigns you have running. This solution is to edit every single traffic source’s UTMs to match what Google has defined in the help article above. You will then also need to consider if any reporting/dashboards need to be reviewed as well as they very likely have filters based on channel, source, or medium found in UTMs.

This is likely best for builders with simpler marketing technology systems in place. 

Solution #2 - Create a New Set of Channel Groupings 

This is my preferred solution for larger builders or those with more complex marketing tech in place. You will simply duplicate the Default Channel Grouping, which then enables the ability to create filters for each channel just like in Universal Analytics. See screenshots below for the quick steps to get this done. Pretty nice, right?!

Solution #3 - Utilize Source/Medium in Addition to #1 & #2

This is for advanced users or those who don’t mind the “noise” of seeing the details. Personally, when I am analyzing data, I have a strong flavor of skepticism of the data. The data needs to be trusted, and in order to trust the data, we need to verify what we are seeing is actually true. 

For this reason, I will often switch back and forth between Channels as the primary dimension and Source / Medium. What this does is creates a mini-audit check of the data integrity whenever you are in Google Analytics. To me, this is the best way to find spelling mistakes or inconsistencies in the UTMs we rely on so much. Trust and verify!

Next steps!

If you made it this far, shout out to you. You are an unsung hero on the battlefield of maintaining data integrity for your builder. As I discussed at our 2023 Sales & Marketing Summit, as Marketers we are professionals. We need to elevate our standards and “own our stations.” Working through not-so-fun issues like this is one of those occasions! 

Andrew Peek
Lead Gen Manager

Andrew Peek

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