Google Analytics 4: Cookies in a cookie-less world

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Patrick Barrington, who heads up analytics at Makilo, tells us about Google Analytics 4 and the shift to a privacy-centric, cookie-less world.

What is Google Analytics 4?

Google Analytics 4, or GA4, as it is commonly known, is a new version of Google’s Universal Analytics and an entirely new way of doing analytics. Google’s claim is that the focus of this shift is on privacy and data control, and that GA4 is set up to work in a cookie-less world.

Google Analytics has had to adapt to remain useful to website owners and aims to comply with privacy laws such as GDPR (receiving multiple lawsuits for violating privacy might have had something to do with it too). Overall, Google Analytics 4 still enables you to measure traffic and engagement across your websites and apps.

Is Google Analytics 4 GDPR Compliant?

Google Analytics 4, by default, is not GDPR compliant. Website owners need to make the necessary changes to make their sites comply with GDPR. For example, obtain explicit opt-in consent from your website visitors to collect their data and a privacy policy clarifying what you do with their data. However, despite policy changes and privacy-focused features, Google Analytics 4 status of being GDPR compliant for EU residents is still unclear. 

The compliance issue with Google Analytics 4 still remains insofar that it transfers user data about EU residents to US-based servers. This also extends to UK residents as, whilst being outside the EU, they are governed by domestic data privacy law called UK-GDPR that implements the same rules as the EU version and is supported by the UK’s Data Protection Act of 2018.

Does Google Analytics 4 use them?

Yes, Google Analytics 4 uses cookies! [1]. 

Google Analytics 4 relies on first-party cookies to track data whilst using machine learning techniques to fill in data gaps and make predictions when cookies are restricted. Google’s machine learning approach uses conversion modelling to build a picture of a user’s behaviour whilst the user remains anonymous. Conversion modelling is when conversion events (e.g. purchases, downloads, or sign-ups) can’t be tied to a channel (e.g. direct, paid search, or social) and Google’s conversion modelling assigns a linkage to a conversion and a channel (e.g. this user came from paid search and made a purchase).

Are cookies bad?

Cookies aren’t inherently bad, we’ve all most likely found them very useful when auto-filling data on a web form or remembering items in your shopping basket. First-party cookies are necessary for the internet functioning as we know it. The reality is everyone is positively impacted by cookies, for finding information, shopping, and making browsing your favourite websites easier and faster. However, cookies also pose a privacy risk because they share data with third parties. Cookies are abused when websites track you across multiple domains, over time learning about you and piecing together your behaviours to create a profile on you for advertisements. This behaviour when cookies track users across multiple domains, is called third-party cookies.

First vs Third party cookies

First-party cookies are set on a website by the owner and not shared with other websites or parties. A website owner may use cookies for collecting analytic data to understand users and make informed decisions about their business. Or allow the website to remember a user’s language settings and other useful functions such as not having to pay for Netflix because of that one time a friend signed into their account on your device – I’m looking at you Tom. Primarily, the intentions of first-party cookies are to create a good user experience.

A third-party cookie is when a cookie is not set from the website you’re visiting but from a different website (a third party and not the owner). This Zuckerburg third-party can share your data with any other third-party (usually advertising networks). However, as mentioned previously, third-party cookies can be seen as an invasion of privacy to many users, which has contributed to new privacy laws such as GDPR.

Google Analytics does not use third-party cookies

Yes, you heard that right, Google Analytics 4 does not use third-party cookies. This is an important distinction because GA4 only using first-party cookies means that as a user you have greater control over your data and do not share data with other companies the user might not like. As a website owner, first-party cookies are trusted more compared to third-party cookies because they improve the user experience of a website. Let’s not forget though, consent is necessary for first-party analytics cookies requiring explicit opt-in as analytic cookies are not strictly necessary cookies.

Should I move to Google Analytics 4?

Google announced that Universal Analytics will officially retire and stop processing data on July 1, 2023. If you’re already using Google Analytics, I’d recommend making the move over to Google Analytics 4 as soon as possible to start building the necessary data before Universal Analytics stops processing so you’re not rushing around at the last minute.

When you do make the move over to Google Analytics 4, it does not include historical data from Universal Analytics and therefore you will lose all historical information, unless you manually export each individual report.

If you’re interested in making the move to Google Analytics 4 or exploring an alternative to Google Analytics 4 for your analytic needs, get in touch with the team.