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Six tips to optimize your GA4 setup

Sep 06, 2023
By: Mark Gorney

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) comes with some pretty strong perks for engaging with your users if you know how to optimize your GA4 setup.

Compared to Universal Analytics (UA), GA4 collects more granular data, and it tracks data streams across websites and mobile apps so it’s easier to see a customer’s entire journey. GA4 also has more robust privacy controls to meet user data protection regulations.

How to optimize GA4 setup

With some adjustments from the default settings, GA4 can provide more accurate and useful data than UA. Based on our experience supporting hundreds of GA4 migrations, we recommend these setup tips:

1. Extend the data retention period

By default: All GA4 properties retain user and event-level data for two months. That includes any data associated with cookies, user IDs and advertising identifiers. After two months, it becomes inaccessible in Google’s Explorations and Funnel visualization tools.

Recommendation: Extend the retention period so you can analyze behaviors and conversions over a longer period. For user-level data and conversions, 14 months is the max for standard accounts. If you have a premium account (i.e., GA4 360), you can retain data for up to 50 months.

In the same setting, turn on “Reset user data on new activity.” If users don’t interact with your website or app within the retention period, their user data will be deleted. Every time they interact with your site or app, the countdown starts over (and you’ll retain more data over a longer timeframe).

Setting path: Admin > Property > Data settings > Data retention

2. Change the session timeout length

By default: A session ends after 30 minutes of user inactivity.

Recommendation: Increase the session timeout period, up to 7 hours and 55 minutes. Why? It’s common for users to start a session, then leave to browse social media, check email, attend a meeting or make a purchase. They may come back to your site and continue the journey hours after a session started. With a longer timeout length, GA4 will recognize the return trip as a single session.

Setting path: Admin > Property > Data streams > Select data stream > Configure tag settings > Show all > Adjust session timeout

3. Enable cross-domain tracking

By default: Every hit becomes an event. If your user journey crosses multiple domains, then GA4 will track the activity as two sessions and two different users. Your data won’t accurately reflect the journey, and paid media or referral sources may not get the credit they deserve.

Recommendation: Configure your domains in the Data Stream Tag setting so cross-domain activity is attributed to a single user. Here’s some good news: Configuring domains is much simpler in GA4 than in UA, and you don’t need to adjust “allowlinker” parameters in your javascript or GTM implementation.

Setting path: Admin > Property > Data streams > Select data stream > Configure tag settings > Show all > Configure your domains

4. Register custom dimensions and metrics

By default: GA4 collects standard behaviors and metrics, like users, engaged sessions, and time per session. However, most companies need more detailed or custom reports to truly assess their campaigns and performance.

Recommendation: Create custom dimensions and metrics so you can see data that matters to you, how you want to see it. Register every custom parameter that you want to measure as an event, user or an item-scoped dimension or metric.

Once defined, custom dimensions and metrics will show up in real time in custom reports, the BigQuery Export, and in the GA4 connection to Looker Studio.

Setting path: Admin > Property > Custom definitions

5. Filter internal traffic

By default: All traffic on your site is tracked.

Recommendation: Exclude traffic from a range of IP addresses so internal users, developers and vendors don’t show up in your production data. This keeps metrics focused on the target audience and its behavior.

In GA4, you can choose three filter states: testing, active and inactive. Use the testing filter to validate settings before you activate them and rely on the traffic data. (You can use debug mode to see all traffic and determine whether filters are working.) Data filters can take 24 to 36 hours to take effect, so dedicate enough time for testing.

Setting path: Admin > Property > Data streams > Select data stream > Configure tag settings > Show all > Define internal traffic

6. Disable unwanted enhanced event measurement

By default: Enhanced event measurement automatically tracks events like page views, scrolls, outbound link clicks, site search, video engagement, file downloads and forms.

Recommendation: Disable events that don’t apply to your site or if GA4’s tracking is subpar compared to other tools. For example, video engagement only measures YouTube-embedded videos. If you use a different media player (or don’t use video) on your site, turn off tracking for those events. And in GA4, scroll events only fire at the 90% threshold. You can get better data through Google Tag Manager (GTM), which allows you to lower the threshold at which it fires (e.g., 25%, 50%, 75%, 100%).

Unfortunately, you can’t customize how enhanced measurement data is collected like you can with custom tracking in GTM. So, you can’t categorize download events by type (e.g., PDF, video, Excel). If that’s important to you, manual tracking through GTM is still possible. GTM recipes are available open source from companies like Bounteous and Analytics Mania.

Experiment with new measurements in GA4 — but don’t bet the farm on their data just yet. Early results have been mixed on some features, like form events. Some form events fire multiple times per user, leading to inflated event counts and lower form submission rates.

Small changes make a big difference

GA4 measures page changes differently, and it combines app and web traffic into one metric. Those changes can have a big impact on your results. Make sure you understand how GA4 collects and reports data compared to legacy analytics platforms.

How Wipfli can help

Wipfli helps companies navigate what’s new, so the transition doesn’t just “check the box.” We can help you retain valuable historical data before it disappears July 2024. And we can tailor GA4 to meet your needs, even as your business and digital properties evolve. When GA4 is optimized, you can get deeper customer insights with less time and effort. Let’s get you set up for success.

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Mark Gorney