Yellow brick road with Google Analytics logo in the sky in the distance.

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore..."

Those words uttered in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz have come to mean a lot of things, but chief among them is “we’ve entered unfamiliar territory.” And while we’re not in a strange new land somewhere over the rainbow, there are certainly huge changes coming to the largest data analytics platform in the world – and that might leave a lot of people clicking their heels and wishing for home.

The story begins last year when Google announced it would sunset Universal Analytics (UA) and require users to migrate to Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Now, as we approach the zero-day reality of the mandated change, holdouts are being told that if they don't make the move, Google will do it for them

Follow the Yellow Brick Road... or else

Back in the halcyon days of 2014, Apple and U2 shipped a copy of their album Songs of Innocence to every iTunes account on the planet. They saw it as a gift, but it became a touchpoint about data privacy and corporate overreach. 

In some ways, the recent announcement by Google to forcibly move a customer's account evokes the same sentiment. Sure, users and businesses have the option to drop Google Analytics and turn to different platforms like Semrush or Amplitude. But how practical is that when you've been tracking everything on Google for years? 

If you're not familiar with the nitty gritty: in March 2022, Google first announced its flagship UA would be “going away,” leaving many people in the dark about what to expect. Shortly after, it introduced GA4 – which offered some intriguing new features and capabilities.

Google also informed customers they could continue using and collecting data in UA until July 1, 2023. At that point, they would have an additional six months to export their legacy data, which can't be migrated into GA4. 

While Google has been proactively communicating with its users, many have delayed or resisted the call for change. As the end date approaches, these users are in danger of losing their legacy data and missing out on collecting sufficient data in the new GA4. 

Google's solution? We'll take care of it for you – whether you like it or not.

The search giant announced its intentions in an email informing users that any accounts without an established GA4 property by March 2023 would have one configured for them by reusing existing site tags.

GA4 might be the Emerald City, but forcing users down the Yellow Brick Road feels more like the work of the Wicked Witch. It's true that many customers could stand to lose a lot of valuable data if they don’t make the switch before July – and the new GA4 has certainly received positive praise from some users (a whole lot of negative, too). But even Steve Jobs and Bono weren't considering the sacred trust that exists between customers and brands when it comes to the power of choice. 

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

In the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her newfound friends journey to see a wizard that will grant them their greatest wishes. Upon closer inspection, they discover the deity they sought was just an ordinary man complicit in deceiving people.

Not to drag out the metaphor, but it might be worth taking a closer look at what’s behind the GA4 curtain as well, and that's the Google Cloud.

Unlike data storage with UA, GA4 only allows access to user and event data for up to 14 months – then it's deleted on a rolling monthly basis. Once the retention period has expired, users will have limited options for accessing their data unless they buy storage in a Google data warehouse.

Since UA users have always had the option to access their legacy data indefinitely, this represents a huge change. In effect, it forces users to assimilate to the Google Cloud and pay a lot more to access data they've always had for free.

Privacy matters

One of the primary reasons Google introduced GA4 was to comply with austere data privacy measures impacting Europe. Because UA did not meet regulations such as GDPR, the new GA4 was deployed to help meet those requirements. But lingering questions remain about legacy data being forced onto Google Cloud products without user consent.

To access large chunks of this data, users will need to use BigQuery – a serverless, ML-powered data warehouse platform in the Google Cloud. It comes at a hefty price for small businesses or individual users who have not had to pay until the forced GA4 migration. This added cost could have a chilling effect on Google's customer base, and perhaps have them seeking alternatives. 

Regarding complexity, many users who have switched to GA4 say it requires more developer-focused knowledge of analytics, as it’s a completely new way of gathering data. This could mean even more costs associated with migration, especially if your team isn't prepared to handle the changes.

In the epic "Battle of the Clouds," things are heating up for Google, which currently trails it two largest rivals. According to Statista, Amazon Web Services (AWS) dominates the market share at 34 percent, with Azure well behind at 21 percent. By further integrating its analytics with its cloud property, Google could strengthen its relative position and drive more adoption by default.

The search king has always reigned over the analytics market, and if GA4 users want to expand their data resources, it seems like Google is shouting from the rooftops, “there’s no place like home.”