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Navigating privacy controls with Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

April 1, 2024, By Adnan Sosic, Director of Marketing Analytics

As the Director of Marketing Analytics at EAB, I spend most of my time helping colleges and universities unlock the potential of data analysis to shape their marketing strategies and improve campaign outcomes. In many of my recent conversations with university website teams, there has been a growing focus on privacy—which isn’t surprising given the number of new privacy regulations being implemented worldwide.

But how have these regulations impacted the teams in charge of university websites? Privacy regulations have made it more challenging for universities to collect and use data and have forced them to adapt their data collection and analytics practices. With evolving rules and heightened scrutiny, the landscape has become more complex. Compliance is no longer an option—it’s imperative. And it’s critical in securing students’ trust.

Here is an overview of GA4’s privacy controls and how they apply to your .edu website strategy.



What is Google Analytics?

Google Analytics has long been a go-to platform for measuring website performance and user engagement. However, with the introduction of Google Analytics 4 (GA4), a new era of data analysis and insights has arrived. GA4 is a new version of Google’s popular analytics platform that has been designed with privacy in mind. GA4 offers a number of controls that can help colleges and universities comply with privacy regulations, while still providing valuable insights into user behavior.

Watch to learn more about Google Analytics 4 migration

These privacy controls can be categorized into two types: “hands-off” and “hands-on.”

Understanding hands-off privacy controls

Hand-off privacy controls have no implementation impact on site owners. However, data owners are responsible for following best practices in data protection and complying with relevant data protection regulations.

Data minimization

GA4 introduces the concept of data minimization by enabling colleges and universities to collect only the data they need. This feature supports compliance with laws that mandate the collection of data strictly for specific purposes. Data minimization in GA4 is achieved through an event-based data model. Each event contains only the essential data required to describe the event, reducing the overall amount of data collected and stored. This approach prioritizes user privacy by minimizing unnecessary data collection.

Additionally, GA4 implements data minimization by reducing the retention period. Unlike Universal Analytics where data could be set to never expire, GA4 imposes limitations on data retention (more on that below).

Data encryption

GA4 prioritizes data security by implementing encryption measures for both data in transit and at rest. This ensures that your data is safeguarded from unauthorized access and maintains its confidentiality throughout its journey and storage.

  • In-Transit Encryption: GA4 utilizes secure communication protocols like HTTPS to encrypt data during transmission between users’ browsers or apps and the GA4 servers. This encryption prevents any unauthorized access, interception, or tampering of the data while it is being transferred.
  • Data Storage Encryption: Industry-standard encryption algorithms are used to encrypt data stored on GA4’s servers or data centers, ensuring that even if unauthorized access occurs, the stored data remains secure and indecipherable.

Understanding hands-on privacy controls

Hands-on privacy controls offer more flexibility and allow colleges and universities to tailor the data collection and analysis to their specific needs.

User consent

The consent mode in Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is a valuable feature that assists colleges and universities in managing user consent for data collection. In the face of growing privacy concerns and regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), obtaining user consent has become crucial for colleges and universities.

GA4’s consent mode enables colleges and universities to implement user consent mechanisms, ensuring compliance with privacy regulations. It empowers colleges and universities to acquire explicit consent from users before collecting their data, promoting transparency and user control over data collection practices. It’s important to note that the consent mode is not a standalone consent management platform but rather an add-on to facilitate compliance.

To obtain user consent, colleges and universities must first create a consent policy within their consent management platform. The consent policy must be clear and concise, and it must explain to users what data will be collected, how it will be used, and how users can withdraw their consent.

Data deletion

Data deletion in GA4 involves removing data from the GA4 platform. When data is deleted, event parameters may be replaced with “(data deleted)” while still being counted in overall metrics.

It’s important to understand that once data is deleted from GA4, it cannot be restored. For that reason, exercise caution and only delete data if you are certain that it is no longer needed.

Data retention

Data retention controls in GA4 allow you to determine the duration for which your data is stored in GA4. These controls apply to user-level and event-level data associated with cookies, user-identifiers, and advertising identifiers. Most standard reporting, which relies on aggregated data, is not affected by these controls.

Once the retention period ends, data is automatically deleted on a monthly basis. If you decrease the retention period, any affected data will be deleted during the next monthly process. However, increasing the retention period does not impact previously collected data.

Google Signals

Google Signals is a feature in Google Analytics 4 that enables the collection of data from signed-in users who have consented to personalized ads. Google Signals collects session, device, and location data anonymously from various sources, including Gmail, YouTube, and Google partner sites.

Data portability

GA4 empowers colleges and universities to export their data to external platforms or data warehouses, providing them with control over their data and enabling compliance.

Data portability allows colleges and universities to seamlessly transfer their data to external tools or platforms for various purposes, such as further analysis, integration with other systems, or creating backups. It proves particularly valuable when combining data from multiple sources or migrating to different analytics platforms, enabling you to leverage data beyond the confines of the GA4 interface.

By offering data export capabilities, colleges and universities can ensure transparency, accountability, and compliance with data protection regulations. They can effectively respond to user requests for data access or deletion, as mandated by regulations like GDPR and CCPA.

Embracing GA4 for privacy-centric analytics

As privacy regulations continue to evolve and become more stringent, many universities are recognizing the need to adapt their data collection and analytics practices. Google Analytics 4 (GA4) has emerged as a privacy-centric analytics platform that offers controls to help university teams comply with privacy regulations while still providing valuable insights into prospective student behavior.

Companies, including search engines like Google, are taking privacy regulations seriously and implementing changes to protect user privacy. For instance, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency framework has inspired search engines to enhance user privacy in search results and advertising practices. If universities want to build trust with their prospective students, their websites need to adapt to the evolving privacy landscape.

But the future of educational data strategy extends far beyond compliance. In my day to day, I support universities on this transformative journey to enhance prospects’ experience on .edu websites, and our team of seasoned experts can help you harness the true power of GA4.

Want to learn more about maximizing data to improve your university website?

Fill out the form to connect with an EAB expert.

Adnan Sosic

Adnan Sosic

Director of Marketing Analytics

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