When it comes to digital analytics, the ability to swiftly answer ad hoc questions is a baseline requirement for marketers and analysts. Google Analytics 4 (GA4) steps up to this challenge with its powerful “Explorations” feature, providing a suite of available report types designed to facilitate on-the-fly analysis. This article will provide an overview of Exploration’s capabilities, delve into each type of report available, and ultimately help you determine when Explorations are the best tool for the job.

What is a GA4 Exploration?

Explorations (created via the “Explore” section of the GA4 UI) are GA4’s drag-and-drop, customizable reporting and data visualization feature. Explorations are essentially GA4’s replacement for Custom Reports in Universal Analytics (UA), expanding on their capabilities and bringing them to the forefront of how you interact with GA4 data. While there are many different configurations available to be built, they all have these basic features in common:

  1. Date picker & Comparisons: choose a date range for your analysis, and see a side-by-side comparison of two different date ranges, e.g. month-over-month analysis
  2. Apply segments: limit your analysis to only apply to a subset of your users, such as users in a certain region, users from a certain campaign, etc.
  3. Apply filters: refine your analysis to only the desired users, sessions, or events.
  4. Export: explorations can be exported to Google Sheets, or exported as either a CSV or PDF file.
  5. Report sharing: once built, Explorations can be shared with everyone who has access to the property.

Types of Reports in GA4 Explorations

Free-form Exploration

Free form reports are the most open-ended type of Exploration, providing users with a blank canvas upon which to drag and drop metrics and dimensions with nearly unrestricted exploration capabilities. Key benefits include:

  • Customized analysis tailored to specific needs.
  • Ideal for one-off inquiries.
  • Quick visualization of your data. 
  • Many visualization options (table, donut, time series, bar, map).

Cohort Exploration

Cohort Explorations are used to analyze cohorts of users based on common characteristics, e.g. their acquisition date, over time. Benefits include:

  • Customized analysis tailored to specific needs.
  • Ideal for one-off inquiries.
  • Quick visualization of your data. 
  • Many visualization options (table, donut, time series, bar, map).

Funnels

Use a funnel report to visualize the step-by-step progression of user interactions towards a predefined goal. Funnels can help you determine where users are dropping off as part of their shopping journey or checkout process. Key benefits include pinpointing drop-off points in the user journey so that you can optimize the path to conversion.

Path Exploration

Often considered the most interactive of the report types, path explorations display user journeys by revealing the most common paths users take through a website or app. They can be used to explore user flows “forwards” from a particular starting point or “backwards” showing the steps users took to get to an end point. Key benefits:

  • Identifies popular user flows, such as successive pages viewed, site interactions made, or both.
  • Pinpoints potential bottlenecks/distractions in the user journey.

User Explorer

The User Explorer reports allows for the inspection of individual user journeys, providing a detailed view of interactions. This enables organizations to do granular analysis of a specific user’s behavior, which can be useful for troubleshooting and otherwise understanding specific experiences users are having.

Segment Overlap

The segment overlap report is a very useful tool that illustrates the intersection of different user segments, providing insights into shared and unique characteristics. This is often useful for understanding how different segments may be similar or different — and in particular, can be used to understand how well various audiences might help advertisers expand their reach. For example, if many users are in both Audience X and Audience Y, expanding ad targeting to target Audience Y in addition to Audience X may not actually deliver much incremental reach.

Limitations and Common Pain Points

Despite its versatility, GA4 Explorations come with their own set of limitations and potential pain points to be aware of.

Report Sharing: Explorations can only be shared with others in read-only mode, meaning they are static as of the time of creation. Adjusting metrics, dimensions, filters, or date ranges requires creating a local copy of the shared Exploration. Version control can be a pain point when multiple users wish to collaborate on the same Exploration.

Data Sampling: large datasets may lead to data sampling, potentially impacting the accuracy of insights derived from Exploration reports.

Reliance on Well-Defined Metrics and Dimensions: the effectiveness of Exploration heavily depends on the availability and clarity of metrics and dimensions relevant to the specific ad hoc question.

When to use Explorations rather than Standard reports

There are various considerations when choosing when to use a standard report and when to build an Exploration – the degree of flexibility required, the nature of the question being asked, the granularity required, and one’s familiarity with GA4.

Flexibility:

  • Exploration: Offers unparalleled flexibility, allowing users to create custom reports from scratch. All report customizations made, e.g. applied segments or filters, are kept until they are removed by the report owner.
  • Standard Reports: Provide predefined reports with limited customization options. Segments can not be applied by default and any segments or filters applied by the user will not be saved for another user viewing the same report.
  • Recommendation: Use Explorations when you want to make a persistent alteration to a report that doesn’t need to be adjusted every time.

Ad Hoc vs. Regular Monitoring

  • Exploration: Ideal for answering unique, ad hoc questions as they arise. Explorations can also be used to store multiple related reports/charts together.
  • Standard Reports: Suited for regular, routine monitoring of standard metrics and dimensions.
  • Recommendation: If a standard report is capable of answering a routine query, it should be used. Otherwise, use an Exploration.

Granularity

  • Exploration: Enables a more granular analysis with the ability to drill down into specific data points.
  • Standard Reports: Provide aggregated views, offering a high-level overview of performance.
  • Recommendation: Use Explorations when you have a complex question requiring drill downs and granular analysis.

Ease of Use

  • Exploration: Intuitive and user-friendly but may require a learning curve for those accustomed to traditional reporting.
  • Standard Reports: Generally more straightforward for users familiar with conventional reporting structures.
  • Recommendation: Explorations can quickly overwhelm an inexperienced analyst. It may be preferable for them to use standard reports whenever possible.

Conclusion

GA4 Explorations are a powerful tool for marketers seeking to navigate the intricacies of ad hoc analysis. Explorations’ capabilities provide a taste of both the advanced analyses possible within queryable platforms Google BigQuery, and the data visualization features available in a tool like Google Looker Studio, all without leaving the GA4 platform. Its diverse range of report types, from free-form exploration to user lifetime analysis, provides marketers with the tools they need to swiftly answer pressing questions. If not already, GA4 Explorations should quickly become a go-to tool in your toolbelt as you work with GA4 data.

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