Everything you need to know about Primary Channel Group in GA4

By Jason Sanderson
7th February 2024

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) recently rolled out a new feature called Primary Channel Group, reminiscent of the channel grouping system in Google Analytics Universal (GA3). This update comes with a couple of notable issues that may leave users scratching their heads. It certainly did for us!

Let’s delve into what GA4’s Primary Channel Group is, its shortcomings, and how to navigate around them if you’d like to have the previous source identification experience.

Understanding the New Feature:

In GA4 the Primary Channel Group functions similarly to the channel grouping system in GA3, where updates are stored over time, and only apply from the date of change onwards. Two significant issues arise with this approach:

1. Historical Challenges: In GA3, updating historical data within channel groupings was cumbersome, and the same issue persists with the Primary Channel Group. Changes made to this group do not reflect historically, making it challenging to align with past data accurately.

2. Default Settings and Historical Data: The new feature not only automatically sets itself to the non-editable “default channel grouping” configuration, it also only captures data from September 2023 onwards. This renders the new Primary’s historical data useless if a custom channel grouping was already in place – or if you’re needing data prior to September 2023.

Questioning the Purpose:

Despite reading Google’s help articles, the purpose of GA4’s new Primary Channel Group remains unclear. Is Google implementing this to save processing costs by not needing to re-process custom channel definition data for every report? Is this on the road to feature parity to GA3? There might be more to it than meets the eye.

Navigating Source-Based Reports:

When browsing source-based reports, keep these key points in mind:

1. The channel grouping defaults to the new Primary Channel Group.

2. The Primary Channel defaults to the Default Channel Group, excluding custom group settings.

3. Historical data is visible only from September 2023 onwards.

4. Changes to the Primary Group do not affect historical data.

5. If a report includes the Primary Group as a dimension (even if not set as default) it will always be the default dimension shown.

How to Avoid and Navigate the GA4 Primary Channel Group:

The good news is that this can be avoided and is the approach we have been doing with custom groupings already.

We can set reports to use a specific channel grouping outside of this Primary group. This will allow you to continue to see all the historical data against the grouping and any changes you make show historically too.

However, the fix becomes a bit more complicated if you see “Source-based… Channel Group)” in a given source-based report:

In the short term:

As a temporary fix you can select a preferred channel grouping in the drop-down for the primary dimension.

However, this change will disappear once you leave the report, and you will have to do it again every time you open up your report.

A more permanent solution:

1. Click the pencil icon on the top RHS.

2. Click “Dimensions” on the RHS.

3. Remove the “Primary” referencing dimension.

4. Set another grouping as default and prioritize it at the top of the list.

5. Click the blue “Save” button.

6. Save changes to the current report.

7. Click “Back” on the top LHS.

Updating the GA4 Primary Channel Group settings:

It will likely be worthwhile to update the Primary Channel Group settings to match your previous reporting source standards soon, but for now, we just see this as a future-proofing exercise.

Any custom channel group can become your property’s primary default by selecting it in the admin settings:

  1. Head to the “Property settings > Data Display > Channel Group”
  2. Click on the pencil icon at the top of the “Primary channel group”
  3. Select any custom channel grouping as the new definition for your primary channel group.

The data will populate using the new criteria from that point forward, but not historically.

While the introduction of the Primary Channel Group in GA4 may raise eyebrows (it certainly caught our attention) understanding how to navigate and customize your analytics settings can help maintain a seamless and accurate reporting experience. If you need any help with your GA4 tracking and reporting, make sure to get in contact today, or check out our training packages for your team.

If you still have questions about your GA4 reports, check out some of our recent blog posts:

10 common GA problems and how to solve them

Your complete guide on how to track email and phone clicks in GA4

Browser extensions that make an Analyst’s life easier

About Jason:

Heading up our Data & Analytics team, Jason is our resident GA4 wizard, always ready with an answer to every question the team has about the ever-confusing Google Analytics – or any part of the data & analytics world really!

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