Change Your Google Analytics Data Retention Setting, Or Lose Your Advanced Segments


How long should you retain data in your GA account?

Today we are providing a Google Analytics Public Service Announcement.

If you want to keep your historical analysis capabilities in Google Analytics, then please heed the advice in this video and post!

Last week we discussed some new tools that Google Analytics is introducing. These tools are intended to help us prepare for GDPR compliance.

We have just three weeks until GDPR goes into effect on May 25th, 2018, so this deadline doesn't leave us much time to figure out how these new tools will affect our data.

One of the new Google Analytics features, data retention controls, has me concerned.

I would say my level of concern is at DEFCON 1!

Here's why I am so worried.

Your ability to use Google Analytics, as you know it today, is going away on May 25th.

Unless you take action!

I've investigated data retention controls further over the last week. And my findings indicate:


Otherwise, you'll lose some significant analytics capabilities. Follow along with the video and post below, and I'll explain what's going on.

GDPR and Google Analytics changes

When we published our last video and post on the Google Analytics GDPR updates, we discussed some new features Google is adding to our accounts.

One of the features Google is introducing is data retention controls.

Data retention controls

Data retention controls allow you to manage how long Google stores your user data on their servers.

Google introduces data retention controls

I breezed through this new feature in my last post. At the time, I wasn't sure how this setting would affect how we use Google Analytics.

But, I've been thinking about it ever since. And now I am scared.

I would even say I more scared of how this setting will affect our analytics data than I am of clowns. And I am terrified of clowns!

I am sacred of clown as I am of the default setting for data retention controls

The reason I am scared is that your ability to do real analytics in GA is going away on May 25th, 2018…

Unless you take action in the next three weeks!

The problem with data retention controls

Let's take a look at Google's documentation for this feature.

data retention controls

The default setting for data retention is 26 months. But you can select to retain your user data for a shorter or more extended amount of time.

At first glance, this setting doesn't seem overly critical.

Google even says these controls won't “affect most standard reporting based on aggregate data.”

But, we need to read between the lines here.

Google's telling you that if you allow them to purge your user data, you can still use your aggregate reports. What they don't mention is how dumping your user data will affect ad-hoc reporting.

Data Retention and aggregate reports

To understand the problem in more detail, let's look at how Google Analytics generates reports.

Aggregate reports in Google Analytics

Google Analytics aggregated data is the same thing as your canned reports.

aggregate data = canned reports

Canned reports are your standard ABC reports:

Audience, Acquisition, Behavior, Conversions.

These are your default reports. You can select a date range for these reports, and they generate in seconds. They are readily available, and they work how you want them to work.

Default Reports in Google Analytics

Sampled data in Google Analytics

The opposite of aggregated data is something called sample data.

To learn more about sampling in Google Analytics, you can read this support article: About Data Sampling.

Data sampling powers all of our ad-hoc reports.

Sampled data = ad hoc reports

Ad hoc reports google analytics

So here's the big problem with the data retention controls settings: While dumping your user data won't affect aggregated reports, purging this data will eliminate your ability to run ad-hoc reports on historical data.

How your data retention settings impact Google “Analytics.”

The ad hoc reports include a lot of features that are critical to data analysis. These are the features that rely on your sample data.

And they include things like: segments, table filters, secondary dimensions, and custom reports.

Advanced segments, table filters, secondary dimensions

All these capabilities for your historical data (collected before March 2016) will be gone on May 25th, 2018, if you don't adjust your data retention setting.

There are also other tools you'll lose if you allow Google to purge your user data. Your Multi-channel funnel reports, attribution reports, and flow visualization charts will disappear as well.

Attribution models, multi-channel funnels, goal flows

Now you may not use these reports every day, but they are pretty significant. And if you allow Google to expire your user data, you'll lose all these reports beyond the 26-month default period.

The default setting for data retention could compromise literally everything I love about Google Analytics.

Sacrificing this data is a significant change. And this change begs the question, is this truly a GDPR thing?

Are data retention controls related to GDPR?

I don't think the removals of ad-hoc queries from data retention controls are a direct consequence of GDPR. I think this change is Google cleaning house on expensive historical data storage when they have the opportunity.

Everyone is scrambling to interpret the last minute preparations needed for GDPR compliance. Meanwhile, big G recognizes a significant opportunity to do a massive data dump during the confusion.

The setting you choose for data retention control takes effect on May 25th, 2018

Don't wait until the dust settles on GDPR to adjust this setting. Make the change now, or you will lose the whole “analytics” part of Google Analytics.

Without the ability drill down into your data, Google analytics is just a reporting tool. If you want to get the most out of Google Analytics, don't comprise your ability to do historical analysis.

Ok, that's the doom and gloom. But here's the good news. The fix for this problem is simple.

How to adjust your data retention setting in Google Analytics

To change your user data retention setting follow these steps

  • Go into the admin area of your account.
  • Select your property settings.
  • Next, select Tracking info.
  • Then choose Data Retention.
  • In your data retention controls select “Do not automatically expire” from the drop-down menu.
  • Finally, save your updated setting.
Data retention settings in Google Analytics

That's the fix. It's that easy to save yourself from losing your advanced analytics features.

Fix your setting now, or say goodbye to your historical segments forever

If you wait until after May 25th to adjust your settings, your data will be gone. You'll lose any user data beyond 26 months. And with that data, you'll lose access to the best part of Google Analytics.

Data retention controls take affect may 25th, 2018

I don't want to see these Google Analytics changes affect anyone negatively. Most notably, those of you who love doing in-depth web analytics.

Now I've thought about this problem long and hard. And I am sure there will be a lot of questions about these changes. So let's address some of your potential concerns now.

Data retention and Google Analytics Q&A

What happens if you don't adjust your data retention controls?

As mentioned, the default data retention period is 26 months. So, if you don't adjust your settings, you'll still have a little over two years of historical data to analyze. But you won't be able to do historical analysis that goes back any further than March of 2016.

Are the features you could lose that important?

The importance of these features is open to user opinion.

But from my perspective, there's no argument about it. These features are critical to web analytics.

Secondary dimensions and table filters are hands down the most useful day-to-day features in Google Analytics. And I am willing to arm wrestle anyone that says otherwise.

Advanced segments are a close second on my list of top GA tools. I can't imagine working in Google Analytics without advanced segmentation, and I don't want to!

Will data retention controls affect the Google Analytics API?

I can only imagine that once your user data is gone, it's gone. So, I am going to assume your data retention setting can affect your API calls. If there's no historical sample data to call on, the dimension or metric you're trying to use won't work.

I don't use Google Analytics for analysis, so why should I care about data retention controls?

Well, if you don't log in to Google Analytics very often, and if even in 2018, you don't think web analytics is essential, I guess then, touché.


However, if you don't really use Google Analytics, I also wonder why you read all the way through this post.

Maybe you thought you I was going to talk about scary clowns again? Nope. Losing segments is scarier than clowns.

If you don't use Google Analytics to it's fullest, you should. And if you want to preserve your ability to someday use all the excellent tools in Google Analytics, then you should adjust your data retention controls!

For those of you seeking a TL;DR and just scrolled to the bottom of this post?

Here's a one-sentence summary.


And in the immortal words of the former Governor of California –


Change your data retention setting in Google Analytics now!

Leave a comment letting me know you changed your data retention setting

After you've changed your data retention setting, come back here and leave a comment letting us know you took action. I want to see how many people we can reach with this PSA. And I want to help save as many people as I can that love their advanced Google Analytics features.

Change your data retention controls setting, spread the word, and then leave a comment on this post letting me know you took action. Your future analysis capabilities thank you.

Google Analytics 4 Update

Now that Google has released the new version of Analytics—Google Analytics 4—we wanted to give you an update on data retention. Of course, as we stressed in this post previously, having access to your historical data is essential. Without the ability to dive deep into your data, you’re losing the ability to do granular and comparative analysis over time. 

Your GA4 data retention is set to two months out of the box. But, you can change it to 14 months really easily. If you’re just looking at standard reports day-to-day, then you might not need to make changes, but if you want to conduct deep analysis over time, you should extend your data retention to the full 14 months.

To adjust your data retention in GA4, follow these steps:

  1. Click “Admin” on the bottom left.
  2. Under “Property,” click “Data settings.”
  3. Select “Data retention.”
  4. Select the 14-month option from the drop-down menu and click “Save.”

Compared to the 26 months you had available in Universal Analytics, this 14-month limit can still be too short for your needs. Luckily, in GA4, you can easily set up BigQuery data export to maximize your retention. Get started with this by going to “Admin” > and then clicking “BigQueryLinking.”

To sum up, we highly recommend adjusting your data retention settings from two months to 14 months. Even if you’re not sure you’ll use all your historical data, having it collected for you is essential for serious analysis. Hop in there and make this adjustment to collect the data you’ll need for comparisons and explorations down the line. 

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