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Google Analytics Data Retention — Change Settings or Lose Your Data

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You’ve had an email from Google, and seen the alert when you log in to Google Analytics. But you’re not sure what to do.

Tick, tock: You need to make your choice before Friday.

Do nothing and you’ll be on the default setting. Your data will expire after 26 months, and anything older than that will already have been removed.

But keep calm and don’t panic. Even if you do nothing, you’re not going to lose all your reporting data.

Most reports — such as your standard Audience, Acquisition, Behaviour, and Conversions reports — use aggregate data, and these will function as normal.

What will be affected, however, are what Google calls ad-hoc reports:

“If you modify a default report in some way, for example, by applying a segment, filter or secondary dimension, or if you create a custom report with a combination of dimensions and metrics that don’t exist in a default report, you are generating an ad-hoc query of Analytics data.”

For data analysts, ad-hoc is where the interesting stuff lives. 

Are you using ad-hoc queries?

You are if you are using custom dimensions or segments.

You are if you are using custom reports that include a non-standard combination of dimensions and metrics.

You are if you are using Google Analytics’ multi-channel funnel reports, attribution reports, and flow visualisation charts.

Do you need that much historical data?

The next question to consider is how important historical data is to you. That is, do you need to retain this data for ad-hoc reporting indefinitely, or are Google’s other options — 14, 26, 38 or 50 months — sufficient?) Do you ever need to run reports and conduct analysis on data from two or more years ago?

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Our Recommendation


This is the bit where we must remind you that we’re not lawyers, nor do we wish to be, and you should seek legal advice if you are unsure what to do.

Some analysts favour setting a minimal period for data retention (14 months or the default 26 months), arguing that historical data becomes less relevant and of less value the longer you have it.

Others say that it largely depends on your risk profile. They say that if you’re at high risk (you’re a big brand with offices and customers in the EU) you should opt for a minimal data retention period to be safe.

Our opinion? If you’re a local business (and not in the high risk category), choose “Don’t Automatically Expire”. But you should do this before the end of the week, or your user data will default to expire after 26 months.

There is a 24-hour waiting period before Google Analytics implements the change. Should you wish to change your settings at a later date you can do, but you won't get back any data already purged from Google's servers.

It’s a simple process to change your user data retention settings, but you will need Admin rights to make the changes.

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Go to the Admin area of your account.
Select your property settings.
Select Tracking Info > Data Retention.
In your data retention controls select the data retention period you want. We recommend you choose “Do not automatically expire” from the drop-down menu.

You’ll see there’s also a “Reset on New Activity” switch. If you’ve chosen the “Don’t Automatically Expire” option, you don’t need to make a choice. But if you’ve chosen any other option, you’ll need to decide if you want Google to update visitor data when a visitor returns to your site.

“Reset on New Activity” resets the data retention period to current time plus retention — our recommendation is to choose this option.

Be sure to repeat the process for any other properties you have.

About the Author Jeremy Templer

Jeremy is a Partner and Senior Consultant at SureFire. Jeremy has been working in search since 1996, when he joined the Australian search engine, LookSmart. After relocating to San Francisco, he was instrumental in development of the company’s paid search ad platform. At analytics company Coremetrics (now owned by IBM) he established an in-house search agency managing campaigns for Coremetrics clients such as Macy’s, Bass Pro and Lands End. At Acxiom he managed members of the pioneering SEO firm Marketleap and worked with clients such as Capital One, American General Finance and Kaiser Health. Joining SureFire in 2009, he develops search strategies for SureFire clients and helps them make sense of their website data.