Change your Google Analytics data retention settings

While GA4 now gives you the ability to purge your Analytics data to comply with privacy regulations, it’s worth noting that its default data retention period is different to Universal Analytics. Here’s why you may want to change the settings right away.

It may be news to some: Google Analytics does not keep all of your data forever. The data storage and processing costs for millions of free analytics accounts must be racking up – and it appears with the sunsetting of Universal Analytics in July 2023, Google no longer wants to foot the bill. If you’re in the process of migrating to GA4, it’s worth familiarising yourself with the new default data retention settings and making the necessary changes to ensure you can continue to access the reports you need.

Default data retention settings and options

In both UA and GA4, you can access the controls under the property settings. In GA4, click Admin > Data Settings > Data Retention. In UA, click Admin > Tracking Info > Data Retention. The Google Analytics Data Retention controls give you the ability to select how long user-level and event-level data (associated with cookies, User ID, and advertising identifiers) is stored by Analytics before it’s scheduled for automatic deletion from Google’s servers.

In Universal Analytics, you could choose intervals ranging between 14 months and “do not automatically expire.” In GA4, however, you can choose to retain data for either two months or 14 months (on the free version). Here’s the complete range of options:

Universal AnalyticsGA4 propertiesGA4 properties under Analytics 360

No limit (but UA will stop processing new hits on 1 July 2023)

Limit: up to 14 monthsLimit: up to 50 months

Options: 14, 26 (default), 38 or 50 months, or “do not automatically expire”

Options: 2 (default) or 14 monthsOptions: 2 (default), 14, 26, 38 or 50 months

The maximum amount of time that Google Analytics will retain Google Signals data is 26 months, regardless of your settings. After that, your data will be automatically deleted on a month-by-month basis.

Drilling into the detail 

The default setting of two months in GA4 is much shorter than we’ve come to expect, especially considering we’ve had the option for data not to expire at all with UA. It’s a big change – a lot of people might not even know there is a different default data retention setting in place when migrating.

There’s another key difference between UA and GA4 to be aware of. If you increase the retention period, or set it to ‘Do not automatically expire’ for a Universal Analytics property, that change will not apply to data that’s already been collected. Data collected when the retention setting was 14 months will still be deleted 14 months after it was collected, even if you subsequently extend the retention period to 26 months. With GA4, however, if you increase the retention period, the change is applied to data you’ve already collected.

Another thing you should consider is applying the option to reset user data based on new activity. With each new event from a given user, the expiration date refreshes to the current time plus the retention period. In this way, even with a two month data retention period set, a user’s data would be kept forever if they visit your website or app every month. When the user has been inactive for more than two months, their historical data would be deleted.

The impact on reporting and explorations

In GA4 your data retention setting doesn’t affect standard reports in the Reports Workspace  (e.g. Traffic acquisition, Pages and screens or E-commerce purchases). These reports are based on pre-calculated tables that cost next to nothing to store and process. You won’t lose the aggregated tables that support these standard reports – so daily users, sessions, and events aren’t going anywhere. You’ll still be able to access those insights as far back as the creation date of your property.

However, if you’re using things like segments or secondary dimensions in Universal Analytics, or creating custom reports, tables or visualisations, that’s when sampling comes into effect and data retention settings can have more of an impact. This unaggregated data will no longer be available. 

The issue is with user and event-level data associated with an identifier. For example, in GA4 if your data retention period is set to two months, then after two months of inactivity, that user and event data will no longer be stored. A lot of reporting, analysis, and explorations are done in the Exploration workspace, which is where you’re going to feel it when you only have two months of data to work with.

Disappearing Universal Analytics data?

Whatever your data retention setting in Universal Analytics, there’s no guarantee you’ll retain access to all your historical data. Within six months of UA being sunsetted (probably by January 2024), all of your data within UA (both aggregated and non-aggregated) is likely to be deleted.

This is one of the reasons we suggest people make the jump to GA4 sooner rather than later. It’s also a compelling reason to export your data to BigQuery and store it there or in another data warehouse. By doing so, you get to control exactly what data you keep and for how long.

This is probably the reason Google made the BigQuery connector free for GA4 properties. You can keep your data forever, provided you’re happy to pay the storage and processing costs once you’ve used up your free allowance. We recommend setting up the BigQuery connector, even if you have no plan to use it right now. Think of it as a backup plan in case you need access to historical data down the line.

Data retention settings: what to do right now

  1. Whether you’re using UA or GA4, change your default retention setting now
  2. If you’re still using Universal Analytics, begin planning your migration to GA4 ASAP
  3. Once you’ve done that, connect your GA4 data to Google BigQuery

Even if you’re not sure you’ll need all of your historical data, it’s better to be safe than sorry. And if you need a hand with any of these steps, get in touch.

Written by

By day, a humble Analytics Consultant, planning and developing analytics implementations and solving the world's trickiest tracking issues. By night, Measurelab's second most devoted Trekkie.

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