Approximate Aggregation in Standard SQL

This topic explains the concepts behind approximate aggregation in BigQuery.

What is approximate aggregation?

Approximate aggregation is the estimation of aggregate function outputs, such as cardinality and quantiles. Approximate aggregation requires less memory than normal aggregation functions like COUNT(DISTINCT ...), but also introduces statistical uncertainty. This makes it appropriate for large data streams for which linear memory usage is impractical, as well as for data that is already approximate. Where exact results are necessary, use exact aggregate functions. This topic describes the concepts behind approximate aggregation in BigQuery.

Fixed-precision approximate aggregation

BigQuery supports aggregate functions with fixed precision for estimating cardinality and quantiles. These functions work directly on the input data, rather than an intermediate estimation of the data. These functions do not allow users to specify the precision for the estimation.

Storing estimated aggregate values as sketches

BigQuery supports HyperLogLog++ cardinality estimation functions for estimating the number of distinct values in a large dataset.

These functions operate on sketches that compress an arbitrary set into a fixed-memory representation. BigQuery stores these sketches as BYTES. You can merge the sketches to produce a new sketch that represents the union of the input sketches, before you extract a final numeric estimate from the sketch.

For example, consider the following table, which contains ice-cream flavors and the number of people who claimed to enjoy that flavor:

Flavor People
Vanilla 3945
Chocolate 1728
Strawberry 2051

If this table is the result of aggregation, then it may not be possible to use the table to calculate cardinality. If you wanted to know the number of unique respondents, you couldn't use SUM to aggregate the People column, because some respondents may have responded positively to more than one flavor. On the other hand, performing an aggregate function over the underlying raw data can consume large amounts of time and memory.

One solution is to store an approximate aggregate or sketch of the raw data. A sketch is a summary of the raw data. Sketches require less memory than the raw data, and you can extract an estimate, such as the estimated number of unique users, from the sketch.

Specifying approximation precision

BigQuery's sketch-based approximate aggregation functions allow you to specify the precision of the sketch when you create it. The precision of the sketch affects the accuracy of the estimate you can extract from the sketch. Higher precision requires additional memory to process the sketches or store them on disk, and reduces the relative error of any estimate you extract from the sketch. Once you have created the sketch, you can only merge it with other sketches of the same precision.

Merging sketches

You can merge two or more sketches to produce a new sketch which represents an estimate of the union of the data underlying the different sketches. The merge function, such as HLL_COUNT.MERGE, returns the estimate as a number, whereas the partial merge function, such as HLL_COUNT.MERGE_PARTIAL, returns the new sketch in BYTES. A partial merge is useful if you want to reduce a table that already contains sketches, but do not yet want to extract an estimate. For example, use this function if you want to create a sketch that you will merge with another sketch later.

Extracting estimates from sketches

Once you have stored a sketch or merged two or more sketches into a new sketch, you can use the extract function, such as HLL_COUNT.EXTRACT, to return an estimate of the underlying data, such as the estimated number of unique users, as a number.


This section describes the approximate aggregate algorithms that BigQuery supports.


The HyperLogLog++ algorithm is an improvement on the HyperLogLog algorithm for estimating distinct values in a data set. In BigQuery, the HyperLogLog++ cardinality estimation functions use this algorithm. The HyperLogLog++ algorithm improves on the HyperLogLog algorithm by using bias correction to reduce error for an important range of cardinalities.

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