Server-side tracking is causing a stir among digital marketers and shaking up the world of web analytics. Why? As marketers, we are highly reliant on analytics and data to figure out which channels and tactics are performing and where we need to shift budget or adapt our strategy. However, with privacy concerns limiting our ability to collect data traditionally, marketers and web analysts are starting to weigh up alternative options and ask if the future of web analytics might be server-side.
Why do I need to know about server-side tracking?
You launch a new marketing campaign and decide to run some ads on social media. Excited, you sit back and wait for the traffic and ROI to start pouring in. Many browsers today, such as Safari and Firefox, block so-called intelligent tracking. The results you’re so excited to share in the next marketing team meeting are incomplete and possibly even misleading since the data only shows part of the picture.
If you are still relying solely on traditional browser-based web analytics, you are blind as to how much traffic your site is really getting and what your visitors are doing once they are there.
30-60% of tracking data is lost to Ad-Blockers, Misconfiguration & Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) – which means that the information we have come to rely on is hazy at best.
Google Chrome, the most widely-used browser accounting for over half of web traffic, has also pledged to stop tracking user cookies by 2023. Now, for most marketers, it is a question of when, not if, to adopt server-side tracking.
Let’s dig into how server-side tracking works, why it should be on your radar, and how it integrates into your existing tech stack.
What is the difference between client-side and server-side tracking?
There are two ways to measure how users interact with your website or app, and the difference is how the data is collected. The current, conventional method is known as client-side tracking.
Server-side tracking allows the data to be sent and received from the user’s browser to your own web server first, before it is transferred anywhere else. Adding an additional layer (the server) between your website and your data collection platform, such as Google Analytics or Facebook, allows for greater security and control.
For a long time, client-side tracking was the preferred way to collect data – but this is starting to change. Each approach comes with various advantages and disadvantages that digital marketers should be aware of.
Client-side tracking pros and cons
✅ Easy to set up
✅ Flexible deployment
✅ Provides detailed behavioral data
✅ Established norm
✅ Familiar to most marketers
❌ Impedes site performance
❌ Adblockers and ITP (Intelligent Tracking Protection) hinder data collection, thus reducing data quality
❌ Data security concerns limit the kind of data that can be collected
❌ Lack of data ownership
Server-side tracking pros and cons
✅ Unaffected by browser types and versions
✅ Higher data quality as ad blockers and intelligent tracking protection (ITP) have no impact
✅ Data ownership and control: you decide what data to track and where to send it to
✅ Higher level of security
✅ Faster website due to reduced loading time
✅ Data enrichment – you have the option to enrich incoming data with relevant additional information, such as CRM data
❌ Developer support usually needed for deployment and maintenance
❌ Special skills and resources are required to achieve a sustainable and reliable tracking system
❌ Single page apps (SPAs) and progress web applications (PWAs) are difficult to track as they communicate less with the server
❌ Some marketing platforms are still geared up for client-side tracking
What does server-side tracking mean for your tag management?
The concept of tags is familiar to most digital marketers – the majority of websites have the Google Analytics tag or Facebook pixel built into the source code or tag management system. Server-side tagging allows you to move third-party tags and pixels away from your website or app and into server-side processing via the cloud.
The pixel or tag sends data to your web server. Your web server then transfers that data to the destination server – such as a social media platform, analytics solution, or any other third-party tool in your digital marketing tech stack.
However, most tag management systems have been developed to support conventional, client-side tracking methods and are only just starting to support server-side tags.
How do Google Tag Manager, Tealium or any other tag manager work with server-side tracking?
In Q3 of 2020, Google introduced server-side tracking to the Google ecosystem. This isn’t ground-breaking, as Tealium and Segment have been offering server-side tracking for a while. However, Google has made server-side tagging a lot more accessible since their products are so widely used.
Server-Side tagging is now available in beta version for all Google Tag Manager and Tag Manager 360 accounts.
The implementation does come at a cost. Google server-side tracking runs on the Google Cloud if you want customer support, which does mean making the ultimate sacrifice for data ownership and control – two of the main reasons for using server-side tracking in the first place.
What is the best solution for your business?
If, like many businesses out there, you are becoming frustrated with incomplete analytics data and/or have concerns regarding data ownership and privacy, server-side tracking may solve some of the issues you are experiencing.
As new solutions in server-side tracking appear on the market you need to consider the benefits and drawbacks of each solution while taking into account your infrastructure and bottom line.
1. Reliable data collection is the foundation of every data-driven marketing strategy – otherwise, you will be making decisions based on incorrect information.
2. Client-side web tracking is becoming more restricted and unreliable due to data privacy, compliance and ownership concerns – these limitations will continue to grow.
3. Server-side tracking is the future, as it enables businesses to collect the data they need, retain full ownership of it and control whom they share it with.