What is server-side tracking?
In 2020 Google Tag Manager added a new layer of possibilities for Tag Management called server side tracking.
The old way of tracking though Google Analytics included tracking codes you can activate using Java Script and those codes would do the heavy work to collect data.
With a new way you can send your data from your website to a specific server where tag management systems are loaded and from there you can send that data to tools like Google Analytics, Google Ads, Facebook Ads or other web servers.
Server-side tracking has caused controversy among digital marketers as it shakes up the analytics industry.
Our marketing team relies heavily on data to determine how effectively our channels perform and what we need in our strategy. Although privacy concerns have impeded us from collecting data traditionally, marketers and web analysts start to weigh alternative choices and question whether web data analytics is likely to be server-side.
The difference between the usual way and server side tracking
So, the usual way how people are using Google tag manager looks like this. You have a website and you implement Google Tag Manager.
Within GMT’s container you implement Google Analytics that will track data. Once the tag is activated it captures not only data like information about website visitors but additional information that is available on the page like custom events, utm parameters, device performance, site speed.
When the data is aggregated it’s then sent to Google Analytics servers (usually the domain is google.analytics.com/collect)
You see that data as page hits, page events, user activity and so on. All of this is happening on the client side or in the user’s browser.
With the server side tracking management the concept looks a bit different. On your website you load Google tag manager container. From the container you activate Google Analytics Tag that catches data about customer data.
Now here is the main difference.
It does not send data to GA server but to your cloud instance where you are hosting another type of GTM container – which is called server side container.
And you can configure that container to work under your domain. So the request is not sent to a 3rd party domain but instead directly to your own.
So what’s happening is that the information is sent from client side to your own cloud server and then that data is processed and further send to GA.
What’s the importance of server-side tracking?
Imagine this. You start a new advertising program that runs ads on social media. Get excited. Wait until it’s time for traffic to begin to pour in. Many browsers, including Chrome and Safari, do not support such a method. The results you are excited about sharing with the next meeting of your marketing teams may even seem arbitrary. If we only use browsers for the web analytics our sites will get you no idea of what traffic we are seeing on our site.
By relying solely on traditional browser data collection platform you will miss a ton of the information about the traffic, user behavior and other data collected on the web server.
Some of the benefits of using server side tracking.
Here is the list of some of the benefits:
– Reduced page load speed. By reducing 3rd party Java scripts on the page, it will load faster. Java script libraries like Facebook Pixel or analytics or any other are actually the main reason behind decreased loading speed of the page. By having your server side tracking cloud you can collect all data through one script, instead of 5 or 6 of them.
Just keep in mind that this requires some sorts of customization, depending on the website, tag management system, web server and other factors.
– Reduced impact of ad blockers. There are many ad blockers that are blocking requests from GA or Pixels. With server side tracking we are sending data to our own domain (not to a 3rd one) so most of the ad blockers will not block that request.
– Server containers use the same tag, trigger and variable model but are also providing new tools that will allow you to measure user activity wherever it happens. This will help building or analyzing any marketing campaign and provide easy access to customer data collection.
– Increased cookie lifetime. With URL from a custom subdomain the server GTM will set first-party cookies. This change in how the browser treats cookies prevents issues when the duration of third-party cookies decreases
– Improved attribution by improving the quality and accuracy of customer data, other analytics data, and tracking data with conversions that are pulled directly from your own platform instead from a third-party tool.
What exactly is tracking on client and server?
This section provides the technical capabilities of client or server monitoring. A client may use a web browser or mobile phone to browse online or use the Internet. This server is an internet server that returns web pages that can be accessed via your browser.
While your browser may look like it only communicates with the server, client-side tracking data is transferred to a third party such as Facebook or Google Analytics by small scripts. These small scripts are called Pixels or Tags, and they are placed on a webpage to transfer data.
With server side tracking, you can receive and send data before sending it even further. This is better than client-side tracking that sends data to your own web up front. It means you add additional layer between your website and the data collection platform.
For a long time client side tracking was the only option available and the preferred way to track data, but since all the privacy updates this is changing.
What does server-side tracking mean for tag management?
Almost all internet-based sites have pixel or tags embedded in their HTML source code or tag management system. Server side tracking allows you to move third party tags and pixels from websites and apps to servers via clouds.
When you place a pixel or tag in your website or online content, it will send data over to your server. From there, it is sent to the destination server either directly or through an outside tool such as Google Analytics.
Why to implement server side tracking on your site?
Many websites are now integrating server-side tracking to monitor data accuracy, user privacy, and website performance. Some platforms like affiliate networks make this a requirement, while others such as Facebook or Google only recommend implementing server-side tracking.
The more accurate information about users you have the better sales and marketing decisions you will make. It will not only help you to understand the user’s behavior but also how to use incoming data to build and scale your PPC campaigns. Advertising platforms are collecting more data about the users so their algorithms will learn better.
Google Chrome, most widely used browser, that is used by around 86 percent of all internet users, announced that it will stop tracking user cookies (third party cookies) by the end of 2023. For most of us it’s a question not why but when to implement server side tracking.
Client-side tracking pros and cons
Client side tracking is a traditional way of looking at the data available. It’s easy to setup due to many existing plugins. It provides detailed data on the user’s behavior. It’s generally accepted by most marketers.
On the other hand client side tracking lacks of data ownership, it impedes the website speed, reduces the quality of data collected and it does not allow you to track all the information you need. It’s affected by types and versions of browsers, as well as by the different ad blockers and ITP’s that hinder the data and reduce the quality.
Server-side tracking pros and cons
Server side tracking, unlike the client side, is unaffected by browser types and variations. Ad blockers and ITP’s don’t have any impact as the information is shared through owned cloud server solution. This greatly increases the quality of data and offers a higher level of security. The website loading speed is faster as there is usually just one script loading on the page. Last but not least you will enrich your data with relevant additional information you can pull into your CRM or Supermetrics or any other report or tool you are using.
On the downside, most of the times you will need developers help for deployment and maintenance. Special skills and resources are required in order to build the proper environment and make sure the data stream is consolidated. Since server side is only 2 years old, there are still some platforms that are gearing up for it.
Other things to know
Server side tracking does not replace regular google tag manager tracking. If you are interested in tracking more data from your website you will still have to know how your containers are working, what are your tags, trigger, variables how data layer works, how tag sends data etc…
Server side tracking is just a way how to enhance your analytics platforms and data collection.
Setting up server side tracking does not mean your are automatically GDPR/CCPA compliant. Those regulations are not about server side tagging, intelligent tracking protection or technologies that are used. They are about the data collection consent, and about personal data that is collected.
Debugging will be more difficult if server side tracking is implemented on the website. When everything is happening client side, you can use plugins like Google Tag Assistant to see the possible problems. With server side tracking all you can see is what kind of request is sent from the website to somewhere else and it will be more difficult to find what causes the problem.
Is server side tracking legal?
Why is server side tracking important for your business?
If you are, like many other businesses, getting frustrated with new regulations, updates to limit certain data collection, inability to read and analyze data on your website, and you are worried about data privacy and ownership – server side tracking can solve some of these issues.
Server side tracking has numerous advantages like that you will be able to accurately understand LTV of your customers coming from paid channels, pivot your marketing efforts, have a clear understanding of how your budget was spent, how users interact with the content on the website, what ad platforms are generating most revenue, in short, you will enrich incoming data in your analytics tools.
How UNLMTD agency can help you set up server side tracking?
With the rising popularity of server side tracking, there are more people that claim to know how to set it up. The problem is that without experience of setting up server side tracking there is a big risk to lose your data collection or to actually don’t setup correct so that owners will look at false or misleading data.
The UNLMTD agency has been working on setting up server side tracking for over 2 years and our clients that are using it are companies with an average website traffic of over 100k / month and monthly recurring revenues between 400k – 1M.
Server side tracking, when used in a proper way, is a powerful tool that offers numerous benefits over client side tracking. More and more people are using it, especially since third party cookies will allegedly stop existing in a couple of years.
However you need to make sure to leave setting up server side tracking to the experts due to it’s complexity. Luckily, team at UNLMTD agency can provide full support and build it out for you. Contact us right now to start working on server side tracking today!