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Server-side tracking – regain control of your data

New rules on cookies, tracking blockers and browser restrictions all work to degrade the process and quality of data collection. As such, it’s now more important than ever to rethink the way that user data is collected. The solution? Server-side tracking. In this article, we’ll run through what it is and how it can help you excel in your data collection.

Published March 23, 2022 By Klim Lugovtsov

What is server-side tracking? 

Server-side tracking is a method of collecting and processing first-party user data. Instead of having JavaScript and tags / pixels running in the browser to send data directly to Google or Facebook etc., with server-side tracking, user data is sent directly to whichever server you have at your disposal.  

Server-side tracking can collect data about a customer conversion, for example. You can then control how this data is to be processed and which third parties the data must be passed on to.  

Server-side tracking v. client-side tracking  

Server-side tracking and client-side tracking are two methods used to collect and deliver data about users on your website. Each come with their own pros and cons – and each with their own challenges. With the phasing out of third-party cookies, a tracking code used to collect user data for the third-party, there are many indications that client-side tracking is dying out. This is noticed, among other things, by the lack of registered data in Google Analytics and other platforms as a result of cookie consent banners and adblockers that disable marketing and statistics cookies. 

Likewise, several browsers have started blocking third-party cookies by default, including Safari with their ITP blocking technology and Mozilla Firefox with ETP blocking. Google has also announced that its market-leading browser, Google Chrome, will phase out third-party cookies by 2023. 

Client-side tracking typically works by implementing tags or pixels that, via the browser, transmit data from websites directly to a third-party server, e.g. Google Analytics. Client-side tracking can be easily implemented via code snippets (JavaScript) from third-party providers. 

Server-side tracking works by sending data to a server via an HTTP response rather than directly to a third party via browser cookies. The server can be hosted itself or be a cloud-based server, such as Google Cloud Platform, Azure or something completely third. Next, as a server administrator, you have control over where data is sent afterwards. 

Negative impact on marketing efforts

One of the latest Apple operating systems, iOS 14, has also made data collection more difficult. This is reflected, among other things, in Facebook advertising. Here, a comparison of selected customer data from before and after the launch of iOS 14 shows a decrease in page views of between 60-75%. This decrease undoubtedly has a negative impact on retargeting target groups and conversion tracking. 

A shortage of data will also reduce the overall data quality and limit the effectiveness of the marketing efforts launched in Facebook, Google Ads, LinkedIn and others.  

Why is server-side tracking important? 

Server-side tracking can be an important solution for your business if you’re frustrated with incomplete data in Google Analytics or another third-party analytics tool, or are concerned about data security and how third parties use the data. In addition, server-side tracking has become much more accessible after Google launched server-side tagging for all Tag Manager accounts in 2020. 

What are the benefits of server-side tracking? 

More control over your data 
You decide exactly what the data is to be used for, how it is processed and where it is to be sent. 

Better data security 
Cookies are set on the user's device via your own server. I.e., first-party cookies which cannot be read by a third party but only by your own server. This means that other parties cannot ‘listen’ in on your data.

More reliable data across platforms 
You get more accurate data into your statistics and marketing platforms, such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and TikTok, which can increase the efficiency of your marketing automation.  

Less reliance on browsers 
Server-side tracking means you won’t have to bother with adblockers and other browser restrictions that may block third-party cookies, e.g., ITP and ETP (see details below). 

Better website speed 
You can achieve significantly better website speeds, as analytics tags via JavaScript do not have to load in the browser. 

The solution of the future 
As tracking with third-party cookies is slowly becoming extinct, server-side tracking is likely to be the solution of the day for collecting first-party data.  

What is ITP, ETP, etc.? 

ITP stands for Intelligent Tracking Prevention and is a technology that protects the user's privacy in Apple's Safari browser. ITP was launched in 2017 and is designed to block third-party cookies and thereby cross-site tracking. 

ETP stands for Enhanced Tracking Prevention and is a technology that protects the user's privacy, just in Mozilla Firefox. ETP was launched in 2019, but has been turned on by default in 2020. This means that most third-party cookies and trackers will be blocked in the browser. 

How to set up server-side tracking? 

Server-page tagging can be set up via a tag management tool such as Google Tag Manager. Essentially, this is done by creating a Google Tag Manager server container located on the hosted server or cloud server.  

The server container is in many ways reminiscent of a traditional website container in Tag Manager, but you have the ability to collect data from several different places, including apps and smart devices - and not just from website traffic. 

The server container must create tags, triggers and variables as we know it, but also clients that process and customize the data that comes in. 

Can I do server-side tracking?  

Server-side tracking first and foremost requires you to have a server at your disposal; for this there will typically be a monthly expense. This server can either be hosted itself or be cloud-based (e.g., Google Cloud). In addition, server-side tagging must be set up on the server container in Google Tag Manager. 

However, server-side tracking places greater demands on data storage and processing than client-side tracking. This is because you, as the server owner, is data responsible. You should therefore still ask for permission to process users’ data via a consent banner, e.g., cookiebot.  

Our recommended solutions  

At Novicell, we recommend setting up server-side tagging in Google Tag Manager via a cloud server, such as the Google Cloud Platform. This will provide the most flexibility when it comes to cross-platform tracking. Below you will find two examples of our recommended server-side tracking setup: 

For Facebook: 

  • Facebook Conversion API 
  • Cloud server at Google Cloud Platform 
  • Server setup 
  • Google Analytics 4 setup 
  • Server-side tagging in Google Tag Manager 

For Google Ads: 

  • Cloud server at Google Cloud Platform 
  • Server setup 
  • Google Analytics 4 setup 
  • Server-side tagging in Google Tag Manager 
  • Global Site Tag conversion actions 
  • Google Consent Mode 

How much does server-side tracking cost? 

The cost of server-side tracking depends on several factors, including the complexity of the Google Tag Manager setup and the monthly amount for a server, which is often determined by the amount of data transmitted to the server. 

Is server-side tracking legal? 

Server-side tracking is legal if set up correctly and the data is collected and processed correctly. Consent will still need to be obtained from the users in relation to setting cookies and using the data for statistics and marketing. If the user has accepted cookies, it is legal to place them on the user's device, which provides better options for collecting data.  

Conversely, if the user does not accept cookies, it is illegal to set cookies. With server-side tracking, it is your responsibility as the data controller to collect and process the data in accordance with the law. 

How we can help 

Are you interested in server-side tracking? We are experienced specialists in Google Analytics 4 and can help to provide assistance tailored specifically to your company.