Understanding Server-Side Tracking: Boost Your Analytics and Privacy

In today’s digital world, it’s essential to have accurate, reliable data and protect user privacy. Server-side tracking is a solution that can help with these concerns. In this blog, we’ll discuss the general background and the advantages and disadvantages of server-side tracking and help you decide if it’s a good fit for your website, digital marketing needs, and your business overall. The digital landscape is becoming more and more competitive. And the current business and financial climate (at the time of this writing) is one where many businesses need to make their resources go further. Tracking, processing, and analyzing website and digital marketing data is the cornerstone of being able to create data-driven decisions. Understanding the different traffic sources could also be key to effective tracking. What server-side tracking does is enable businesses to increase the accuracy and reliability of that data in an unprecedented fashion, all the while providing flexibility to adhere to data privacy regulations.

Server-side tracking processes marketing data on a cloud server

What is Server-Side Tracking?

Server-side tracking (sometimes referred to as server-side analytics) is an advanced method of collecting user data by processing it on a cloud server instead of the traditional method within the user’s browser. This innovative approach greatly reduces the reliance on traditional cookies that are less durable (e.g., JavaScript cookies) and other tracking techniques which have become increasingly restricted due to privacy regulations and browser limitations. The benefit of server-side tracking is that it offers better control and reliability compared to traditional client-side tracking. It allows for reduced impact from ad blockers, extended cookie expiration on Safari, and enhanced user privacy. Additionally, server-side tracking consolidates all user interactions into a unified data flow, which is critical if your business requires users to interact with different domains and platforms. This unified data can then be processed as businesses see fit (as privacy regulations dictate), and then the data can be sent directly to data collection platforms like Google Analytics. Aside from many additional benefits, businesses see a 10%-15% improvement in data quality and a 5% boost in site speed.

Server-Side Tracking vs Client-Side Tracking

Server-side tracking and client-side tracking serve the same purpose: to capture and analyze user behavior on websites or applications. This behavior in the form of data is then viewed on an analytics dashboard (e.g., Google Analytics), whether it’s captured by the server or the client. However, the mechanisms they use to collect and process this data are notably different. In client-side tracking, data is collected and shared by the user’s browser directly with third-party providers like analytics tools or social media platforms. While this approach can be convenient for capturing a broad range of data, it usually results in limited, aggregated reports from these third-party providers. The tracking in this model relies on JavaScript codes that are executed directly in users’ browsers, but these codes are susceptible to ad blockers and can inflate the size of your web pages, leading to slower load times.

On the other hand, server-side tracking takes a different approach. Here, a pixel or tag sends data to your web server, which then passes it to a destination system or server like an analytics dashboard (e.g., Google Analytics). This method allows for more controlled and unified data management, reducing the chances of data loss or inaccuracies. Server-side tracking eliminates many of the limitations of client-side tracking, offering a more robust framework for future-proof data strategies in a privacy-first context.

When deciding between server-side and client-side tracking, it’s crucial to consider not just the technical aspects but also the strategic implications for your business. Each approach comes with its own set of advantages and drawbacks. For instance, client-side tracking is often less expensive but is more vulnerable to ad blockers and other data-loss issues. Server-side tracking, while typically more secure and accurate, might require higher costs and more technical expertise. Therefore, the choice between the two will often depend on your specific data needs, the expertise available, and your overall business strategy.

Key Benefits of Server-Side Tracking

Server-side tracking is revolutionizing the way businesses collect and analyze traffic and marketing data. It offers unparalleled advantages in performance, user privacy, and data integrity. By shifting the data collection and tracking to a server and moving away from client-side methods as the primary means of data collection, this approach promises a more streamlined, accurate, and secure way to understand user behavior. As you navigate the complexities of digital marketing and user engagement, as well as regulatory compliance, the insights provided by server-side tracking can be invaluable. Dive deeper to unlock how this technology could be the missing piece in your data strategy puzzle, empowering you to make more informed decisions while elevating the user experience.

Unified Data Flow

Unified data flow is critical to modern marketing analytics.
Server-side traffic unifies all marketing data into one data flow.

In the context of server-side tracking, a “unified data flow” refers to a method of collecting user data that combines all of the user’s actions into a single stream of data. This is a significant change from the old way of collecting user data. In the traditional client-side method of user data collection, data was sent to data visualization and aggregation platforms (e.g., Google Analytics) in segments. Behavior data is collected with cookies (small text files) which are stored on the user’s browser and device, and these can track and store user data (e.g., website preferences, login credentials, and browsing history). This method is referred to as “client-side.” Traditional client-side tracking relies heavily on cookies to gather and analyze data on user behavior. Additionally, it might incorporate pixel tracking, fingerprinting, and device recognition techniques, attempting to aggregate cookie data with these techniques to deduce user behavior data. This disparate tracking data is then sent to a data visualization and aggregation platform, like Google Analytics, as separate data streams. While there is some flexibility in Google Analytics and other platforms that help in unifying these data, it is generally more cumbersome and less accurate. In contrast, server-side tracking combines all of this information into a single data flow, allowing for a more comprehensive view of the user’s actions on the website. Unified data flow allows businesses to see the entire picture of their user’s digital journey in a holistic manner, which enables better data-driven decisions.

Faster Page Load

Server-side tracking simplifies your website by reducing the amount of code that is required to be installed on the website for tracking purposes; think pixels, containers, etc. This reduced amount of embedded code for tracking on your website improves page load speed, resulting in faster load times. Faster load times should always be a goal every website strives for, as they enhance site performance. It’s a universally acknowledged principle in digital marketing and website management: accelerated site speed directly correlates with increased conversion rates. As a pivotal step in conversion rate optimization, ensuring quick page load times can make the difference between a user making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, or exiting the site altogether. Improved site performance not only helps on-page SEO metrics but also leads to a better user experience and higher rankings on search engine results pages (SERP). As the digital landscape continues to evolve, strategies that merge performance optimization with efficient data collection will undeniably stand at the forefront.

Page load speed can slow down without server-side tracking.
Server-side tracking can improve page load speed.

Control Over Data Sharing

With server-side tracking, you have control over the data shared with third-party marketing platforms. In other words, you control what data is sent to Google Analytics, ensuring that only relevant and appropriate data is shared. This is especially critical when you are subject to privacy regulations (such as GDPR, CCPA, CPRA, and CPA, among many others). Sending only pertinent information to third-party marketing platforms helps protect user privacy and comply with data protection regulations.

When we employ server-side tracking, only the server can read the user’s details and interactions stemming from their website activity. Since we have access to the server, we can decide what data it should relay to third-party marketing platforms. This contrasts with client-side tracking, where JavaScript establishes cookies and transmits information directly to third parties. By limiting access to user data, server-side tracking shields it from third-party collection, ensuring only the accessed site can view the data.

In essence, server-side tracking acts as an intermediary, preventing third-party tools like Google Analytics from accessing user device details without your explicit direction. This allows the server to remove or modify any personally identifiable information (PII), including IP addresses and specifics like browser type, version, and the operating system it runs on, before sharing with third parties. It’s worth noting that while Google Analytics does offer an IP anonymization feature, it’s applied only after the data reaches their server.

Less Impact from Ad Blockers

The use of custom subdomains in server-side tracking provides a significant advantage in the world of sophisticated marketing analytics. These subdomains frame tracking as first-party data, making it far less likely to be intercepted or blocked by prevalent ad blockers, which typically target third-party trackers. The benefit is twofold: not only does this method bypass most ad blockers, but it also promotes faster website load times, elevating the overall user experience.

However, as digital privacy becomes a focal point, many browsers are introducing stringent measures on cookies. Consequently, users are becoming wary, often opting to block or regularly purge cookies from their browsers. In this evolving landscape, the adaptability of server-side tracking, especially its capability to function seamlessly in an environment dominated by ad blockers, underscores its importance for businesses striving for accurate data collection.

Longer Cookie Life on Safari (ITP)

Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) feature in the Safari browser was crafted to enhance user privacy, primarily by curtailing cross-site tracking. It achieves this by limiting third-party cookie lifespans to between 1 or 7 days, depending on specific scenarios. This constraint poses a challenge for businesses aiming to garner extended user behavior insights. However, server-side tracking presents a solution, managing to maneuver around ITP’s stringent measures. By classifying cookies as first-party data (subject to certain rules and restrictions), server-side tracking can extend cookie lifespans. This longevity grants businesses richer analytics, enabling them to refine user experience, engagement, and potentially boost conversion rates. While ITP adapts to the changing dynamics of the digital landscape, server-side tracking allows businesses to keep their data-driven strategies robust and effective.

Drawbacks of Server-Side tracking

Server-side tracking is not just a trending topic; it’s a technological leap forward in the quest for more accurate and reliable data analytics. However, like any powerful tool, it comes with its own set of complexities and financial considerations that businesses need to assess carefully. If you find yourself questioning the reliability of your data, or facing challenges in mapping out intricate customer journeys that meander through apps, websites, and third-party payment platforms, server-side tracking may offer the solutions you seek. Yet, understanding its drawbacks is crucial to harness its full potential. Delve further into the upcoming sections to weigh its game-changing benefits against the practical and financial challenges, and determine how this nuanced, sophisticated approach can elevate data-driven strategies.

Costs

Server-side tracking offers myriad benefits, especially in terms of data accuracy and reliability. However, these advantages come with associated financial commitments. To begin with, businesses often opt for hosting solutions to bypass in-house server management. Yet, these services are not without their own costs. Moreover, maintaining the integrity of this tracking approach requires regular data monitoring, demanding either dedicated personnel or specialized software tools. As a company’s web traffic increases, so does the expenditure on server-side tracking. However, it’s worth noting that heightened traffic typically brings about an exponentially corresponding surge in revenue so the costs of server-side tracking become marginalized very quickly with scale. For nascent businesses with very little or no traffic, the initial investment might seem low priority, which it may be. However, as discussions about analytics become more frequent, server-side tracking is an excellent way to configure analytics for a company’s new website. As the business landscape becomes increasingly digital, the precision and reliability offered by server-side tracking can pave the way for enhanced user experiences and, ultimately, a more significant return on investment.

Server-Side Tracking and Complexity

Implementing server-side tracking requires advanced technical skills and knowledge, which may be difficult for smaller businesses. The increased complexity and costs associated with server-side tracking can discourage some businesses from adopting it, despite its potential benefits.

Implementing server-side tracking may often be beyond the in-house expertise of many businesses. The expertise from external consultants may help overcome its intricate challenges. Steps like creating a subdomain, optimizing the container, testing, and confirmation set it apart from traditional analytics and tracking processes.

While the configuration and testing might seem intricate, it doesn’t always equate to more effort—just a different kind of expertise. One of the notable features is the ease of troubleshooting tracking issues due to server logs, making maintenance more straightforward over time. Once established, reading the data becomes simpler with effective reporting dashboards in place. Server-side tracking can even prove more intuitive thanks to its enhanced accuracy. To ease the transition, businesses might consider auditing and simplifying their website structure and reducing the excessive number of domains a user must navigate through. The initial complexity is often outweighed by long-term benefits in accuracy and reliability.

Is Server-Side Tracking Right for Your Business?

While server-side tracking is undeniably beneficial for accurate and reliable data and subsequent analytics, businesses should consider its inherent complexity and associated costs before diving in.

Any business starting on a new digital project or effort (e.g., a new website, advertising, marketing, etc.) may find it advantageous to start their analytics configuration with server-side tracking, ensuring data accuracy and reliability from inception. Additionally, it will be less expensive to optimize a new site.

Moreover, this analytics method particularly shines for companies employing intricate multi-step customer journeys, extensive multi-platform advertising initiatives, or operating in multiple countries with varying privacy laws. Server-side tracking generally becomes indispensable when businesses navigate complex cross-domain or cross-company user journeys. This is especially true in scenarios involving B2B collaborations and offline conversions. The streamlined nature of server-side tracking aids in efficiently troubleshooting these intricate user pathways.

Implementation timelines can vary based on the complexity of the website, marketing strategies, and user journey intricacies. For simpler sites or straightforward user journeys, the transition to server-side tracking can be swift. It may take a little bit more time for complex journeys, but for companies finding themselves questioning the accuracy of their data, this approach might be a game-changer.

Future projections suggest server-side tracking as an evolving standard. With the growing emphasis on privacy regulations and increasingly dynamic customer journeys, server-side tracking offers a forward-thinking solution, positioning businesses at the forefront of accurate data and, with it, better data-driven decisions.

If you have inquiries about server-side tracking or analytics as a whole, we’re passionate about discussing data and analytics—it’s our lifeblood, please contact us.

Benefits of Server Side Tagging (with Google Tag Manager)

https://www.cm.com/glossary/what-is-server-side-tracking/

https://developers.google.com/tag-platform/tag-manager/server-side/intro

https://stape.io/blog/what-is-server-side-tracking

https://www.warroominc.com/institute-library/blog/how-ios14-update-will-impact-your-facebook-ads/

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