June 17, 2021 in Tips by

Have you been following all the changes around web analytics recently? It seems everyone is cracking down and making it hard to track our marketing efforts. However, there is hope to overcome these limitations: server-side tagging- the future of web analytics.

What is server-side tagging?

The easiest way to understand server-side tagging is to compare it with conventional tagging. Typically, when we track a user to our website, a javascript code fires upon their pageview, and we send the data to a third-party service (such as Google Analytics). With server-side tagging, we send the data to our server instead.

Why would we do this? For many websites, you can keep sending your scripts to third parties. However, in some cases, it makes sense to send the data to a server you control.

What are the advantages of server-side tagging?

Why would you want to use server-side tagging for your analytics scripts? There are several good reasons:

Preserve tracking in light of recent privacy restrictions

If you’re following recent changes in analytics, you’ll learn that some systems are preventing third-party tracking on websites. For example, Apple Safari is not allowing tags to send data to other websites (blocking third-party cookies). However, if you’re using server-side tagging, you’re sending your data to yourself so that you can bypass this restriction.

Server-side tagging isn’t just about overcoming the limitations of tracking. Many ad blockers detect analytics codes based on their third-party nature. However, you can collect this data if you use server-side tagging because you’re sending it to yourself (a first-party relationship).

Some nefarious individuals will realize that server-side tagging is an opportunity to abuse people’s privacy. Since your server executes the tag, what you do with it is hidden from people, and they can’t see how you use their data. Using server-side tagging to hide your tracking is a bad idea for several reasons (including legal reasons), so I wouldn’t recommend it. Even if you hide a tag from a user, please continue to disclose its use in your privacy statements (and check with a lawyer since I’m not one).

Legal compliance

Laws (such as GDPR) prevent you from collecting personally identifiable information about your users. However, some analytics systems are still collecting this information. You need to comply with these laws- whether or not you use this data or are aware that your analytics system is collecting this information. Thanks to server-side tagging, you can remove personally identifiable data from your data before you even send it to your analytics system. For example, GA4 collects information about a user’s browser. With a server-side tag, you can strip this information from your data before Google even sees it.

Data enrichment and validation

Just as your server can remove information before you send it elsewhere, you can supplement your data with additional APIs and confirm your data is accurate before you ship it to your final destination, as well.

Improved website performance

We’re all obsessed with page speed lately. Speed is a significant focus for SEO recently- but other marketing channels should also improve their page speeds. Anyone who has attempted to improve their page loading times sees analytics scripts identified as problems in achieving a fast website. There are several reasons why server-side tagging can help with page speed:

Improved security

Speak with any security expert, and you’ll learn that sending data to and fro always leaves you vulnerable to attack. Moving your script to your server can help mitigate this risk since many endpoints are behind the scenes- especially since the server (to which we send the data) exists on more secure services like Google Cloud, AWS, or Azure.

What are the disadvantages of server-side tagging?

Sever-side tagging is excellent, but it has some limitations:

How much does server-side tagging cost?

No, it’s not free. You can expect to pay $100 a month for a server-side tagging setup. The cost grows (or could shrink) based on your traffic and other factors. Of course, that does not include any expenses you might encounter to maintain it (such as staffing or consultant costs).

I think most organizations can justify this expense- especially if you consider the advantages of server-side tagging for the same reasons productive web analytics is worth the time and effort:

Not everyone is on board- yet

Server-side tagging is a new concept, and not every platform to which you would want to send your data is ready to accept information from your server. Although most of the big ones support it (Facebook, for example, works well), you might find some platforms aren’t ready yet.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to try out a new system- that does support server-side tagging. After all, it might have been a while since we last used that system. The fastest code to load on your page is the code you don’t add! On the other hand, there might be a newer (and better) system out there that we’ve not yet considered. Take a moment and ask yourself if you need and use all that tracking.

David Zimmerman has completed Simo Ahava’s Server-side Tagging course.

A couple of weeks ago, I took Simo Ahava’s course on Server-side tagging in Google Tag Manager. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while, so I jumped on the opportunity to take his course. This article summarizes what I learned, why this is important, and the advantages of server-side tagging. I hope this helps you understand the benefits of this tagging method and why we’ll all be moving in this direction in the future.

Are you interested in setting up a server-side tagging solution for your company? I’d be happy to help.

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