Server-side tracking - A silver bullet for the cookie apocalypse and GDPR?
December 28, 2022 | Chris Kervinen
The loss of third-party cookies has been shaking the world of digital marketing, threatening to plunge attribution models’ accuracy and reliability close to zero. Server-side tracking could provide a loophole for the problem.
You’re probably more than familiar with the ongoing speculation on what life after cookies means in terms of digital campaigns and their effectiveness.
It all comes down to consumers not wanting their data being abused ( at least for free ), as well as Big Tech companies fighting against each other by setting up walled gardens for the advertisers.
But what if there would be an objective medium between the advertiser and the third-party vendors that would anonymize or pseudonymize the data before sending it onward?
Cue server-side tracking.
Server-side tracking vs. Client-side tracking
In short, the main difference between server-side tracking and client-side tracking is, as the names suggest, how the information is collected upon a website visit.
Whereas traditional client-side tracking relies on the user’s browser (a.k.a. client) to collect and send the information forward to ad tech servers such as Google or Facebook, server-side tracking sends the data to a secure server before sending it forward.
Below are some of the main differences between server-side and client-side tracking, as well as what they enable in terms of marketing.
How the information is collected:
- Server-side tracking: Information is sent to a secure server, from which it can be shared with ad tech servers with selected specifications
- Client-side tracking: Information is collected by setting up tags that collect data from the browser and send it directly to ad tech servers
What this methodology enables:
- Server-side tracking: Bypassing browsers’ cookie policies and over-active ad blockers that would otherwise inhibit data collection
- Client-side tracking: Getting contextual data from the browser
- Server-side tracking:
- Bypass browser restrictions
- Choose what data to send and where (anonymizing or pseudonymizing the data before sending it to Google Analytics makes it GDPR-compliant)
- Maintain a longer cookie expiration date (instead of 7 days, +90 days)
- Improve site speed (no cookie scripts = faster loading time)
- Client-side tracking
- Compatible with ad tech servers’ conversion data requirements
- Easy to setup and use
- Lower costs
- Server-side tracking:
- Difficult to know what conversion data ad tech servers require (nobody knows this really)
- Requires technical know-how to implement and maintain
- Using a server costs money
- Client-side tracking:
- Third-party cookies don’t work on most browsers
- Adblockers can inhibit data collection in browsers
- Data cannot be anonymized before it is sent to Google Analytics, which makes it illegal under GDPR regulation
In short, the most prominent advantage of server-side tracking is that it is not subject to the visitor's browser and device limitations. This means server-side tracking provides a way to circumvent the current and upcoming cookie restrictions set by the most popular browsers.
“This means server-side tracking provides a way to circumvent the current and upcoming cookie restrictions set by the most popular browsers”
Another advantage of server-side tracking is that it can be more secure than client-side tracking because the tracking data is not stored in the visitor's browser, where it could potentially be accessed by third parties.
Instead, the data is stored on a secure server, from which the advertiser can choose what data to share with each ad tech server and analytics provider. Having the power to select which data is shared and in what format is one potential solution to keep on using Google Analytics in a GDPR-compliant way, if the proxy server is configured correctly .
“Having the power to select which data is shared and in what format is one potential solution to keep on using Google Analytics in a GDPR-compliant way, if the proxy server is configured correctly”
Being able to do and doing are, however, completely different things in practice. Which brings us to the challenges of server-side tracking.
The edge of tomorrow
At first server-side tracking seems like the silver bullet for most of the problems around digital marketing measurement. But with great power comes great responsibility.
As the cons -section above points out, server-side tracking requires a lot of technical know-how around setting up the server, defining what data the server can and should send to the ad tech servers, and keeping up with the latest changes and regulations as this type of integration is very new (it is very likely that you need to make adjustments on monthly basis).
Moreover, servers cost money. There are three cost drivers when it comes to servers and server-side tracking:
- Instances. Google recommends using at least three instances, which costs roughly €100 a month. If you’re running a high-traffic website, more instances are needed.
- Processing volume. There’s a marginal cost for sending data from your server to external platforms. Nothing too wild, but something to consider when budgeting for server-side tracking.
- Logging. €100 for 500 000 requests.
As we can see, the edge of tomorrow cuts both ways. It isn’t a plug-and-play solution for cookie depreciation and GDPR regulation, and it can turn out to be quite an expensive option compared to traditional tools.
Time will tell if server-side tracking provides an applicable solution for the cookie apocalypse.
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