Website tracking is changing dramatically. My advice? Don't lean back, take action now and move to server side tracking. When it comes to data, it pays to be ahead of the curve.
Surely, you are familiar with the classic model for tracking website users: you place tags, for example, with Google Tag Manager (GTM), on the customer's device. These then send data directly to such a third party: Google, Facebook and (sometimes dozens of) others.
This model is under pressure though. Privacy is an increasingly high priority. For consumers, for legislators, but also for software vendors. Consequently, the end of third-party cookies seems to be nearby on most platforms, insofar as these cookies were not already refused or blocked by individual users. As a website owner, you may also be wondering if it is a good idea to send data from your visitors to so many different companies when you never know exactly what they will use it for. Questions about Google's data policies, for example, may prompt you to want to take control of what you share with that company yourself.
Moreover, loading dozens of tags is really bad for your site's performance and thus detrimental to your user experience.
New customer journeys, new tracking model
There is more to it though. This way of tracking, in fact, no longer fits the way we use the Internet today. Today's digital life can no longer be captured in ‘sessions’, where you assume that a user makes a conversion journey in the context of a single device and a single website. Google, in light of these developments, has even launched a completely new tracking and analytics platform: within a few years’ time, Google Analytics 4 will replace the old Universal Analytics. In GA4, the emphasis is much more on event tracking and much less on sessions. This makes GA4 much more suitable for tracking users through a purchase journey that jumps back and forth numerous times between devices, apps and contexts.
This is especially relevant if your websites are sites without logins like e-commerce, content platforms or acquisition sites. These sites often operate in very competitive markets, so marketing needs a lot of data to grow and keep acquisition costs down. When tracking logged-in users, as is often the case in B2B, this is less of an issue.
Server-side tracking: the new way
At Triple, we solve this by using server-side tracking. The tags are no longer on the user's device but on our server. We place only one tag on the user, which passes data to our tracking server. Obviously, we are only referring to the data the user has given permission for. This approach has a number of advantages over client-side tracking:
- We can filter the data. This way, we have much more control over what data is sent to whom. As a website owner, you are responsible for your compliance, but with client side tracking you are never 100% sure what data you are actually collecting. By passing everything through your own server first, you have total control over your data streams.
- We can combine data. Normally, data is immediately moved in different directions. Now it comes in at a central location and we can make connections where we couldn't before.
- We can store cookies for longer. Browsers and devices that delete cookies daily no longer affect our data.
- Site performance improves. Only one cookie crosses the line, saving considerably in loading time.
- We can anonymize and aggregate data from people who don't give consent. This means that even if you can't track people personally, you can learn from their behavior.
- It's a more robust solution. Connection problems, as well as ad blockers, reduce ‘white spots’ in our data.
What is important to note: is that personal data remains personal data, regardless of how you collect it. That means that to store IP addresses, for example, you still need consent. If you don't have permission, you will not be able to use that data on the server side either.
It sounds simple...
The principle of server side tracking is simple: you run two Google Tag Manager containers instead of one. One resides with the user. It contains only one tag. The second is on your tracking server. This one contains all the trackers you use: Google, Facebook, Hotjar, Hubspot, etc. The first container passes the data to the second, which then processes, filters and sends the data. To be honest, initially, it was technically quite an effort to get this working properly. By now, our solution is running for many large customers - Fleurametz and LINDA, to name some examples - on all known cloud platforms, so we have the technology well under control by now.
But it is not just about technology. A solution like this also requires you to rethink what data you are actually collecting and why. You will have many different possibilities, for example, to combine data, but you also have to decide what to do with those possibilities. You probably also need to take a stab at cleaning up and integrating the data you collect. Switching to GA4, which is a big hurdle for many companies, is usually part of implementing server side tracking.
Why you should do something about it now
Maybe this all seems irrelevant to you. After all, client side-tracking still works just fine. We all know that once every couple of weeks, panic strikes in dataland. Third-party cookies disappear... Analytics gets banned.... GA360 goes off the air... Ultimately, in the short term, the effect is generally not as bad as it seemed. Yet it is clear that changes are imminent in the long term. Anyone who follows the news also understands that GDPR is not an endpoint. There is broad public support for strict privacy laws, and tech companies, largely by their own fault, are in a bad light.
You could lean back and assume it will all work out in the end, but this would be the wrong approach. It is much better to prepare now for developments that will eventually happen anyway. If not next year, then the year after. In that way, you not only guarantee that you can be compliant in the future, but you also ensure continuity in your data. Google Analytics is still the very best solution for website analytics. You don't want to lose it, even for a few months. Social media are crucial for your reach, but they are only effective if you can target them properly. The same applies to display ads. If you don't have the data (temporarily), you're missing out on sales.
Besides, protecting the privacy of your users and complying with applicable laws should not be a matter of ‘we'll fix that when we get around to it’. How you handle data these days is an integral part of your customer relationship. And that customer relationship is the most important pillar of your marketing.
In short, server side tracking is much more than just ‘replacing third-party cookies’. It is an opportunity to do more with your data, break open the silos and take back control of your data.
Want to start with server side tracking? Get in touch, I'd love to help.