The Rise Of Server-Side Tracking & Finding Lost Data

President of Internet Marketing at 9thCO, a Canadian digital agency focused on B2B lead gen as well as ecommerce development and marketing.

Your web analytics platform is one of the most crucial tools your business relies on when making strategic decisions. However, with roughly 1 in 4 users leveraging some form of ad blocker, the data your business receives from web analytics tools is likely far from accurate. Why? By using an ad blocker, a user’s behavior isn’t tracked, leading to vast discrepancies in traffic, engagement and ROI metrics, which could impact the success of future campaigns or strategies.

Server-side tagging is a way for you, as a business, to ensure that you’re gaining more accurate, measurable data from the individuals who visit your website—even if they’re using an ad blocker. If you want to ensure that the data you receive is more reliable, keep reading.

How Is Data Collected?

Normally, data is collected by way of what’s called client-side tagging. Most websites employ tracking pixels or use tagging solutions such as Google Tag Manager to deploy these tags. These pixels (such as Google Analytics) track all user interactions on the website.

When all the data is prepared, it’s pushed to Google Analytics and other tracking platforms. These platforms, in turn, process the information and provide it to you via standard dashboards and reports. Devices such as laptops, smartphones and desktop computers are considered “clients.”

Client-side is the de facto way of collecting this data. However, with the advent of the common ad blocker, businesses now need to make drastic changes in the way they collect data if they want to keep up.

The Issues With Client-Side Tracking

Ad blockers maintain a list of client-side trackers and simply prevent them from running. When a page is loading, the ad blocker cross-references its “to block” list with the site’s scripts and hides them. This results in the blocking of crucial—and substantial—data. Due to an ad blocker, your analytics may report 5,000 people on your website, even though it’s actually 6,000! You’ll never “see” the rest of the people because the data was simply never produced.

Businesses can miss out on up to 25% of web traffic data due to ad blockers. If you’re a retailer spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads and your RoAS (return on ad spend) is down, your website could actually be making more sales than reported. For example, you could see $150,000 in sales in the back end of your e-commerce platform, but in Google Analytics you might only see $110,000.

You might be thinking: So what? You still made the sales regardless of what any platform tells you. The real problem is attribution. The ad clicks that yielded those sales appear to be wasted ad dollars since the data linked to those sales has vanished. For agencies, this is deadly as our very mandate is to generate ROI for clients and prove that we performed well. Clearly, this skewed ROI data will impact subsequent campaign strategies. This is where server-side tracking comes in.

Server-Side Tracking

With server-side tagging, browsing sessions effectively coexist on a server-based virtual browser, mirroring a user’s mobile or desktop actions. All page views and events take place in the data layer of this virtual machine, which runs a server-side Google Tag Manager container. This container pushes the data into Google Analytics seamlessly. But why doesn’t this container also get blocked? This is part of the magic. The actual cloud platform account is registered through DNS as a subdomain of your company’s domain. This means that the script call will be seen as first-party, and therefore not blocked by ad blockers.

Besides recouping lost data, a major benefit to this method is that you’re offloading all the expensive resource processing from your device to the cloud. This means that your site will run faster, which can improve organic rankings, traffic, user experience and conversion rates.

Server-side tracking is basically a cloud-based doppelganger of the user. It creates a cloud-based mirror image that follows their browsing patterns. If you’re looking for a stainless steel toaster on Amazon, the cloud-based virtual machine is also looking at the same stainless steel toaster and the data is piped directly to Analytics. If you did it the old way, tracking pixels would get sent to your device and then back to the server to track your behavior and actions, which is what ad blockers block.

How Do You Set It Up? What Are the Drawbacks?

If server-side is so great, why isn’t everyone using it? While there are so many advantages to using server-side for your digital marketing efforts, it does come with a few drawbacks:

• You need to first set up a server-side container and a Google Cloud platform virtual machine.

• Then, you need to configure your data layer and set up tagging on the server-side.

• A subdomain needs to be created and it has to be tagged to your website.

• On top of this intensive process, it’s important to conduct A/B testing once the server-side is launched so that you can ensure everything is functioning properly.

Server-side tagging is relatively new, so running it in tandem with standard Analytics is recommended. Despite any drawbacks, however, server-side is worth pursuing since the extra data is paramount to the success of your campaigns.

Prevent Data Loss With Server-Side

With ad blockers on the rise, 40% of your analytics data could be skewed. Server-side tagging is a way for you, as a business, to ensure that you’re gaining accurate, measurable data to inform marketing strategies.

While the implementation and testing of this new feature can be complex, it’s an incredible tool to have in your toolbox if you’re running ads or relying on analytics data.


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