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Server-side tracking and server-side tagging: The complete guide

Analytics

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Published May 8, 2024 · Updated May 24, 2024

Server-side tracking and server-side tagging: The complete guide
SUMMARY
  • With the rise of ad blockers and browser restrictions, tracking data client-side becomes less effective and reliable.
  • Server-side tracking has become a popular alternative to client-side tracking. Using this data collection method can often help you improve the quality of your data.
  • Another popular method for tracking data server-side is server-side tagging. The method involves using a dedicated tag manager and gives you more control over which data you share with your marketing tools.
  • Both of these methods require a fair level of technical know-how to implement. And just like the client-side setup, they can’t be used without an explicit user consent.

For years, companies have been using client-side tags and pixels to track website visitors, improve the user experience, optimize conversion rates, and target ads to the right audiences. 

Now, these types of trackers are slowly losing their appeal. As ad blockers become increasingly popular and browsers revoke support for third-party tracking, gathering valuable data using client-side methods is becoming more and more challenging. 

Companies that want to obtain more accurate data on user behavior and connect the dots in customer journeys and are exploring alternatives. For many, server-side data collection seems like a great fix for the problem of increasingly unreliable and fragmented client-side data.

That said, server-side methods can also be confusing, especially since they come in many shapes and forms. In this article, we want to debunk the most common misconceptions surrounding this form of tracking and explain the key differences between the methods.

What is server-side tracking?

The concept of server-side tracking is quite complex, but it becomes easier to understand when you compare it to client-side analytics tracking.

Server-side tracking vs. client-side tracking

Server-side and client-side tracking are methods used to move data collected from a browser to an analytics platform. Both methods help you gather data on visitors’ interactions with your website or app. The difference is in how data is collected.

What is client-side tracking?

With client-side tracking, data is transferred directly from the user’s browser (known as a client) to an external third-party server such as your analytics account (for example: yourwebsite.piwik.pro). This data transfer is enabled by deploying small pieces of JavaScript code called tags on each page of your website, typically with the use of a tag management system.

Client-side tracking

Client-side tracking has long been everyone’s go-to method for collecting data – but this is starting to change. 

Browser privacy mechanisms like ITP limit the lifespan of cookies and prevent fingerprinting and CNAME cloaking. Moreover, 37% of global internet users block tracking technologies with an ad blocker tool. All this makes the data gathered through client-side methods more fragmented and, therefore, less reliable and actionable.

CNAME cloaking is a method used to disguise a third-party domain as part of the first-party domain, allowing the third party to track it as a first-party. CNAME cloaking lets third-party trackers avoid ad blockers for data collection and tracking.

The methods of server-side tracking

In server-side tracking methods, the data is sent to a domain or subdomain of your website and then passed to your analytics platform. This process creates an additional layer between a website and a data collection platform, providing increased security and control.

Although the concept of server-side tracking might seem new, it dates back to the early 1990s and the very beginnings of web analytics. The method, often referred to as log analytics, involved fetching access log files from the company’s website servers. 

It provided marketers with basic insights into their website visitors, such as location, device, referrer site, and browser. The process of collecting the data was complex and tiresome, but it was still better than having no data at all. 

The adoption of client-side tracking methods has simplified this process and provided more comprehensive insights into website visitors, at least until now.

Modern ways of server-side tracking

Server-side tracking has seen a surge of exciting developments in recent years. The newer methods make working with data server-side far more convenient and effective.

Server-side tracking with a first-party collector: The hybrid method

Server-side tracking with a first-party collector promises to increase your data’s accuracy without causing you a lot of trouble, especially when you compare it to the amount of work you’d put into working with server logs.

In the server-side tracking with a first-party collector method, cookies are set from your proxy server within your website domain or subdomain, and the tracking requests come directly to your domain instead of a third-party analytics platform.

First-party collector

We can call it a hybrid model, combining the benefits of client-side data collection with server-side logic and dispatch.

Server-side tracking tools

The list of web analytics platforms providing server-side tracking is quite limited compared to tools that collect data client-side, but it grows longer each year. It includes vendors such as:

  • Piwik PRO Analytics Suite
  • Matomo
  • Heap Analytics
  • Adobe Analytics (through server-side tagging)
  • Google Analytics (through server-side tagging)
  • Segment (through server-side tagging)

The benefits of server-side tracking with a first-party collector

Server-side tracking using a first-party collector offers many benefits to companies looking to gather unfragmented data about their customers’ journeys. Its key strengths include:

Higher data accuracy

Using server-side tracking helps you extend the lifetime of your analytics cookies. This in turn has a positive effect on the accuracy of your data.

Higher data security

It’s a safe method for tracking sensitive data and recreating the entire customer journey (including post-login areas), since you don’t share any data client-side.

Rich and high-quality data collection

Server-side tracking offers the same data granularity as client-side tracking: traffic sources, referring sites, page views, paths taken, conversion rates, real-time data, browser data, scroll depth, custom events, and more.

Lightweight

It doesn’t require implementing a separate platform or on-premises deployment of large components, which reduces its impact on infrastructure use.

No reliance on Google products

The method lets you avoid using server-side Google Tag Manager or involving Google servers. It’s especially important if your company decides to stay clear of the US-based company’s products due to privacy concerns or your strict internal policies.

The disadvantages of server-side tracking with a first-party collector

Server-side tracking is considered one of the most reliable alternatives to client-side analytics. However, it doesn’t solve all tracking problems. Here are some things to consider before you decide to invest time and resources into server-side tracking:

Although server-side trackers and tags are mostly undetectable in browsers, you still need to follow the same compliance rules as with client-side tracking. That is, you must collect applicable consents for the use of cookies, document your data collection methods in your privacy policy, etc. Data can only be gathered without consent if it’s anonymized according to GDPR standards.

“When it comes to a successful server-side analytics tracking implementation, it’s crucial to choose first-party data collection tools that are compliant with major regulations such as GDPR, PECR or TTDSG. The more sensitive data you collect (for example,in banking, healthcare or government), the more selective you should be with your tools.”

Hamza El Kharraz

Digital Analyst at ANALYGO

The implementation is more complex than with client-side analytics

Server-side tracking is simpler than log analytics but still requires time and resources. If you lack internal expertise, consider opting for an analytics vendor with dedicated support and customer care. This will help you with getting started and maintaining your server-side tracking setup.

Server-side data collection only applies to your analytics

The method works only for one piece of your data stack. If you want use all your marketing tools server-side, you might still need to employ other methods such as server-side tagging.

A side note: Custom domain – a bit more straightforward solution to issues of client-side tracking

A similar effect to server-side tracking could also be achieved with the use of a custom domain. In this scenario, a client sets up a dedicated subdomain for their analytics platform (for example, analytics.myshop.com) within their own website’s domain (for example, myshop.com).

Since the analytics is not hosted on a third-party domain (for example, myshop.piwik.pro), it allows the client to bypass some issues of client-side tracking, including being blocked by platforms such as Ghostery or search engines such as Brave. This method is not related to server-side tracking.

What is server-side tagging?

Another method of server-side data collection is server-side tagging, offered by tools such as Google Tag Manager or Jentis.

How is it different from client-side tagging?

A typical client-side tagging configuration relies on trackers installed directly on the page and sending data to various collection servers, such as your analytics, A/B testing tool, or CRM.

In contrast, server-side tagging uses a dedicated tag manager server that hosts all the data you then send to your marketing tools. Instead of installing third-party scripts directly on your website, you get a buffer that separates your website and user data from third-party vendors and their trackers.

With a server-side component, the web browser sends just a single request and you can control which data is shared with which service. It allows you to limit your data collection and manage how much data you disclose to third parties.

The benefits of server-side tagging

Marketers and analysts appreciate server-side tagging because it gives them:

More control over data

You can mask or remove certain data (for example, IP address or browser user agent) so that vendors won’t receive full information about your website visitors.

“Server-side tagging gives you more control over the data before sending it to the final destination. It lets you filter or hash specific information, such as PII. It also enables you to enrich the data with information that you don’t want to make visible on the front end, such as your product margins.”

Timo Dechau

Founder, Tracking & Analytics Engineer at Deepskydata

Better data protection

User data is better protected when collected and distributed in a customer-managed server-side environment – you can select which data is shared with specific vendors.

Improved website performance

Server-side tagging allows you to move tag managemet from your website or app to a server-side processing container in the cloud, or on any other external platform you choose. This results in improved performance, especially if you share data with many vendors.

Data enrichment

Using server-side tag management allows you to enrich incoming data with information coming from different tools, for example your CRM or transactional system.

In many cases, applying server-side tagging helps you improve the lifespan of your cookies and collect more reliable data.

“Server-side tagging can be a great opportunity for businesses to overcome some data collection hurdles inherent to tracking on the browser, like the impact of ad blockers and the phasing out of third-party cookies, to name but a few. However, the learning curve can be steep, and there are hidden costs, such as hiring experts to maintain infrastructure that should be taken into account.”

Hamza El Kharraz

Digital Analyst at ANALYGO

The disadvantages of server-side tagging

But as with every method, server-side tagging is not without its flaws. Here’s a list of important aspects of working with this method you need to consider.

Server-side tagging and GDPR

Server-side tagging solutions create a unique ID for each visitor, which falls under the definition of personal data under laws such as GDPR and PECR. This means that you can only collect such data with the visitor’s consent. And if you choose to anonymize your user data to bypass the consent requirements, you’ll lose access to important insights into customer journeys.

Server-side tagging implementation

To set up server-side tagging, you need a specialized tag management system. This process also involves the installation and maintenance of a web server or a dedicated cloud-based database. As a result, moving your tagging system server-side will require additional work from your technical teams.

experts opinion

Timo Dechau

Founder, Tracking & Analytics Engineer at Deepskydata

I see only limited use cases for server-side tagging. If you use an analytics solution that gives you less control over what data is sent in which form, you can use a server-side Google Tag Manager to remove or hash this information. While some enrichment use cases may also be valid, I prefer to do enrichment in the data warehouse.

Think of server-side tagging as another block in your system. You must guarantee it’s up and running 100% of the time, because when it’s down, you lose your data. By choosing this tracking method, you also increase the complexity of your setup. Finding tracking issues will become more complicated, and so will adding new components to the tracking.

Costs

Introducing additional servers imposes extra costs. The final sum will depend on your data processing volume.

Limited support for server-side tagging

Before investing in going server-side, make sure the tools in your data stack support server-side tagging. Not all marketing vendors have integrated tags for this technology yet.

CNAME cloaking

Some browsers and ad blockers might still detect CNAME cloaking, making server-side tracking less effective in enhancing cookie lifetime or improving your data quality.

Server-side tagging tools and services

Examples of platforms offering server-side tagging include:

  • Google server-side Tag Manager (sGTM)
  • Segment
  • Adobe Analytics
  • Jentis

Server-side tracking vs. server-side tagging: A quick summary 

Server-side tagging and tracking are not the same thing. They require the use of different tools and serve different purposes. Here’s a short table explaining the key distinctions between these technologies.

Server-side tracking Server-side tagging Client-side tracking Client-side tagging
Data quality and reliability
Extended cookie lifetime
Ease of use
Privacy compliance Depends on your configuration Depends on your configuration Depends on your configuration Depends on your configuration
Ability to send data to multiple marketing tools

There are also important things to consider before deciding to go server-side. Both server-side tracking and tagging help you improve data reliability and work around the limitations of tracking done on the client’s side. But even with server-side methods, you still need to take into account the requirements of privacy regulations such as GDPR, PECR and TTDSG.

What’s more, switching to server-side won’t resolve the issues of losing data due to the deprecation of third-party cookies. Here’s why:

  • Server-side analytics tracking is a method used to extend the lifespan of first-party cookies. However, it doesn’t address the concerns related to third-party tracking.
  • Server-side tagging doesn’t effectively resolve the challenges of remarketing in a privacy-conscious way. With the phasing out of third-party cookies, retargeting anonymous visitors across different sites becomes increasingly difficult.

    The alternative proposed by server-side tagging involves sending personal data, such as hashed emails or addresses, to ad platforms, but without involving the browser. This action would be illegal without explicit user consent. Without consent, server-side tagging becomes an unethical workaround rather than a future-proof approach to data collection.

Learn more about the best privacy-compliant data strategies for the so-called “cookieless future”: Here is all you need to know about the end of third-party cookies.

Finally, setting up server-side tracking or tagging requires technical skills. If your team lacks these skills, consider partnering with a technology vendor who can help you get started and manage the project.

“Everybody can benefit from server-side tracking, but the impact on small websites might not be big enough to justify the cost and resources required to set up and maintain it. Meta, Pinterest, Google and other Big Tech companies are now recommending, or I should say, demanding, marketers to implement server-side tagging to take full advantage of the remarketing and retargeting capabilities. So it has become essential for them. If an organization has reached analytics maturity and data is used for critical decisions, investing in server-side setup might bring significant advantages.”

Anil Batra

Digital Data and Analytics Advisor, CEO at Optizent

How to collect data through server-side tracking and tagging with Piwik PRO

Piwik PRO Analytics Suite is a privacy-first platform that offers advanced analytics capabilities. The suite consists of tightly integrated Analytics, Tag Manager, Consent Manager, and Customer Data Platform. It also easily connects with other parts of your tech stack, letting you integrate and activate data across all your marketing tools. 

When it comes to server-side tracking, you can take advantage of the following methods:

  • Tracking server-side with a first-party collector – it’s a great option for companies looking to move their analytics tracking server-side. With native integration with Piwik PRO Consent Manager and Cookie Information CMP, you’ll be able to adjust your tracking to your visitors’ privacy preferences. It also allows you to employ various data anonymization methods to make sure you collect valuable data even when visitors don’t consent to tracking. It’s available in the Enterprise plan.
  • Server-side tagging with sGTM – a decent solution for companies that want to pair Piwik PRO Analytics with Google Tag Manager. It’s available in Core and Enterprise plans.
  • Server-side tagging through integration with Jentis – a more privacy-friendly but powerful alternative that doesn’t require using Google’s products. It’s available in Core and Enterprise plans.

The Enterprise plan for Piwik PRO Analytics Suite comes with dedicated support and customer care to help you get the most out of your server-side tracking or tagging project. If you’d like to learn more about the possibilities of server-side tracking with Piwik PRO, be sure to reach out.

FAQ

Is server-side tracking a cookieless method?

Server-side analytics tracking is often seen as cookieless because it doesn’t depend on browser cookies to track user actions. Instead, it gathers and sends data directly from the server. However, many server-side tagging and tracking solutions, like sGTM, Matomo, Piwik PRO, or Jentis, still use cookies, just in a different way compared to client-side tracking.

What is log analytics?

Log analytics is a process of analyzing log data from your website and is often considered one of the first methods for server-side tracking. It allows you to import server-side logs using specialized software that works with the web server. This method lets you retrieve records that match particular criteria, identify trends, and analyze patterns.

The information collected through server logs is relatively limited compared to the data collected through client-side JavaScript. Server logs lack essential data points such as browser plugins, screen resolutions, and page titles that may be useful for your analysis. Additionally, they make it challenging to identify visitors as server logs don’t store information about cookies set in the user’s browser.

What is server-side tracking with the use of SDK/API?

SDK/API server-side tracking involves collecting data about users and their interactions within apps or server backends using dedicated APIs or server-side tracking libraries.

In modern analytics products, a tracking HTTP API is usually available if interactions and user details can be sent manually from the application’s backend. This method is time-consuming and requires software development resources and expertise.

Server-side analytics SDKs make sending data to those APIs easier by offering a set of tools that developers can use to implement tracking in the app automatically.

However, using server-side libraries can be quite complex and demands additional development effort. Although it is more straightforward than utilizing the HTTP API for transmitting events, it’s still a significant and time-consuming task that requires expertise from developers. This approach may be more suitable for businesses with a larger and more advanced development team.

Author

Karolina Lubowicka

Senior Content Marketer and Social Media Specialist

An experienced copywriter who takes complex topics of data privacy & GDPR and makes them understandable for all. LinkedIn Profile

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Author

Aleksandra Szczepańska

Senior Content Marketer

Aleksandra is a senior content writer for Piwik PRO’s marketing blog, copywriter, content creator, and former lecturer on content marketing. With 10 years of experience in marketing, she has effectively juggled branding, marketing strategies, and content creation. She uses SEO best practices and digital marketing strategies to help articles rank high. Aleksandra values the impact of a compelling experience in content and employs various techniques in her writing to deliver valuable insight and engage with readers.| LinkedIn Profile

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