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Server-side analytics tracking with first-party collector: What you need to know

Analytics

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Published May 30, 2022 · Updated June 24, 2022

Server-side analytics tracking with first-party collector: What you need to know

For years, companies have been using multiple third-party tags and pixels to track website visitors, improve the user experience, and collect data that helps target ads to the right audiences. Now, they’re slowly becoming a thing of the past.

Ad blockers and browser restrictions such as intelligent tracking prevention (ITP) in Safari or the improved tracking protection of Firefox make third-party tracking less effective and reduce data quality. Moreover, you may get in trouble for using cookies and other tracking technologies on your website without complying with privacy laws in specific jurisdictions, such as PECR and TTDSG

Thus, companies are seeking other methods for collecting analytics data. Server-side tracking and server-side tagging have gained in popularity in recent years. They help you overcome many issues with third-party tracking and client-side first-party tracking in order to collect more accurate data.

In this article we’ll:

If you’re interested in the details behind data collection, read our article: 6 ways analytics software collects data online

What is server-side analytics tracking

Server-side tracking methods allow collecting data on the server side rather than the client side. This means that the collected data is sent to a server that hosts your website or app, and then passed to a destination endpoint.

There’s some confusion around the topic as server-side tracking is not a new idea, and many people understand it in different ways. It can be divided into traditional and modern methods. And we’re here to give you some clarity. 

If you are familiar with web analytics, you might have heard of client-side tracking. Let’s first get the difference between client-side and server-side out of the way. 

Server-side tracking vs. client-side tracking

In analytics, server-side and client-side tracking are methods used to move data collected from a browser to an analytics platform. 

Those two ways measure how users interact with your website or app. The difference is in how the data is collected.

What is client-side tracking?

Client-side tracking is the most common way of implementing analytics and other third-party tags. With client-side tracking, data is transferred directly from the user’s browser (known as a client) to an external server such as an analytics vendor. This data transfer is enabled by deploying small pieces of JavaScript code (called tags) on each page of a website, typically via a tag management system.

Because in this kind of tracking the call is made from the browser, it gives you easy access to a lot of contextual browser and user information, such as:

  • Cookies
  • UTM parameters
  • IP address 
  • User agent
  • Referrer

For a long time, client-side tracking was the preferred way to collect data – but this is starting to change. It’s clear that with the phase out of third-party cookies, tracking client-side becomes problematic. 

Browser mechanisms like ITP limit the lifespan of cookies, prevent fingerprinting and CNAME cloaking, which means that the information we get is hazy at best. Adding to that, 37.5% of global internet users block tracking technologies with an ad blocker tool (Hootsuite, 2021). 

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 as a first-party. CNAME cloaking lets third-party trackers avoid ad blockers for data collection and tracking.

So, the obvious downside about client-side tracking is that you have less control and accuracy. 

If you are still relying solely on traditional browser-based web analytics, the data you get can often be messy and inaccurate.

The methods of server-side tracking

With the server-side tracking, the server sends a request to the final destination (e.g. analytics) instead of a direct request from the client (user’s browser). It adds another layer (the server) between a website and a data collection platform and allows for greater security and control.

The server sends a request to an analytics instance or other platform instead of a direct request from the client like in client-side tracking.

Therefore, server-side tracking is more reliable. Most things that can be tracked on the client can also be tracked on the server. Finally, server-side tracking methods allow for greater data accuracy, since ad blockers and intelligent tracking protection (ITP) have no impact on your data.

Let’s now dive deeper into traditional and newer methods of server-side tracking. We will also discuss server-side tagging.

Traditional methods of server-side tracking

Server-side tracking dates back to the early 1990s when a website’s statistics consisted primarily of counting the number of client requests (or hits) made to the web server. Web servers record some of their transactions in a log file. Analysts soon realized that these log files could be read by a program to provide data on the popularity of the website. 

Log analytics is the oldest server-side tracking method. Another still commonly employed server-side tracking method is with the use of SDK/API. Let’s have a look at both of them.

Log analytics

Log analytics is the process of analyzing log data from your website. You can import server-side logs using specialized software that works with the web server. This method can be used to retrieve records that match particular criteria, identify trends, analyze patterns, and provide a variety of insights into data. 

The data in the server logs is limited compared to the data collected via client-side JavaScript and doesn’t provide the same quality of data. This results in a few missing data points, i.e. browser plugins, screen resolutions and page titles might not be available. Also, it’s harder to identify visitors, as server logs do not store information about cookies set in the user’s browser.

Server-side tracking with the use of SDK/API

It’s possible to collect data about users and their interactions in apps, or in 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 backend of your application. This method is time-consuming, difficult and requires software development resources and certain expertise.

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

Using server-side libraries is pretty complex and requires additional development. It’s easier than using the HTTP API for sending events, but it is still a big and time-consuming project that involves developers. It might be appropriate for companies that have a larger and more sophisticated development team.

Server-side tracking with first-party collector – a more modern and convenient way of server-side analytics

A lot has changed during the last few years in the world of server-side tracking and now we have more methods to choose from. Modern methods are far more convenient than the old ones. Yet the most modern method of server side tracking is derived. The difference lies in its capabilities. In the next section, we are going to discover it in detail.

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

In server-side tracking with a first-party collector method, the collected data is sent to a reverse proxy server hosted on the same server as your website or app, and then passed to your analytics instance. It means that you can collect all customer behavioral data easily and use e.g. a tag management system to configure tracking events. Moreover, it offers the same quality of data as client-side trackers, and even better if you take into account the ad blocks and browser restrictions.  

It also means that cookies are set from your proxy server that is located within the main website domain, because the request comes directly to your domain, and not to a third-party analytics platform. It is undetectable in browsers and is not blocked by ad blockers.

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

With server-side tracking using a first-party collector, implementation is as easy as with client-side tracking, and at the same time you can immensely improve data accuracy and data control. What’s more, with server-side tracking with first-party collector you:

  • can still collect data like in a client-side mechanism
  • don’t have to use server-side Google Tag Manager or get any Google servers involved

Tagging and tracking are two different things that serve two very different purposes. They do not replace each other. They are meant to be used together. Server-side implementation and tag management are considered complex. However, the first party server-side analytics can be implemented in a very approachable way.

Why server-side tracking with first-party collector is the future of web analytics

Server-side tracking with the use of a first-party collector puts an end to the search for the optimal way for complete and private data collection on websites. There are numerous advantages flowing from this method:

  • Higher data accuracy – ad blockers and intelligent tracking protection (ITP) have minimal or no impact on your data.
  • Higher data security – safe method for tracking sensitive data and recreating the whole customer journey (including post-login areas).
  • Rich and high-quality data collection – same as with client side tracking: traffic sources, referring sites, page views, paths taken, conversion rates, real-time data, browser data, scroll depth, custom events.
  • Ease – easy implementation. It doesn’t require special skills and resources.
  • Lightweight – does not require implementing separate platform (server-side tagging) or on-premises deployment of large components.

For all the reasons we’ve mentioned, server-side tracking has all the makings of a definite sustainable solution for years to come because it covers all the present and future caveats of client-side tracking. It stands as the definite future of web analytics.

What is server-side tagging?

Google Tag Manager and other tag management systems like Piwik PRO introduced in recent years are a method to optimize the number of requests sent from the web browser to different marketing tools.

A typical client-side tagging configuration relies on a component in the page to send data to various collection servers.

By contrast, a server component doesn’t run in the user’s browser or on their phone. Instead, it runs on a server that you control. In this method a single JavaScript snippet collects data from the web browser and pushes it to a server-side component. Then the server-side component sends the data server-side to the selected services (including analytics, ad platforms and other marketing tools).

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 control how much data you share with third parties. 

Moreover, server-side tagging allows you to move measurement tag instrumentation from your website or app to a server-side processing container on the cloud, or any other external platform you choose. This results in improved performance. See the advantages below.

Advantages of server-side tagging:

  • Improved performance: It can improve performance of your website for certain slow connections and mobile devices in case you have many vendors that you share data with.
  • 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). 
  • Additional layer of security: No unauthorized JavaScript code will be executed on the site by any of the vendors.
  • Control: You can mask or remove certain data (e.g. IP address or browser user agent), so that vendors won’t receive full information about visitors.
  • Speed: In server side tagging, the processing burden is moved from a consumer’s device, which leads to increased application and device performance. The faster the application and website performance, the higher the conversions.
  • Data enrichment: You have the option to enrich incoming data with relevant additional information, using systems such as CRM and tag manager.

Server-side tracking: What you need to consider

Server-side tracking is not a new phenomenon. It has made a comeback as the only sustainable solution to the impending end of client-side tracking. However, there are certain things you need to consider.

You should remember that although server-side trackers and tags are undetectable in browsers, you still need to follow the same compliance rules as with client-side tracking. That is, collect applicable consents for the use of cookies, document your data collection methods in your privacy policy etc.

At the same time, server-side tagging solutions generate a client/visitor ID, and this is personal data that requires consent under GDPR in EEA, PECR in the UK or TTDSG in Germany. The client/visitor ID may be encoded, which adds an additional privacy protection layer, but it’s still considered pseudonymous data (and hence falls under regulations as personal data). This means it’s a type of data you can collect only with the visitor’s consent. 

Read more in the article Is Google Analytics GDPR-compliant?
Find out more about privacy-friendly analytics in What is privacy-friendly analytics?

Dedicated support

If you don’t have the internal resources to handle server-side tracking, you might decide to choose an analytics vendor that offers dedicated support and customer care. This can help you not only get started but also give you support with everyday maintenance of your server-side tracking.

Comparison of web analytics platforms that offer first-party data collection and server-side tracking

The phase out of third-party cookies and other restrictions undoubtedly affect the way businesses collect and use data. The good news is that there is still time to take action. Most marketers are already looking into different vendors to fill the void left by third-party cookies by building a consented first-party data asset. 

We have prepared a comparison of web analytics platforms that offer first-party data collection.

Piwik PRO Enterprise Google Analytics 360 Matomo Adobe Heap Analytics Segment
Client-side tracking
Server-side first-party tracking
only through HTTP API
Server-side tagging
GTM integration
Dedicated account manager and tech support
Integrated consent management system
Compliance
Suitable for industries handling sensitive data: banking, governments, telecoms and healthcare

Author

Aleksandra Szczepańska

Senior Content Marketer

In her career she has been balancing branding, marketing strategies and content creation. Believes that content is about the experience. | LinkedIn Profile

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