The benefits of server-side tagging are many. You regain control of your data and what is shared with third-party marketing platforms. You improve the accuracy of your marketing reporting and data collection. And in the age of Google Analytics and SEO, you also improve your site's performance due to fewer scripts running on your website.
But before we dig into what server-side tagging is, we need to take a step back to understand how this new technology came about and what problems it's looking to solve.
Let's refresh our memories by starting with what tags actually are.
How client-side tagging works
Most marketers know that when they kick off a campaign, they get prompted by their chosen marketing platform to integrate a pixel or code snippet. We then use that code snippet on our websites to gauge how many conversions resulted from the traffic generated by each marketing platform or channel.
So, when we implement that code snippet (or “tag”) on our website, we know that we establish a direct communication channel between our user's web browser and the third-party vendor's platform we use to run our marketing.
In essence, these tags have two functions:
- They drop cookies into our user's web browser, allowing us to see a user that came on day two or three and maybe converted on day four.
- They alert us to interactions that take place on our webpage. For example, a user loaded a page, scrolled, clicked a video, and later converted. These interactions are sent as HTTP requests to those different vendors.
In other words, when a site page loads, the container is loaded simultaneously, tracking codes are triggered, and all interaction data is sent as HTTP requests to Google Analytics, Google Ads, and other third-party analytics.
The illustration below illustrates how client-side tracking works with direct links to various data streams.
There are many issues with this setup, but the main one is the privacy concerns of consumers.
When privacy is the problem, third-party cookies need to go
Many browsers, if not all at this stage, have imposed some form of cookie restrictions.
Usually, those are third-party cookies, which are blocked in browsers like Safari and Firefox. You basically need to go into your settings and opt in if you want them to track YOU across the entire internet. Who does that?!
Also, we marketers don't know for certain what they're collecting with these scripts. It's hard to filter out what we want them to collect. Once you've implemented that tag, it can scrape everything on your website, even when a consumer fills out a form – oh, gosh!
Server-side tagging is here, hurray!
Server-side tagging is an emerging technology. Instead of being a client-side model between a web server and an app (as shown above), you just set up one data stream to the cloud while cutting direct links to different external vendors.
You sever that communication channel between your user's browser and various marketing platforms. And instead, you send that data stream to a server in the cloud or on-premise to keep track of all your conversion data.
The illustration below shows a server-side container with various data streams going in and out.
Once you've got that data, it's like a staging area where you can decide what you want to pass on to your marketing platforms. Pretty neat, right?
Server-side tracking offers many advantages over client-side tagging, such as improved site performance and security. Fewer measurement tags in your website or app mean less code to run on your website. User data is better protected and more secure when collected and distributed in a customer-managed, server-side environment. Other tags send data to a cloud instance, which is processed and routed.
Yet, the biggest benefit is that you gain more control of your data. You might not want to pass on certain information, like IP addresses, cookie IDs, or other identifiers. Or maybe you do. Regardless, you should get consent!
Some limitations with server-side tagging
Unlike client-side tagging, server-side tagging is not as easy to implement, and you'll incur some costs depending on the number of requests sent. However, those costs are worth it, because of all the other benefits you receive from setting up the server-side container.
Check out Google’s documentation on server-side tagging, showing you how to move measurement tag instrumentation from your website or app to a server-side processing container on the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) or other.
What are the ramifications of third-party cookies phasing out?
Some marketing capabilities will be gone, unfortunately. Retargeting strategies that third-party data enables will disappear. This includes aggregated lists about an interest you might want to target, like people who love pets or sports.
One thing you can do instead, which the digital marketing industry is pushing for, is to leverage your own first-party data. You could collect first-party data from your website and app platforms, then send that data together with media data to Funnel or a data warehouse. When it comes to data collection, the interesting thing is what kind of back-end, offline, and other first-party data you’re already sitting on that you can use in your marketing efforts.
Want to know more about setting up your first-party data strategy? Read our how-to guide here.
Perhaps there are better targeting capabilities, segments, and audiences you want to bid on differently. You could dig into the audience with your first-party data.
Sure, retargeting based on third-party cookies will phase out. But you can still retarget people who have visited your website. This can be particularly useful if you can prolong the expiry time for your first-party cookies, which server-side tagging enables.
What advice should marketers follow?
All marketers working with data-driven marketing should understand the ins and outs of server-side tagging. They should know about the restrictions web browsers impose and how the phasing out of cookies will impact their current retargeting strategies. Then, all digital marketers should learn how server-side tagging can carry them into the future.
Most people use Google Tag Manager. Yet this is Tag Manager on the server-side, meaning that you move measurement tag instrumentation from your website or app to a server-side processing container on, for example, Google Cloud Platform (GCP) or any other platform. You have client-side tagging, which you could call Google Tag Manager Web, where you would implement that container snippet onto your page. Most marketers know what that is, and this is a complement to that.
The key takeaways and benefits of server-side tagging
While server-side tagging is still a tag, it’s your tag. It’s a single script on your site that you own – sending data to your cloud or on-premise server. So you can feel comfortable saying “bye-bye” to third-party tags.
For more information on this subject, watch the video above with Ted Solomon, founder and CEO of CTRL Digital, and let us know if you have any questions.
Once you have this data on your server-side environment, you decide what you want to pass on to your marketing platforms. You can choose what data you feed the algorithms and remain in control.
To do this, you simply deploy a server-side cookie (also called an HTTP-only cookie).
The key benefits, as mentioned earlier, are:
- Improved campaign management: You have better campaign follow-up for users that have taken certain actions on your site. You can feed your algorithm with the data that you know is valuable so that your ad platforms are continuously optimized.
- Improved site performance: Your site’s performance improves because you’re not running a dozen scripts. Fewer tags in your website or app mean less code to run.
- More security and control of your data: You decide what data you want to share with third-party vendors. That data is safer when collected and shared in a customer-managed, server-side environment.
So, there you have it!
Server-side tagging is a fantastic way to improve your website’s performance, user experience, and what you share with other platforms.
Thanks for reading!