Server-side tracking: A more secure replacement for third-party cookies

7 min. read

It’s safe to say that in a few years, third-party cookies won’t even be an option for tracking website users’ activities.

In fact, Google has made it clear that phasing out third-party cookies is 100% on the docket for the months & years ahead–meaning marketers are losing one more tool in the toolbelt very, very soon.

That’s where server-side tracking comes in.

If you’re looking for a solution that protects user privacy and gives you the data you need to make smart digital decisions, here’s how you can get started with server-side tracking.

What is server-side tracking?

Server-side tracking means gathering information about how people use a website or app directly from the server where the website or app is hosted, rather than from the person’s device.

It’s like having a server take notes on what people do on a website, rather than relying on the person’s computer or phone to do the tracking.

This approach offers several advantages:

  • Improved privacy: Since data collection happens on the server, it’s possible to gather information without relying on potentially intrusive client-side techniques. This can enhance user privacy and reduce concerns about tracking.
  • Reduced reliance on client-side technology: Server-side tracking can be beneficial in scenarios where client-side JavaScript may not be reliable or available, such as with certain devices or browser configurations.
  • Enhanced security: By centralizing data collection and processing on the server, it’s easier to implement security measures and control access to sensitive information.
  • Reduced client-side overhead: Offloading tracking tasks to the server can reduce the processing load on the client’s device, leading to faster page load times and a smoother user experience.

You can’t count on third-party cookies for long, and server-side tracking is really the best solution to keep collecting valuable data.

How will server-side tracking change the data we can collect?

When we talk about server-side tracking being more private, secure, and efficient, it’s because the data collection is happening on the server where the website or app is hosted, rather than on the user’s device.

This means that there’s less chance of personal information being exposed to third parties or vulnerable to hacking attempts. Also, since the tracking happens on the server, it can be more efficient in terms of processing power and speed, leading to a smoother user experience.

However, there’s a trade-off. Because server-side tracking relies on data being sent directly from the server, it might miss some of the smaller interactions or details that happen on the user’s device.

For example, it might not capture every mouse movement or button click as accurately as client-side tracking (where tracking happens directly in the user’s browser). This means that while server-side tracking provides valuable insights, it might not give a complete picture of how users interact with a website or app.

Why make the shift to server-side tracking?

The phasing out of third-party cookies is driving changes in how online tracking and user data collection are done.

Third-party cookies, which are bits of code placed on a website by a domain other than the one the user is visiting, have been commonly used for tracking users across different websites. However, privacy concerns and increased regulation have led to major web browsers like Google Chrome, Safari, and Firefox moving away from supporting third-party cookies.

Server-side tracking becomes more relevant in this context because it offers an alternative way to track user interactions without relying on cookies. Since server-side tracking collects data directly from the server hosting the website or app, it’s less dependent on cookies stored in the user’s browser.

This means that even as third-party cookies are phased out, websites and advertisers can still gather valuable data about user behavior through server-side tracking.

The emergence of server-side tracking as an alternative to third-party cookies is really just a reflection of an even bigger trend in the industry, signifying a move towards:

  • Enhanced privacy compliance: Aligning with regulations like GDPR and CCPA by minimizing data exposure.
  • Improved data accuracy: Reducing discrepancies caused by browser restrictions or ad blockers.
  • Increased control over data: Offering businesses precise handling of the data collected.

Simplifying server-side tracking with Google Tag Manager

Google Tag Manager (GTM) simplifies the transition to server-side tracking, making the process of implementing server-side tracking more accessible and manageable, especially for businesses and website owners who might not have extensive technical expertise.

Because GTM uses a server container to manage data collection and transmission seamlessly, this approach democratizes access to advanced tracking capabilities.

The result: tracking capabilities that are even more accessible to marketers of varying technical expertise.

Key benefits include:

  • A streamlined data collection process.
  • Reduced reliance on client-side mechanisms, mitigating the impact of ad blockers.
  • Enhanced security and privacy of data transmission.

Enhancing server-side tracking accuracy with a custom loader

Want to make it even more accurate? A custom loader can be your ally.

A custom loader is a feature provided by platforms like Google Tag Manager (GTM) that allows users to define how and when tracking tags are loaded onto their website or application. Instead of relying on the default loading mechanism, users can customize the process to better suit their specific tracking needs.

This tool is designed to enhance the precision of server-side tracking, especially useful in navigating around the limitations posed by ad blockers that might block GTM itself.

With a custom loader, you get:

  • Control over tag loading: With a custom loader, users have precise control over when tracking tags are loaded and executed. This can help ensure that tracking tags are fired at the right moment, capturing relevant user interactions accurately. For server-side tracking, where data is collected directly from the server, timing is crucial to capturing events and interactions reliably.
  • Seamless integration: A custom loader allows for seamless integration of server-side tracking configurations into the website or application’s codebase. Users can define how tracking tags are loaded alongside other elements of the site, ensuring compatibility and minimizing conflicts with existing code.
  • Optimized performance: By customizing the loading process, users can optimize performance by minimizing unnecessary delays or resource consumption. This is particularly important for server-side tracking, where efficient data collection is essential for providing accurate insights into user behavior.
  • Flexibility and adaptability: A custom loader offers flexibility to adapt to changing tracking requirements or updates in the tracking configuration. Users can easily adjust the loading logic or add new tracking tags as needed, without having to overhaul the entire tracking setup.
  • Enhanced debugging and troubleshooting: With a custom loader, users can implement robust debugging and troubleshooting mechanisms to identify and resolve issues with tracking tags more effectively. This ensures that server-side tracking operates smoothly and reliably, enhancing the accuracy of the data collected.

What impact does Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) have on server-side tracking?

Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) is another factor that can have a pretty major impact on server side tracking.

Implemented by browsers like Safari, ITP significantly impacts the lifespan of cookies, particularly those set by third-party IP addresses.

With the latest ITP updates, cookies set by these third parties are limited to a maximum lifespan of 7 days, or even as little as 24 hours if the URL has query parameters (like utm_source, click ids, etc.), drastically reducing the time window for tracking user interactions and sessions.

Obviously, this poses a challenge for traditional client-side tracking methods that rely heavily on cookies for persistent user identification.

However, leveraging a cookie extender method through server-side tracking can mitigate this limitation.

By periodically refreshing cookies on the server side, businesses can extend their lifespan beyond the 7-day restriction imposed by ITP.

This method can help ensure continuous and reliable tracking of user activities over longer periods, meaning you can better maintain data accuracy and support effective analytics.

Server-side Google Tag Manager (GTM) can facilitate this process, allowing businesses to manage and implement the necessary configurations to keep cookies active and useful for extended tracking purposes.

It’s time to make the switch to server-side tracking

The end of third-party cookies is happening—and although it might feel like a new and frustrating challenge, it’s also an opportunity to innovate and improve your digital tracking methodologies.

By embracing server-side tracking and integrating tools like custom loaders, businesses can navigate this transition smoothly. This evolution towards a more secure, privacy-focused digital ecosystem allows for better compliance, improved data accuracy, and a competitive edge in the digital marketplace.

If you’re ready to get started with server-side tracking, here’s a checklist for some of the most important steps you should follow:

  1. Assess your current tracking setup: Understand what data you’re currently collecting and how it’s being collected (e.g., client-side JavaScript tracking, third-party cookies). Identify any limitations or privacy concerns associated with your existing tracking methods.
  2. Choose a server-side tracking solution: Research and evaluate server-side tracking solutions that best fit your business needs. Look for platforms or tools that offer features such as customizable tracking configurations, integration with existing analytics systems, and robust data privacy controls. We really like
  3. Implement server-side tracking: Once you’ve chosen a server-side tracking solution, work on implementing it into your website or application. This may involve configuring tracking tags, setting up data collection endpoints on your server, and integrating the tracking solution with your existing infrastructure.
  4. Test and validate: Before fully deploying server-side tracking, thoroughly test and validate the implementation to ensure that data is being collected accurately and reliably. Test various user interactions and scenarios to identify any potential issues or discrepancies.
  5. Address privacy and compliance: Ensure that your server-side tracking implementation complies with relevant privacy regulations and standards, such as GDPR or CCPA. Implement data anonymization, consent management, and other privacy-enhancing measures to protect user data.
  6. Monitor and optimize: Continuously monitor the performance and accuracy of your server-side tracking implementation. Use analytics dashboards and reports to track key metrics and identify areas for improvement. Optimize your tracking configurations and workflows to enhance data quality and usability.

Intimidated by this change? We get it—and we can help. If you need a partner to help guide your business through the transition to server-side tracking, we can help.

Get in touch with our team today and let’s get your business ready for the end of third-party cookies with the right server-side tracking solution.

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