Server-side tracking: what is it, and why should you consider implementing it?

In our brand new video series ‘Tricks of the Trade’, we take a deep dive into a technology or innovation we think you should be aware of. In the first installment, our digital analyst Lara Vandooren explains what server-side tracking is, and why you should care.

Lara Vandooren
Lara Vandooren

The old way: client-side tracking

To understand server-side tracking, you need to know how customer data is generally tracked today. When users browse the web, Google tracks their behavior via cookies – short strings of code saved onto their hard drive by their browser. This is called client-side tracking: the cookies are stored on the user’s device, and the data is collected by a third party, in this case Google. You’re basically asking Google to track your users for you.

Up until now, regulation has been very limited, and most consumers have remained unaware of how Google services use their data to generate revenue.

There are two necessary conditions for client-side tracking:

  • The user needs to allow cookies
  • The browser used needs to allow tracking

So long, third-party cookies

As awareness of the high volume of data gathered by tech companies is growing, third-party cookies have come to symbolize this data gluttony. As a result, Google’s competitors have decided to get rid of third-party cookies. Browsers like Safari and Firefox no longer allow them. Apple has even made privacy its unique selling point, going head to head with data-hungry companies like Facebook and Google to protect the privacy of its users.

Moreover, GDPR requires users to consent to third-party cookies, and the number of people consenting is steadily decreasing. There is a clear anti-cookie trend, both among users and companies.

In short: those two conditions are slowly but surely disappearing, which means client-side tracking will soon be a thing of the past.

The consequences

This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. If you’re visiting a website and you’re using a browser with tracking protection, your browser will automatically block the request to send data from your browser to Google Analytics. This means you become practically invisible, and the company running the website is completely in the dark about who their visitors are.

This is already happening today. Since Apple has disabled tracking by default, companies don’t have any access to data from Mac and Safari users. The same goes for OS, and anyone using an iPhone is therefore no longer part of your trackable audience.

The solution: server-side tracking

But there is good news. You now have an alternative to client-side tracking: server-side tracking.

With server-side tracking, you don’t gather data via users’ devices or browsers, but on your own domain, such as your website. Basically, you ask your visitors for consent to track them. If they consent, you can then directly collect the user data. This data is stored on your own server, instead of Google’s. In other words: it’s a form of first-party data.

This is a much more transparent way of tracking. You become your own data provider, meaning you take responsibility for that data. And your users don’t give away data to an unknown third party. It’s a privacy best practice.

Want the full story on server-side tracking?

Lara and Nicolas dig deeper on our Youtube channel.

How do you implement server-side tracking?

Server-side tracking is not a new phenomenon. In fact, big companies like Spotify and Netflix have been doing this for years. If you’re using the Netflix app, for example, Netflix is directly tracking your behavior without using cookies. And now, this strategy is finding its way to small and medium sized companies.

Depending on your company’s size and data needs, there are a few possible approaches.

  • If you have the technical knowledge in-house, you can build your own cloud solution. However, you need a very specific skillset to set up and maintain this kind of tracking approach. So, this is really only an option for big companies.
  • The good news is that you no longer need a custom-built tool. You can opt for a vendor-created solution. There are ready-to-implement tools that are affordable, such as Segment.com and Eventstream by Tealium.

One thing is clear: third-party cookies will soon disappear. And the companies who don’t act on this today will be left behind soon enough. With server-side tracking, you can take your data strategy in your own hands, and stay ahead in this fast changing landscape.


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About the author

Lara Vandooren

My qualitative studies and quantitative data background gives me a broad understanding of marketing. I like to explore new and creative ideas that can help us with meeting our client’s satisfaction.