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Surprising move by Google: Tag Manager can now be hosted on different servers

If you’re familiar with our first-party data philosophy, you probably know that we’re big proponents of server-side tracking. Without much fuss, Google has silently allowed their Tag Manager tool to be hosted on any server through a Docker container. What’s surprising is that Google usually doesn’t allow its applications to run outside of its own ecosphere. Does this move announce a new strategy from Google?

Server-side tracking?

At MultiMinds, we’re firm believers in server-side tracking as a futureproof first-party data strategy. Not sure what server-side tracking is all about? Our own Nicolas Lierman and Lara Vandooren break it down in our video series Tricks of the Trade.

Google’s inescapable ecosystem

In the past two decades or so, Google has built its own ecosystem with virtually any tool imaginable, and their dominant position is evident. One of the reasons for that near-monopoly, is that Google discourages users to go outside of their ecosystem. So, if you use Google marketing cloud, you’ll enjoy seamless access to all of Google’s features and products. But using a Google tool outside of the ecosystem was impossible.

What's changed?

Recently, Google allows its server-side Tag Manager – the tag management system used for tracking and analytics on websites – to run outside of the ecosystem. They did so by allowing to run GTM inside a Docker container.

A Docker container is a unit of software that packages code of an application, so it can run from one computing environment to another. This container includes everything needed to run an application, including code, system libraries and settings. So a container is a self-contained kind of mini-computer that copies an application and enables it to run on any computing environment.

Since Google usually doesn’t allow its applications to run outside of their own ecosystem, their applications couldn’t be transferred to a container. But now, Google has enabled this feature for GTM. In other words, you can now transfer GTM to a Docker container, and run it on an external environment, for instance on a non-Google cloud server or a self-hosted server.

How does this relate to server-side tracking?

With server-side tracking, you don’t gather data via users’ devices or browsers (aka client-side), but on your own domain, such as your website. Basically, if your users consent to tracking them, you can directly collect the user data on your website or app. This data is stored on your own server, instead of Google’s.

Although Google made server-side tracking possible in the past through GTM SS container, this was strictly limited to a Google cloud environment. Now, thanks to the newly allowed Docker functionality, you can effectively run GTM first-party, on your own server. You can look at this like a second offering from Google next to hosting GTM on the Google cloud.

Who is this for?

This feature is especially interesting if you’re already using the GTM infrastructure. If you also host your own server, then this is the feature that will allow you to move to a first-party data strategy. And if you’re not using GTM right now, this feature has made the tool a lot more interesting. Since the Docker container option is enabled, you can now benefit from GTM’s powerful features, even if you have your own server or a server in an Azure or AWS environment.

Google’s new strategy

This surely isn’t a decision we expected to see from Google, since they are now basically opening up access to and control of data that they infamously kept inaccessible in the past. Presumably Google wants to offer their customers the option to allow server-side tracking, because GTM's server-side capability is far behind on the competition. Since third-party data structures are under scrutiny lately, it makes sense that Google should look towards the future. The fact that this new feature has gotten very little attention, signifies that it’s a quiet change of direction. But it’s surely one that we at MultiMinds encourage.