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Server-Side Tracking: What It Is and Why You Need It

Server-Side Tracking: What It Is and Why You Need It

We’re about to enter the cookieless era: in January 2024 the first 1% of users will face cookie deprecation, while the full phasing out is expected by the third quarter of the year. Cookies have been traditionally used for client-side tracking that provides precious insights into user behavior, thus effectively enabling targeting, personalization and campaign optimization. However, the impending obsolescence of third-party cookies throws a wrench in these gears. Enter server-side tracking, a revolutionary approach that sidesteps cookie challenges and unlocks a future-proof world of data collection.

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What Does Cookie Deprecation Mean and When Does It Start?

What Does Cookie Deprecation Mean and When Does It Start

Let’s first see what cookies are and what they do. These deliciously named little files contain text with some information (more on that shortly) – at the minimum, a name and a value. When someone visits your website, their browser stores this information using cookies and then uses it to make subsequent user sessions (visits) more useful and faster. Cookies can also store information about the visit like the device you used, the type of browser, and associated online activity.

At this point, it’s important to distinguish several basic types of cookies:

  • Session cookies: These cookies are stored only for the duration of the visit to a website. Once the browser session ends, they are deleted. These cookies are particularly important in eCommerce, where they help items stay in your cart while you browse other products, for example.
  • Persistent cookies: As their name suggests, these don’t end with the browsing session. Websites use these to gather user information so they can remember it for the next visit, providing better UX (e.g. user name and password). These cookies have various expiration dates but can’t last longer than six months.
  • First-party cookies: These are the cookies created and stored by the website you’re visiting. Similarly to persistent cookies (and they are, in some way, the same thing), they last longer and help improve user experience by remembering language settings, cart items, user name, location, etc. These cookies are considered “essential” or “necessary” by data legal regulations.
  • Third-party cookies: This is where we come to the gist of the cookie deprecation issue. Third-party cookies are issued by another entity – not the website you’re visiting, hence their name. Usually, they’re created by advertisers in order to associate your activity with a website on which you clicked on an ad. These cookies are essential for user tracking and monitoring ad campaign success. They follow the user around the web and serve relevant ads on various websites based on your activity.

Certain types of cookies come as a core feature of WordPress and it’s important to learn how to manage them. While we’re at it, it’s also vital to make sure your WordPress website is GDPR compliant.

In 2023, Google announced that throughout 2024 it will be gradually phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome. Cookie deprecation started on January 4th for 1% of the users and the rollout is expected to be completed by the third quarter of the year.

This way, Chrome is finally joining Safari and Firefox, the browsers that have already been blocking third-party cookies by default for years. And not just that – Google has announced that it will not be rolling out any other form of user-level ad identifiers to replace third-party cookies.

The purpose of cookie deprecation is to meet users’ and regulators’ privacy concerns, since third-party cookies can store sensitive and personal information whose sharing the users did not opt-in for.

For “regular” users, this is great news. No one feels comfortable with companies looking into our browsing behavior, let alone our personal information, for their own profit. However, for many – primarily for advertisers, and for website owners as well, this will cause a bit of disruption, because of significantly reduced tracking and targeting abilities.

What Will Happen With Tracking and Targeting?

What Will Happen With Tracking and Targeting

Once the cookie phase-out is complete, which is due by Q3 2024, advertisers will no longer be able to use cookies to target and retarget users based on their browsing history and interactions. This means a significantly reduced ability to craft strategies based on user data like likes and dislikes, patterns, behaviors, locations, etc. This data was used to make ad strategies more relevant, displaying ads to users who are actually likely to interact with them. If you’ve ever wondered how come you get so many ads for used cars and so few for luxury glamping vans (or vice versa, if you’re lucky), you now understand why.

Relying solely on first-party cookies is hardly a compensation for what advertisers and website owners running ads will lose with cookie deprecation. The scope of first-party cookies is rather limited, and they are not as reliable as third-party ones.

One of the possible solutions for the loss of cookie-based targeting abilities is zero-party targeting, which means collecting data directly from users, with their consent, through surveys, forms and loyalty programs.

Another significant aid may come in the form of good old contextual targeting. Once the premiere method, contextual advertising has since been discounted but now may be the right time to bring it back.

Contextual advertising, in short, means displaying ads that are relevant to the content of the page. These ads are significantly more relevant and, let’s be honest, less creepy than those served through behavioral targeting. People have various interests. You would probably feel more at ease if WordPress-related ads were displayed on WordPress-related blogs or marketplaces than on your favorite cooking blog, and vice versa. When you see an ad for something relevant for you but completely out of place context-wise, you start to feel like you’re being followed (which, to an extent, you are – through cookies).

There are many other things advertisers can do to bridge the gap that will open once the cookies are gone, but server-side tracking is probably one of the most efficient ones.

What Is Server-Side Tracking?

What Is Server-Side Tracking

Just as its name suggests, server-side tracking (SST) is a method of data collection directly on a cloud server, rather than in the browser (which is what we call client-side tracking). It can collect data like page views, clicks, downloads, and many others. The server processes, stores and potentially enriches the data by combining it with first-party data. The data is further managed and organized by solutions like Google Tag Manager Server-Side or similar, providing valuable analytics and marketing insights. With data being stored and processed on the server, the vulnerability to breaches and leaks is much lower, which makes SST a more secure method than traditional client-side tracking.

The data is sent to end users like data vendors, data collection partners or analytics platforms. And this is first-party data you’re controlling, which means you get to decide which data you will share with vendors, increasing the privacy standards.

On the downside, compared to client-side tracking, server-side tracking does mean slower data connection and it’s definitely more complicated and more expensive to set up and maintain. In most cases, it requires expertise that not many brands or businesses have in-house, but the job can easily be outsourced.

Another benefit of server side tracking is that it improves site performance. By removing or reducing Javascript running the user’s browser, you get faster load times, and consequently better UX and better rankings.

Finally, server-side tracking is simply more accurate. In client-side tracking, your efforts are helpless in front of users with ad blockers or settings that limit tracking scripts and cookies. Server-side tracking is not affected by adblockers and LTP (Link Tracking Protection) settings, and with more precise data, you can make better-informed decisions and shape your strategies.

Server-Side Tracking and WordPress

Server-Side Tracking and WordPress

Server-side tagging can easily be integrated with any WordPress website, although it’s not a feature that comes in its core. As usual, the solution comes in the form of plugins that automate the process and facilitate the integration.

For instance, GTM Server Side by Stape is a free and simple plugin that helps users add or modify the web GTM (Google Tag Manager) script with the tagging server URL to every page on a website. It can work with any other GTM plugin without interference, and it adds a custom loader. This is important since it can hide the GTM and GA tracking from ad blockers, contributing to more accurate tracking and measurement. The plugin optimizes page speed by sending events to GTM without any JS library. It also sends data layer events (eCommerce and user data) and webhooks.

Note that there’s no single plugin that will take care of everything for you, including server-side tracking setup. Complete novices are advised to seek help from experts to properly set up events and configure server side tagging and tracking for their WordPress website. This is particularly true for WooCommerce websites (online shops) where proper tracking and attribution are vital for growing sales.

Even if you do end up with additional costs for technical and resource requirements of implementing server side tracking in WordPress, you’ll still be benefiting from this implementation. Server-side tracking improves ad revenue potential, helps assure GDPR compliance and future-proofs tracking capabilities.

Wrapping It Up

Server-side tracking is vital in adapting to the cookieless future and maintaining effective online advertising. Client-side tracking as we know it is no longer enough, and to achieve the maximum of your ad and marketing strategies, server-side tagging has become an indispensable technique.

Sure, it may not be beginner-friendly and it may not be cheap. But the costs of setup and configuration are basically one-time budget spends, and if you do possess a little know-how you can easily implement this method on your WordPress website using a free plugin.

Server-side tracking is about to change the online advertising landscape with its valuable advantages that help overcome current limitations. From resistance to ad blockers and overcoming privacy concerns to giving you more control over your data, richer and more accurate data and enhanced performance, the benefits of server side tracking are too many to be ignored.

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