Understanding user behavior on your website is crucial to making informed decisions and optimizing your online presence, and the transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 (GA4) has introduced profound improvements in our ability to do so.
If your business has not done so already, this may also be a great time to consider implementing server side tracking, which is not only more accurate, but can also capture data that is wholly unavailable on the client side. In this article, we’ll dive into the unique capabilities of server side tracking, its advantages, and different options for setting it up. Let’s get started!
Unique Insights from Server Side Tracking
While both methods have their merits, server side tracking can provide insights that client side cannot. As an example from the e-commerce sector, by directly interfacing with backend systems, server side tracking can capture detailed transactional data, refunds, and backend events (e.g., notifications from payment gateways of successful payments, server errors) that are challenging to track on the client side. Server side tracking can also unlock unified user profiles. By combining data from multiple touchpoints (e.g., websites, mobile apps, CRMs), a more holistic view of user journeys is created, including offline interactions such as in-store purchases.
Other Advantages of Server Side Tracking
- Improved Data Accuracy: Browsers’ restrictions on third-party cookies and increased use of ad-blockers can limit the accuracy of client side tracking. With server side tracking, these limitations are significantly reduced, giving you a clearer picture of user behavior.
- Reduced Data from Bot Traffic: Client side tracking might inadvertently capture bots as they crawl a site. With server side tracking, it’s easier to filter out this non-human traffic based on information from server logs (e.g., known bot IP address ranges, suspicious traffic patterns or request rates).
- Enhanced Data Security: Server side tracking provides more control over user data. You can filter out sensitive information before it reaches Google Analytics, ensuring the privacy of your users and compliance with data protection regulations.
- Reduced Latency: By processing data on the server side, website performance can be optimized, leading to faster load times and better user experience.
- More Customization: With direct access to raw data, businesses can tailor data collection and integration according to their specific needs, leading to more insightful analytics.
Setting Up Server Side Tracking
Both the Google Tag Manager (GTM) Server Container and the Google Analytics Measurement Protocol (GA MP) can be used to send server side tracking data to GA4. Picking between them isn’t just about “which is better?” but more about what suits your specific requirements, your familiarity with the tech, and the kind of technical infrastructure you possess. Before diving into the differences, let’s first grasp a foundational concept: server side tagging.
What is Server Side Tagging? Understanding Server Side Tagging
At its heart, server side tagging is about where and how data from users interacting with your website (i.e., your client side data) gets processed. Here’s a simple breakdown:
- Client Side Tagging: Think of this as the direct route. When a user interacts with your site, the data immediately gets sent to third-party platforms like Google Analytics or Facebook Pixel.
- Server side Tagging (using GTM Server Container): This is a two-step journey. First, the data goes from your site to a special place on your own servers, called the server container. After some potential tinkering and processing, this data is then forwarded to third-party platforms like Google Analytics.
Why Bother with Server Side Tagging?
There are multiple advantages to having a server container play middleman. Here are just a couple:
- More Control: You get to decide what data goes forward to third-party platforms. This means you can keep certain user information private if you want to.
- Better Performance: Your website can potentially run faster. Some tasks that were handled by the user’s browser are now managed by your server.
A notable feature of the GTM Server Container is that it can handle triggers from the backend of your site, giving you a method for server side tracking.
Deciding Between GTM Server Container and GA MP
Now that you’ve got a handle on the basics, we’ll delve into the specifics of using GTM Server Container and GA MP for server side tracking, helping you pick the best fit.
Google Tag Manager Server Container (GTM SC)
- Unified Management: If you’re already using GTM for client side tracking, adding server side tracking using the same tool can make management easier.
- Flexibility with Tags: GTM is built to handle multiple tags, triggers, and variables. If you have various marketing and tracking tools, GTM can act as a centralized hub.
- UI-driven: GTM offers a user-friendly interface, which might be easier for teams to handle compared to direct API calls with GA MP.
- Pre-built Integrations: GTM often has templates and pre-built integrations for various third-party tools.
- Additional Layer: GTM acts as a middle layer between your server and GA, which can introduce additional points of failure.
- Learning Curve: If you’re new to GTM, there can be a steep learning curve to understand its nuances.
- Pricing: The server side tagging approach using GTM means you are practically hosting the server side container on your infrastructure of choice, which not only adds further layers of complexity but also additional costs. This is not usually a deploy and forget solution. It will require periodic maintenance from your systems administrator to keep everything up to date.
Google Analytics Measurement Protocol (GA MP)
- Flexibility: With GA MP, you’re interacting directly with the Google Analytics API. This gives you more granular control over the data you send and how you send it.
- Direct Integration: Especially useful if you have backend systems or other applications you wish to integrate directly with GA without needing the GTM layer.
- Less Overhead: Without the additional layer of GTM, the process can be more streamlined.
- Complexity: Directly working with the Measurement Protocol might be more complex, and it requires familiarity with APIs.
- Maintenance: As GA updates or introduces changes, you may need to update your server side code to keep up with these changes.
Which to Choose?
- If you’re already using GTM for other tracking needs, and your team is familiar with its workings, then using the GTM Server Container might be more efficient. It centralizes your tagging needs and might be simpler to maintain in the long run.
- If you’re looking for a more direct, streamlined method and your team is comfortable working directly with APIs, then the Measurement Protocol could be the right choice.
Remember, the primary goal is to ensure accurate, reliable, and efficient data transmission to GA4. Both routes can achieve this; it’s more about which fits best within your existing infrastructure and team’s expertise.
If you’re unsure, consider consulting with an agency familiar with GA4 server side tracking. They can provide guidance tailored to your specific needs and environment.
Tips for Successfully Setting Up Server Side Tracking
Setting up server side tracking is a strategic move to enhance the accuracy, security, and comprehensiveness of your data analytics. Here are some crucial tips to ensure a successful setup:
1. Define Clear Objectives
Understand why you’re moving to server side tracking. Whether it’s for more accurate data, to bypass browser limitations, or to integrate offline data, having clear objectives will guide the setup process.
2. Start with a Plan
Map out the entire flow of data, from capture to analysis. Knowing where data originates from and where it’s going can help prevent gaps or overlaps in tracking.
3. Test in a Staging Environment
Before implementing server side tracking on your live website, test the setup on a staging or development environment. This can help catch and fix issues before they affect real users.
4. Maintain Data Integrity
Ensure that data transformation or aggregation on the server does not compromise data accuracy. Double-check calculations and data processing logic.
5. Document Everything
Maintaining thorough documentation helps in troubleshooting issues and makes it easier for new team members to understand the setup.
6. Monitor Server Performance
Adding server side tracking can affect server load. Regularly monitor server performance to ensure it remains optimal, and be prepared to scale resources if needed.
7. Stay Updated
Analytics tools and best practices evolve. Stay updated with the latest in server side tracking methodologies, or work with an agency that does, to ensure your setup remains effective and efficient.
8. Integrate Client Side Data
Combine server side data with client side tracking to achieve a more comprehensive perspective on user behavior and system performance. Just as server side tracking can capture data that client side cannot, the reverse is also true. Client side tracking is necessary to capture events such as clicks, scrolls, device and browser information, page load times, and much more.
9. Filter Out Noise
Utilize the power of server side processing to filter out bot traffic, duplicate hits, or other ‘noise’ that can skew analytics.
10. Invest in Error Logging
Ensure you have robust error logging and notification mechanisms. This can help quickly detect and rectify any issues in your server side tracking setup.
11. Ensure Compliance with Privacy Regulations
12. Regularly Audit and Review
Periodically review your server side tracking setup. Check for data discrepancies, broken events, or other issues that may arise over time.
Setting up server side tracking can offer numerous advantages, but it requires careful planning and execution. By following these tips, you can ensure a more successful implementation that provides valuable, accurate, and actionable insights.
While client side tracking offers invaluable insights into user behavior, adding the power of server side tracking unveils deeper, more nuanced data. From capturing backend events and third-party webhooks to providing enhanced data security and accuracy, server side tracking emerges as an indispensable tool for businesses aiming for comprehensive analytics. Choosing the right setup, be it via Google Tag Manager or Google Measurement Protocol, should align with your specific needs and infrastructure. But remember, the tool is only as effective as its implementation. With meticulous planning, continuous monitoring, and adherence to best practices, server side tracking can unlock unparalleled insights, setting the stage for informed decision-making and strategic growth.
Need Help? Contact Us!
Server side tracking with GA4 can be complex, but our agency has experts ready to assist. Contact us today, and let’s optimize your analytics to get you the data that you need to make informed business decisions. Your online success deserves nothing less than the best!