As the digital analytics industry has matured over the last several years, one general trend has been that it’s become progressively easier to manage the basics of data collection. For example, the advent of tag management systems like Google Tag Manager has meant that even non-technical users can now deploy, update, and retire tags with relative ease. However, with the rise of consumer concern about privacy, and the resulting change in the regulatory environment surrounding data and analytics, organizations are now faced with the challenge of collecting and processing user data in a much more privacy-safe, secure, and compliant manner. This is where server-side tracking comes into play.

Server-side tracking refers to the process of collecting and processing user data on the server-side rather than on the client-side. We covered the basics of server-side tracking in an earlier post; in this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into the benefits of server-side tracking, including governance, compliance, data quality, and user experience improvements.

Data Governance

One of the significant advantages of server-side tracking is that it gives organizations the ability to edit data payloads before the data reaches a third-party endpoint. This is a crucial aspect of governance, as it enables businesses to ensure that the data they collect and share is accurate and compliant with various policies, regulations, etc.

With client-side tracking, organizations rely on JavaScript tags or pixels to collect user data directly from a user’s browser. This data is then sent directly to third-party endpoints, such as Google Analytics or Meta, for processing and analysis. However, organizations have limited ability to manipulate that data before it reaches these endpoints, which can lead to discrepancies, inaccuracies, and even compliance issues.

Server-side tracking, on the other hand, enables businesses to “intercept” data before it reaches third-party endpoints. This means that they can edit and manipulate data to ensure that they only send the data that is necessary, and that they do so in a manner that is as accurate and compliant as possible.

For example, if a user has consented to tracking for the purposes of website analytics, but not consented to data being shared for advertising purposes, businesses can ensure that the user’s data is prevented from being shared with advertising platforms. At the same time, they can allow the user’s data to be shared with a website analytics system. To learn more about user consent and analytics, read our blog post on consent mode.

In addition, server-side tracking can also help businesses identify and prevent data breaches. With client-side tracking, data is generally stored in cookies, which are vulnerable to attacks such as cross-site scripting (XSS). These attacks can be used to steal or manipulate user data, which can lead to serious data breaches.

Server-side tracking, however, stores data on a server you control, which is more secure and less vulnerable to these types of attacks. This means that businesses can have greater confidence that user data is protected, reducing the risk of data breaches.

Ultimately, server-side tracking provides businesses with greater control — compared to client-side tracking — over the data they collect and share. It enables them to manipulate data payloads before they reach third-party endpoints, ensuring that they are only collecting and sharing data that is necessary and compliant. This helps businesses to maintain data accuracy, prevent data breaches, and ensure compliance with data privacy regulations.

Compliance

Let’s take a closer look at how the improved governance that server-side tracking provides leads directly to better compliance. One recent regulatory change affecting many businesses is the updated HIPAA guidance regarding analytics platforms. HIPAA requires that protected health information (PHI) not be shared impermissibly, and defines PHI quite broadly. As one example, server-side tracking can help organizations comply with HIPAA regulations by ensuring that PHI is stripped from data payloads before the data is sent to a third-party analytics platform. For example, a healthcare organization may use server-side tracking to collect user data from their website, such as page views, video views, and more. This data is then sent to a third-party analytics platform, such as Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics, for processing and analysis. However, if the data payload contains any PHI, the organization must ensure that this information is removed before it is sent to the third-party platform. This is where server-side tracking can help. 

With server-side tracking, the organization can intercept the data payload before it is sent to the third-party platform. This enables them to ensure that only non-sensitive data is shared with the third-party platform. This helps the organization comply with HIPAA regulations by ensuring that PHI is kept confidential and secure.

Server-side tracking can also help organizations comply with a wide variety of other data privacy regulations. The underlying principle is that because organizations have more control over exactly what data is collected and then shared with third parties, they are much better-equipped to navigate the regulatory requirements to which they are subject.

Data Quality

Server-side tracking isn’t just about getting the control you need to comply with regulations. It also arguably provides better data completeness and data quality than client-side tracking, because it is not as prone to issues that affect client-side tracking, such as tracking blockers, ad blockers, and the like. These blockers can prevent JavaScript tags or pixels from firing, leading to incomplete or missing data.

Server-side tracking, however, doesn’t directly send data to third-party destinations, and hence isn’t as affected by blockers installed on the user’s browser. Instead, tracking is done strictly in a first-party context — for example, by sending data to a domain like metrics.yoursite.com. This makes your data collection less prone to tracking blockers, which in turn leads to better data completeness and quality. It’s important to note that organizations shouldn’t move to server-side tracking to “evade” these kinds of blockers; however, for organizations who want to get serious about governance and compliance, the added data completeness is an extra benefit.

In addition to providing better completeness, server-side tracking also provides better data quality because it enables businesses to perform various validation and cleansing processes before the data is sent to third-party endpoints. For example, businesses can use server-side tracking to check for duplicate data or invalid data, leading to better analysis, insights, and outcomes.

User Experience Improvements

Lastly, it’s worth calling out that moving to server-side tracking isn’t just about the benefits that a business can derive; there’s also the potential to directly extend major user experience improvements to your audience. This is principally because moving to server-side tracking can help you reduce website latency. Website latency refers to the amount of time it takes for a web page to load, and is a critical factor that affects user experience. Slow website performance plagues many organizations, and can lead to frustration and abandonment, which has obvious consequences for engagement, conversions, and ultimately revenue.

With client-side tracking, tracking code is executed in the user’s browser, which can slow down website performance. This is because the browser must download and execute the tracking code before the page can fully load. This can lead to delays in page load times and slower website performance.

Server-side tracking, on the other hand, can dramatically reduce the amount of code that needs to be downloaded and executed in the browser. With server-side tracking, you can use a minimal amount of client-side tagging to generate a single stream of events which are sent to a server. Then, from that server, you can manage the routing of data to various endpoints from the server itself. In other words, because the client is less bogged down downloading JavaScript libraries for a variety of third-party systems, pages load faster, experiences are smoother, and users are happier.

A couple of other UX benefits to keep in mind: server-side tracking can also improve user experience by reducing the risk of data breaches and security vulnerabilities, as discussed above. In addition, improving site latency can also have a positive impact on search engine rankings. Search engines use page load times as a ranking factor, which means that websites with slower load times may rank lower in search results. By reducing website latency through server-side tracking, businesses can improve their search engine rankings and attract more traffic to their website.

Conclusion

In conclusion, server-side tracking offers numerous benefits for businesses, including improved governance, compliance, data quality, and user experience improvements. With the rise of data privacy concerns and regulations, server-side tracking provides a more secure and compliant way of collecting and processing user data. It also ensures that businesses have reliable and accurate data to make informed decisions, while improving the user experience. Therefore, it’s important for businesses to consider adopting server-side tracking as part of their data strategy.

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