Marketing Director and Consultancy

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Principles and Benefits of Server-Side Tracking

User data-tracking has changed but all is not lost!

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Apple’s iOS 14 has a new feature that blocks third-party tracking by default. This is great for user privacy, but it can be a problem for those of us who rely on tracking data to plan our marketing strategies and machine learning optimization of paid media campaigns. Fortunately, there are ways to bypass this blocking and still collect data from users known as ‘server-side tracking’. In this blog post, we will discuss the principles of server-side tracking and how you can use them to bypass iOS 14’s third-party tracking blocking.

Apple is now the brand of user-first privacy 🤨

Apple’s iOS14 operating system has, by default, blocked traditional tracking methods used to send data from the user’s browser, to third party tracking services.

Traditionally, website user tracking is performed by leaving a cookie (tiny text file) on the user’s phone whilst a small JavaScript applet runs and sends data about the user to the external server (Google Analytics, Facebook Ads, Google Ads etc. etc.). Every time the user comes back or navigates around the site, the cookie tells the servers that it’s the same person. This is usually anonymised but the more a user does and shares, the less anonymous it becomes, particularly when you start entering person information.

Imagine if M&M’s knew every time you bought a bag, where you bought them from, and when you snuck down in the middle of the night and ate a few, what time that was and how many you ate – then in the morning sent you an email telling you you probably need to buy more M&M’s. Actually that sounds brilliant, but some people might find that “creepy and weird”.

iOS14 has blocked this and the marketing world threw a massive queeny strop. Apple blocked not only the cookie but the ability to send their data to one of these external servers (known as third party tracking). This is a fantastic win for the consumer, but a huge loss for businesses, GDPR already buggered us once, this is the icing on the cake.

The answer is server-side tracking

Server-side tracking uses your own server to collect data about users. This server appears under your own domain so could be tracking.example.com – it’s actually highly advised you don’t use a name that implies tracking, so use something random like bazinga or plopwobbles.example.com. It doesn’t literally have to be your own server in the corner of your office, so AWS, Google Cloud etc. is fine, just as long as your subdomain points to it.

Because these servers are on your own domain, they do not qualify as ‘third party tracking’ because to the browser, you’re sending data back to yourself (hence the Obama meme). Once the data is on this server, providing you have user permission, you can then send it onto Google Analytics, Google Ads or Facebook Ads etc. etc.

Make sure you have a cookie consent function and privacy policy

Just make sure you have one of those fantastic, brilliant, helpful and not at all a total pain in the arse Cookie Consent forms because otherwise, GCHQ will be breaking down your door quicker than you can say, well, anything. But even for user-friendliness, it’s essential users who care know how their data is being used. This data can then be used for analytics and marketing purposes.

Benefits of server-side tracking

There are several benefits to using server-side tracking over other methods:

  • It is more accurate than client-side tracking because it can track users across devices and browsers.
  • It is more private because it does not rely on cookies or other tracking methods that can be blocked by browser privacy settings.
  • It is more difficult to block because it does not rely on third-party cookies.

Things to keep in mind about server-side tracking

There are a few things to keep in mind when using server-side tracking:

  • You will need to have a first-party server that can collect data about your users. This server can be hosted by you or by a third party like Google or AWS.
  • You will need to use some kind of identifier to track users across devices and browsers. This identifier could be a user’s IP address, email address, or some other piece of information that is unique to the user.
  • Ideally, get a user to create an account really early on in their user journey, even incentivise them with a discount if you’re B2C! That way you have their email so can email market them, but also every time they hit the site logged in, on any device, an external ID can be used to identify them.
  • You will need to take measures to protect the privacy of your users. This includes ensuring that their data is collected and stored securely, and providing them with a way to opt out of server-side tracking if they so choose.

Did you find this blog post helpful? Let us know in the comments below. And be sure to check out our other blog posts for more tips and tricks on server-side tracking. Happy tracking!

Server-side tracking is a great solution for bypassing iOS 14’s third-party blocking features while still allowing businesses to collect data about their customers. If you’re not sure where to start, there are plenty of resources available online that can help you get started with server-side tracking. I’ve also had a good few opportunities to implement it now and it’s a relatively straight forward process so definitely get in touch.

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