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How to accurately track conversions in 2023

How good is your company at the moment?

Every advertising campaign pursues a specific goal, and it doesn't matter whether a company wants to win new customers with a campaign, reach new applicants, or you want to reach investors with the campaign. There are endless possible goals that companies want to achieve with advertising campaigns, but one thing is certain: every campaign needs a clear goal. In order to find out exactly how high the return on investment of a campaign is, companies need accurate data on whether the campaign really achieved its intended goal. 

Currently, many companies are foregoing valuable data due to the GDPR. They are doing without this data because they don't realize that cookie-based tracking has no future on the Internet and that it is becoming more and more difficult every year to work with their outdated tools such as Google's Universal Analytics (which will officially be discontinued in 2023) or other client-side tracking tools.

The solutions to this challenge, we will first explain in this article and then highlight the pros and cons. Before we start, however, it is important that you find out what level of technology your company is currently working with in order to understand what steps you need to take to improve your tracking.

What is the difference between client-side tracking and server-side tracking?

The most important difference between these two tracking methods is undoubtedly the fact that client-side tracking runs in the user's browser, i.e. using cookies, while server-side tracking runs on the web host's server and thus works without cookies. In short, server-side tracking is a tracking method that does not require cookies and therefore makes it much easier to obtain high-quality user data in the area of consent.

The user data for server-side tracking does not necessarily have to be transmitted to Google, Facebook or other tech giants, but can also be used exclusively internally in the company.

What is the legal difference?

I would like to briefly illustrate the difference with a small example from the offline world. Let's assume a supermarket wants to find out whether more women or more men go shopping there. To find out, there are two possibilities: either a supermarket employee sits at the door with a tally sheet and counts the customers, or the supermarket commissions a market research company, which then records the data of the customers. The difference is that the market research company also passes on the data to other companies and collects significantly more personal data than the employee with the tally sheet. The problem with the research company is that they need the approval of every single customer they want to count, so they can’t count all customers because some just don’t agree to their terms.

In my example, the tally sheet employee is emblematic of server-side tracking, while the market research firm is emblematic of the traditional cookie-based solution. Legally, in this example, we need the visitor's consent for the market research company, while we do not need it for the tally sheet solution. 

Since we don't need the consent for the tally, it's actually the case that with the tally we will also get significantly better data and accordingly be able to make better decisions based on it. 

How does server-side tracking work?

As the name suggests, server-side tracking works through the web server of your website or store. Each event that a user executes is predefined by you, and as soon as it takes place, it is stored in your database or in the database of a server-side tracking provider and linked to the respective user ID. It is important to note that we are no longer talking about session IDs, as is the case with cookie-based tracking. At first glance, this takes some getting used to, because a lot of data, such as the bounce rate, can no longer be tracked as accurately as purchase events, for example. 

If a user on your website has been assigned a user ID on the server side, then you can store 100% accurate data for this user, while without this user ID you will generate much worse data than you have achieved so far with the cookie-based tracking, because you do not have a cookie session running, and therefore even with the simplest data such as pageviews you will have problems to map them to a single user. Now you might ask yourself why server-side tracking is better than client-side tracking. I can generally say at this point: It's not better, it's different. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. That's why, for example, in the new Google Analytics 4 version, Google does not rely on just one of the two technologies, but ultimately uses both technologies in combination. So, if the user agrees, data is collected both by means of cookies and, if you set it up correctly for your company, by means of server-side tracking. The magic wonder machine Google Analytics 4, then matches by machine learning the session IDs of users who have consented to cookies to the user IDs that come from you and finally interpolates user sessions of users without consent to provide the most accurate data possible. 

Can I implement Google Analytics 4 without server-side tracking?

Yes, you can, but it makes no sense at all. Google Analytics 4 is specifically designed for server-side tracking, and the client-side solution is just to allow advertisers to move from UA to GA4. At the end of the day, if you install GA4 only with the tracking script via the tag manager, you will have a much worse solution than if you just continue to use the outdated tracking solution until the bitter end of UA. 

Can I install Google Analytics 4 without a developer?

Probably not, you can initialize the tracking script in the tag manager as usual, but it is far from done. To install server-side tracking on your website, store, or application, you need access to your server files, the server-side tracking script needs to be installed there, and the events you want to measure need to be defined and executed. If you are using a popular CMS, there may already be plugins for this CMS that allow you to track server-side. For Shopify, for example, there are plugins like the Elevar Tag Manager, with the help of this plugin, you can implement server-side tracking even without a developer.

When should I switch to a server-side tracking solution at the latest?

As soon as you can, because unclean data puts you at a massive competitive disadvantage in marketing, while full data actually gives you a competitive advantage. In this respect, overcome your fear of new technology and try to bring your setup up to the state of the art as cleanly and quickly as possible.

How to start with GA4

At this point, I can definitely recommend to really read the guidelines of Google and follow the mentioned steps listed on their support page: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/9744165

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