{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Understanding Server-Side Tagging

{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Understanding Server-Side Tagging

In this week’s In-Ear Insights, Katie and Chris review the basics of what server-side tagging is, why it’s important, and how it works. Using Google Tag Manager’s server-side edition as the example, we look at why companies like Facebook are pushing it so much, and what benefits – and hurdles – server-side tagging presents. Tune in to find out!

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{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Understanding Server-Side Tagging

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Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the episode.

Christopher S. Penn

In today’s In Your Insights, let’s talk about a technology for analytics that you may man I’ve heard of and do a little bit of explaining about it. It is called server side tagging. And this is a technology that is being deployed by companies like Google with Google tag manager and with companies like Facebook with their Conversions API. So Katie, where do you want me to start explaining this slide?

Katie Robbert

Well, we should probably start with a definition, but let’s see if I at a basic level, understand it. So when we’re talking about tagging, we’re talking about something like a Google tag manager, for instance. And so typically you add the container to your Web site. But server side tagging means that you would instead of having to update your the tags on your website, you would maybe update it in like a cloud solution instead.

Katie Robbert

Is am I even close?

Christopher S. Penn

You are sort of close. OK, so here’s how here’s what this thing is. Server side tag refers to running a server typically in the cloud that is an intermediary that handles data and sends it places. So you still install a snippet of some kind on your website. Right. Typically, like with a Google tag matcher there’s a server side cloud snippet of some kind that you put on your Web site.

Christopher S. Penn

There is this server that you buy from any company, Amazon, Google, whatever. You give it your own domain name, right? So it be like analytics, trust, insights. A.I. would be the name of that server. And on our website, we would have a little snippet saying, you know, send our raw data to analytics to trust and insights on that server.

Christopher S. Penn

You have code that runs that takes in this raw data and says, OK, where do you want me to send this stuff? And that’s where Google tag manager runs. So Google tag manager, instead of running on our Web site, actually runs on the server as is. OK, you got me to send this data to like a car deals and this data, Google Analytics, send this to Facebook, send this Twitter and so on and so forth.

Christopher S. Penn

And it parcels out the data and sends it to all those places. Now, the reason that you would do this, because it is a very elaborate, complicated setup is because of privacy reasons and control of data when you use service is attacking that server that’s running, this code is yours. So like it would be a Trust Insights server with a trusted insights domain name.

Christopher S. Penn

So most things like ad blockers and other things would be saying, I’m looking for, you know, a little piece of code that goes to analytics that Google.com or tag managers that Google dot com is looking for those domain names inside our or our code on the website. Instead, it would see analytics I trust inside Start and I would say, oh, well this is trust insights dot A.I. And here’s analytics.

Christopher S. Penn

I trust insights. It’s part of the same service where I don’t need a third party cookie. I don’t need to worry about Cross-domain let me know. So at Ad Block could be more like I say, you know what? I’m just going to let this run because it looks like it’s all the same domain and then it takes that we send that data to our server and then on that server we control where it goes, right?

Christopher S. Penn

So we control it. Send this data to Google Analytics and this data to Facebook, et cetera, and so on and so forth. From a regulatory perspective, that’s a good thing because it means that the data has a chance to be intercepted before it gets sent on to a third party. So if there’s something like a consent form or a specific type of website hit, or if part of the website that shouldn’t be tracked at all, instead of trying to manage that with tag manager, you can control it on the server and meet those regulatory requirements to say, OK, I’m going to intercept any hits to see our member login page.

Christopher S. Penn

Maybe you’re a health care company. I’m going to intercept any hits to the member, logon page and not send them anywhere. It’s going to just trash them. And so you should be preserving that data and keeping it safely away from anything. It would violate HIPA requirements as an example. So that’s that’s what server side tagging is and why it is a valuable and valid thing to do with the caveat that it’s very complex to set up.

Katie Robbert

All right. So I have about a million questions because you just said a lot of things and my brain is trying to keep up. So first and foremost, when you say buy a server, you’re not you are you can physically buy a server, but likely what you’re doing is you’re like buying a little bit of real estate on an existing server.

Katie Robbert

You know, neighborhood, for example. And so these servers like, you know, Amazon and Google and IBM, all the big players, they have these neighborhoods set up and then they have these like, you know, for lack of a better term, little houses that you can say, I want to rent this house or I want to rent this house. I need a really big, you know, five bedroom house or I just need a little cabin based on what you’re doing.

Katie Robbert

So I just wanted to clarify that point. First of all, you’re really just renting space in an existing neighborhood. So that’s exact number one. Point number two is you can obviously you can set up, you know, your tag manager instance without doing server side tagging. The difference, if I’m understanding correctly, and this is a big if, if I’m understanding correctly, is the data when tag manager fires, because if one of the triggers that you set up, whether it be like, you know, page you click or a video of you or whatever the trigger was, if you don’t have server side tagging set up, then the data just goes in straight into Google Analytics and you

Katie Robbert

might lose some of the data because of privacy or because, you know, an ad blocker kicked in or you know, a cookie or whatever kicked in if you’re doing it on the server side. So if you’re having the data go pass through the server, then you’re basically saying, nope, this data safe, you don’t have to strip off pieces of the data instead.

Katie Robbert

Is that am I following correctly?

Christopher S. Penn

Somewhat. So when you’re when you go to browse a Web site, when you go to browse the Trust Insights website tag manager, because JavaScript runs in your browser, right? So you so your browser is sending is, you know, basically runs tag matcher and that sends that data to those places and that can be blocked. That can also be intercepted by hostile code, things like that.

Christopher S. Penn

And the cookies are tag managers, cookies essentially at that point when you went services tagging your browser, no longer runs tag matter. Your browser is just running talking to the web server. The web server is funneling data to the analytics server to the server side tag. Mm hmm. Tag manager runs there. So no longer runs on your computer, which means that it can’t be intercepted.

Christopher S. Penn

It can’t be hacked midstream. It’s all being sent somewhere else. And then we as the marketers, the marketing technologists, take that server and then we take the data coming in, the raw data coming from our server, and we process it on our server and then send it places.

Katie Robbert

OK, and by places you mean it could go to a big query, can go to a sequel, it can go to Data Studio. When you say it goes to analytics like so it doesn’t automatically go back into analytics because that might not be where it belongs.

Christopher S. Penn

That’s correct. It’s up to you. You decide where it is that you want it to go. So you can say, I want this to go. You know, as data comes in, follow it straight to Google Analytics where as data comes in, you know, filter it and and remove this stuff before sending it to analytics. So, for example, if you’ve got a known network of spam bots, you can filter them out and tag matter.

Christopher S. Penn

Absolutely. But you can also if you use a service side tag and say, I’m just going to reject this this traffic entirely. Now, are you going to try to process it with tag managers? Go, say, out?

Katie Robbert

Mm hmm. And so what? Without scrambling my brain, what is it that’s so complicated about setting up server side tagging as opposed to setting it up straight in tag matters. So I assume you still have to set things up and tag manager.

Christopher S. Penn

You do. So there’s a few different things that are a little bit complicated, more complicated with it. First, you have to set up a server itself. You have to provision the service. So if you are if you don’t have an i.t. Department, that can get a little uncomfortable because you have to be able to work with Amazon AWB or Google Cloud or whatever to to manage it.

Christopher S. Penn

So that’s part one. It’s not the easiest thing to provision a cloud server like this and run it. And then two, it’s a totally different environment. It’s a very different version of tag manager. So here’s the Trust Insights environment. I’m going to go into tags here and got to create a new tag and you’ll notice there’s not much in here, right?

Christopher S. Penn

There’s in fact, there’s very, very, very little in here. There’s J for Universal Analytics. And then HTP, this means that if for anything outside the Google marketing platform, you have to write the code to talk to it. They don’t want this. There’s no preexisting easy templates to set up. So and you’ll notice it’s not something as simple as like putting your Facebook I.D. You actually have to write the HTP requests, specify the method, and then build these ATP requests that go to Facebook or Twitter or whatever.

Christopher S. Penn

So you have to be able to understand how, say, Facebook reads analytics code and then send it to them in the format that they are expecting. That can be a little bit tricky. It obviously exists. There’s something that is, you know, relatively straightforward, but it’s it’s not as easy as tag match. When you look at the triggers this is all you get, right?

Christopher S. Penn

You either get an event or a view. So all the things like form submission and all of the stuff that we’re used to in regular tag matter is not here because this version of Tag Match is not running on the customer’s web browser. This version of Tag Match is running on a server. So it’s getting raw data in and we are essentially refining and filtering it, sending it back out.

Christopher S. Penn

So we have to specify like I want to set you know, I want to look for this particular type of event and and manage and process it. So when we look at built in variables, right, that’s all you get. So all the things like scroll depth, the missing YouTube video plays all the stuff that we’re again, we’re used to in regular tag match is not here and you have to build your own things.

Christopher S. Penn

And lastly, there’s a client thing here, which is what is the piece of code that runs on our website. We have to connect this virtual tag measure to it. It’s a lot of plumbing. So this version of tag magic requires substantially more technical expertize than regular tag manager does. This version, you need somebody who can write JavaScript code to talk to the various endpoints that Facebook or Twitter or the MarTech system of your choice uses.

Christopher S. Penn

If you use HubSpot, you would have to write custom code to connect this version of tag magic to HubSpot.

Christopher S. Penn

That’s what makes it so different is it’s a it’s a totally different way. It’s it’s the same raw data, but it’s being processed in a different place. And it’s being handled in a different way.

Katie Robbert

So it sounds like there’s two big things there. One is I’m assuming because this is just how the world works. Every single system that you are trying to connect you probably wants you to connect in a slightly different way. So you can’t just create a template and swap out, connect to Facebook or connect to Twitter or connect to HubSpot.

Katie Robbert

Every single one of you can be like, No, I like to do it this way. And so it’s going to have to be different code. And then I would imagine that it’s not just a one and done with coding. There’s maintenance, there is making sure you fix things once they break, there’s making sure that there’s alerts set up to let you know that something broke and then troubleshooting to find out where the thing broke because Facebook decided to change something and, you know, put in an extra period and didn’t tell you.

Katie Robbert

And you spent three days trying to fix the the gosh darn thing.

Christopher S. Penn

Yes. So for example, Facebook says here are the the parameters you must code to if you want to send us data. So if you have different forms on your website, for example, like email, first name, last name, you have to create a connector in a tag manager to handle this field. So now for every form on your website has the exact same fields, then, yeah, you can build one connector in tag in service.

Christopher S. Penn

I tag manager and connected but if you’ve got different forms with different fields on them, you now have to create a separate connector to pass that raw data for each of those forms to Facebook. If you want Facebook’s conversion API to say, yes, I see this conversion has happened. So yeah, there is definitely more maintenance for it and it requires much tighter integration between marketing and martech and straight up I.T.

Katie Robbert

So so it sounds like the in the pro column you’re going to get more of that raw data that it’s not that it gets around privacy because you’re still following, you know, HIPA and PII best practices, but it prevents your data from getting caught in, you know, spam traps or ad blockers or, you know, these third party cookies.

Katie Robbert

So that’s in the pro side. The con side is the amount of work and maintenance it takes to get the thing set up. And so it’s not just like taking, you know, Google’s tag manager course and they’re like, OK, I know what I’m doing. Depending on how complex your MarTech stack is, the more systems you have, the longer it will take to set up, but also maintain this system and make sure it’s not breaking.

Christopher S. Penn

Exactly. Because as you saw from the interface itself, this is a totally different version of tag management with more technical requirements. So your average marketer can’t go in there and say, hey, we’re deploying a new campaign, let’s roll. You know, put out a new tag, you know, you’ve choose from the template and boom, you’re done. It doesn’t work that way anymore in this system.

Christopher S. Penn

The other aspect that makes us important is that Google has said I think it was last year’s Google marketing platform event that they expect up to 40% of conversions to be lost due to, you know, third party cookies and a variety of other things. When you use server side tagging, you can dramatically reduce that number. You may lose, you know, five or 10% of of conversions instead of 30 to 40.

Christopher S. Penn

Because again, you’re taking your what raw data are you sending it to a server that you own. And thus all but the most strict, you know, you script blocking stuff will not intercept it and there and thus you can recover more of your data. It’s one of the reasons why Facebook is telling all of its advertisers you should use service at tagging because, you know we’re losing like 80% of our conversion data because of things like the iOS 14 change and stuff like that.

Katie Robbert

So in terms of use cases, people who should consider server side tagging are the ones who make probably big financial decisions based off of, you know, their goal completion data, for example, if that’s the only system of record that they’re using as opposed to, you know, goal completion data plus CRM data plus other sales data. So, you know, it’s it sounds like it’s a lot to set up, but once it’s set up, you’ll get more accurate data.

Katie Robbert

But you really need to think through is the data that I get without server side tagging good enough to give me an understanding of what’s going on or am I so reliant on my data that comes from tag manager to make my business decisions that I really need to invest in this?

Christopher S. Penn

I would say if you are running big money ads on Facebook, on Twitter, on any third party network you should be using service. I tag like if you’re spending I would say if you’re spending five digits or more a month or more per month on those services, you should be running service attack because there’s a good chance you’re losing so many conversions that your return on ad spend is wildly off your return on investment is wildly off.

Christopher S. Penn

And to your point, you can’t make good decisions about it because you have no idea what’s converting and what’s not. That would be the number one use case for this. If you are spending, you know, five digits or more on on any ad network, you’ve got to be using server side tagging to cap. If you want to accurately capture the performance of your ads.

Katie Robbert

Can we say that with the caveat of it depends on the kind of ad you’re running and so if you’re running an ad, you know, a lot of times, you know, Facebook, you can stay completely within the Facebook ecosystem and never go to a website or with, you know, a Google ad. Maybe your target is a late click versus a conversion with those exceptions to that use case.

Christopher S. Penn

Certainly if you never leave the ad system, like if you never leave Facebook, if you’re doing like Facebook lead generation, then yes, that would be an exception. You would not need service attack because there’s no there’s no analytics stream to intercept and I guess in the example of, again, if your conversion is just sending traffic, then, yeah, you probably wouldn’t need to do that for just an awareness campaign.

Christopher S. Penn

For example, I was sending clicks to a website, but if you were trying to measure any kind of of conversion that occurs on a site that you own and you’re spending big money, then yeah, you need to implement service, high tech.

Katie Robbert

OK, so is that so for trust insights, we don’t do those kinds of ads. So is that something that with our type of business where our goal completions are, things like the contact form and the newsletter form, I’m assuming that for server side tagging is not as high a priority.

Christopher S. Penn

It isn’t as high a priority. We obviously still have it set up because we want to learn how to do it, but also particularly with go for it helps to pay for a complete it’s in deferred conversions data. So one of the things that Google Analytics for does that is different than than universal analytics is it has some machine learning in the back end where Google says, hey, we know some of the data is missing.

Christopher S. Penn

So we’re going to guess, we’re going to infer how many conversions you likely would have had based on whatever signals data we have. Now, obviously, if you have server side tagging, there’s a lot more raw data for Google Analytics to parse and say, hey, you know, here’s something that here’s a goal completion, right? Somebody got to this thank you page and the regular script didn’t catch it, but the service I tagging one did.

Christopher S. Penn

So we’re going to say, OK, let’s bring these, you know, mesh those two things together and it gives you much more accurate conversion numbers.

Katie Robbert

OK, so let’s say you are a marketer like me and your brain is a bit scrambled after this conversation. Where would someone who isn’t Chris Penn get started? Is there, you know, training for this? Is there documentation or is it just, you know, go ask trust insights to help you?

Christopher S. Penn

So every vendor has their own server side recommendations. Like if you go and read through Facebook’s documentation, they have a whole thing for setting it up. The big challenge right now is that every vendor is sort of siloed. So Facebook says, you know, set up a container on us well, you don’t need to do that. You can do it inside service side tag manager.

Christopher S. Penn

It’s not that hard once you’ve gotten service. I tag manager running, but nobody is saying, oh, yeah, use Google system as the master container and then all your service sites do processing and there and so there really isn’t good as good documentation out there for setting it up the way you would set up normal client side tag match where like you put in your Facebook tagging or Twitter tag and all that stuff, you put everything in one place which is sort of the benefit if you were to naively just follow the instructions, the different vendors, you’d have five or six different servers running, you know, each with its own tags and that’s unnecessary overkill.

Christopher S. Penn

So you would really want to one, get tag service side tag manager up and running first. I think that’s priority number one. And Google has some documentation about how to do that. Then the second you start reading the documentation for the ad system of your choice or what or the MarTech system of your choice and you look for those HTP request handlers in the documentation and that’s what you code into service side tag manager.

Christopher S. Penn

That’s step two. And then step three, obviously you verify that the data are flowing correctly.

Katie Robbert

OK, last question, is server side tagging an all or nothing? So if you set up server side tagging, just everything has to flow through it or can you have some data that flows through server side tagging and some data that doesn’t.

Christopher S. Penn

It is not all or nothing. And in fact, regular client side answer aside are designed to complement each other. So Facebook in their documentation, for example, says if you’re running server side, you obviously set that as in your account settings. Then Facebook will look at the client side stuff and server side stuff and try to pair them up and match them up so that you don’t get duplicates.

Christopher S. Penn

And then once things are matched up, it’s going to look for the anomalies, the stuff that’s sticking out from server side that the client side didn’t capture and say, OK, these are the extra conversions that client side missed because iOS 15 didn’t send them, you know, blocked the data. And so there is a strong benefit to running both systems parallel to each other.

Katie Robbert

OK, well, I think that is all the new information that my brain can take in today, you know, I mean, but it’s it’s all very helpful. It’s just for, for me, I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, as the non-technical person on the team, it’s a lot to wrap your head around. Like I understand all of it conceptually, but if you ask me to sit down and do it, I’d probably steer my computer for very, very, very long time and just start praying.

Christopher S. Penn

It is it is definitely something you probably are going to partner with a typical resource on. You’re probably going to partner with the technical resource on, but the more you know this, this is sort of the benchmark, the more inaccurate your current reporting is versus your, you know, whatever your ground state truth is. Like, if you have a CRM and your CRM records 100 conversions and your Google Analytics or your Facebook and clicks records 20, right?

Christopher S. Penn

You know, you’ve got a data problem and service side tacking maybe the solution to bring that number closer to the ground state truth that you’re calibrating on. And depending on how much of your marketing decisions come out of your analytics systems, that will dictate the necessity of it. I think again for any big company and any company that’s spending big money, it’s mandatory and it’s going to get it’s only going to get increasingly important as privacy restrictions increase as you get more regulation.

Christopher S. Penn

It’s one of those things that at some point every technologically sophisticated marketing team will have to do.

Katie Robbert

So, just like everything else, it’s better to get started now versus waiting until it’s been forced upon you and start with your use cases, start with your requirements, start with figuring out what data is the most important so that you can prioritize exactly.

Christopher S. Penn

You know, start early, and that way you get some time to kick the tires. You’re not going to wreck, you know, your your your company or blow up your website doing it. What’s more likely to happen is if you get it wrong, nothing happens because it’s not setting data properly.

Katie Robbert

Gotcha.

Christopher S. Penn

So if you’ve got questions about this and you want to ask them, pop out over to our free slack. We’ve got a trust insights dot slash analytics for marketers where you in over 2400 of the marketers are asking and answering each other’s questions every day. And wherever it is you watch or listen to the show you can find it on a platform of your preference trust insights dot air slash T.I podcasts.

Christopher S. Penn

We’ve got pretty much every place you’d want to consume podcasts. Thanks for tuning in and we’ll talk to you soon.


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