What to Know About Server-Side Tracking, a Solution for a Cookie-Free Future

By the end of this year, Google will have stamped out the internet’s last remaining third-party cookies. Cue the funeral hymns.

There’s no need to panic. While third-party cookies fueled a new era of digital marketing, the blanket loss of its tracking and targeting capabilities knocks every brand and agency back to the same starting point. What’s important is that you have a plan in place to work around the loss of the all-important cookie. Today, we’ll introduce you to a concept called server-side tracking that, with just a bit more effort, can track conversions and shed light on what your customers are up to online.

What we lose when we lose the cookie

The deprecation of the cookie has long been discussed. The cookie is bits of code, or small files that are stored on your computer or phone while you’re browsing a website. These can remember your personal settings, like your log-in information, for sites you visit often. The third-party cookie – which is the one that’s now being blocked – tracks and stores your behavior across the internet, and that information is then used to sell targeted advertising. If you’ve ever clicked on a pair of shoes, just to see that pair of shoes pop up in an ad alongside an article you’re reading, that’s the third-party cookie at work. 

Safari’s already blocked third-party cookies, as well as Firefox – roughly 20% of the market share for browsers. Chrome is rolling it out slowly, currently blocking 1% of third-party cookies with the rest to be affected by the fourth quarter of this year. That will account for just about the rest of the browser market. The third-party cookie will be toppled.

This will have a direct impact on brands and the agencies they work with who have built businesses on the back of the information that third-party cookies provide. These little bundles of files give details on likely customers – what they’re in the market for, what they’re likely to purchase, what they’ve searched for – that has shaped entire marketing and advertising strategies (not to mention budgets). Without those cookies, brands and agencies are in fear of throwing darts in the dark. Less effective and precise advertising means they need to work harder to get people to purchase – or come up with ways to make up for the third-party cookie’s absence.

Life after cookie

Remember, it’s only third-party cookies that are being blocked by browsers. First-party cookies – or those that are endemic and available only to the platforms that created the cookie in the first place, not across the web – are one way to make up for their loss. 

Platforms like Google Ads and Meta are planning to switch on first-party cookie data for partners to access. This may not give back the visibility into customers’ entire web search history and activity, but it will give them insight into how they behave on the internet’s two largest platforms. 

In general, though, any remarketing conversion tracking that operates through a third-party ad server will stop working, as that relies on information gained from the third-party cookie. That’s a big blow: brands need to know what’s working to convert customers in order to plan their next moves. It’s not all darkness, though. Enter server-side tracking.

What is server-side tracking?

What we’re used to now is client-side tracking. That’s what third-party cookies were part of: you use your browser. It finds identifiers on a cookie and then will communicate that to the cookie if a customer clicks an ad and then buys something on a brand’s website. That entire interaction is logged on the customer’s browser and then sent to the server, like Google Ad or Facebook’s Meta server. Client is another name for browser here, so consider it browser-side tracking. Anything a customer does online that’s being tracked by cookies is communicated to the server like a ping. 

Server-side tracking uses a first-party tag to collect all the information related to a conversion and then send it to a server, which would be a subdomain that the brand owns (like tracking.brand.com). Instead of going to Google Ads or Facebook, the customer’s pings are going to this subdomain. All the information is collected, and then you tell it what to do next. This can send it from the server that’s hosted on your domain to those ad locations. The browser has no awareness of sending to Google Ads or Facebook or any other platform – it’s server-to-server. Consider it a messenger, rather than a data warehouse. The subdomain isn’t saving and compiling this information; it’s passing it along to Google or Facebook.

You likely already have the tools in place to set up server-side tracking. Tag managers, similar to Google Tag Manager but for servers, make the process semi-automated. The server itself lives in the cloud, like Google Cloud or whoever your cloud server is. It’s the same process of doing a client-side tag with more effort to get things set up and going to the right places. 

Is server-side tracking a silver bullet?

The third-party cookie may be gone but thanks to server-side tracking you’re not out of the race. But is it an equivalent for tracking conversions and targeting customers? 

It’s a bit more complicated than that. The death of the cookie is two-fold: the technological blocking, which we’re seeing on the browser side, and then the user consent, which is why you see all of those pop-ups on the internet asking you to accept a site’s cookies as you’re browsing. Server-side tracking can only address the browser side. It’s a workaround for browsers like Safari & Chrome killing the cookie. 

There’s nothing that can be done, however, if a user opts out of cookie tracking when they enter a website and are encountered with that pop up. You still need to honor user consent. But if they opt-in, server-side tracking can circumnavigate the technological blocking done on the side of the browser.

The cookie wakeup call

Be prepared for the end of this year when Chrome blocks all third-party tracking. Without server-side tracking, all systems relying on third-party cookies will break. You’ll lose insight into conversions and performance, the ability to send out information, and do targeted marketing. It’s a real dropping of the hammer: it’s not just a setting in Chrome – the third-party cookie will no longer be supported. 

Switching to server-side tracking takes some upfront investment and navigation to get right: you need to set up the subdomain, get approvals, set up the server and do the grunt work to get past the initial hurdles. But if you don’t put that effort in, you’ll find yourself at a disadvantage. 

Working with a trusted agency partner like Acadia can help you clear those hurdles and get your server-side tracking up and running before the third-party cookie system goes dark. Acadia’s teams are experienced in setting up these types of systems and can help you do so quickly and accurately in coordination with all of your existing marketing campaigns. It takes ongoing maintenance as well to make sure that server-side tracking is part of your strategy moving forward. We’ll help you do a better job and see things clearly, even after the cookie crumbles.

Lachlan Brown