Web analytics: Client side, server side… What’s going on ?
26 April 2022 • 3 min read
Since the launch of Google Analytics in 2005, Web Analytics has been a key information source for businesses trying to understand and improve their digital marketing campaigns, conversion rates, and content.
As the market has evolved, a number of implementation options have surfaced. These have all introduced their own challenges, which means there are a number of key considerations all businesses need to understand and plan around to achieve success.
This post explores the different methods of implementation available and key considerations for each. It also highlights some of the important ethical and legal considerations that businesses need to get to grips with.
Client side analytics are typically gathered on a client device - a browser or native mobile app, for example - and transmitted to a central server. Tags and identifiers can be sent to the central server to indicate the pages the user has visited and key interactions the user triggered along the way.
Client side analytics have become the key method of measuring customer engagement in recent years. However, they today present a number of privacy concerns, given the level of data being gathered and the ability to track user activity across sites and brands.
With the introduction of GDPR legislation and the mandatory implementation of cookie banners, users are able to disable client side analytics tools easily. This has led to alternative methods gaining traction…
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Server side analytics constitute most of the alternative options. They’re not new, but their popularity today is a result of changing user behaviour (such as the use of ad blockers) and the legislative environment. Google Analytics has published guidance on implementing on the server side.
Server side analytics tools write log level data to data stores at given points across a customer journey. As the trigger is on the server, the client cannot prevent the execution, unlike client side analytics. This means it’s more reliable when considering any data insight derived from analytics.
A key challenge with server side analytics is that implementation is likely to require more developer involvement than is needed for client side analytics. However, a well thought-through implementation plan can help you map requirements for gathering analytics data. It will also be useful in helping you to plan experiments to make use of the data you collect.
As we shift to a more decentralised and composable hosting approach for larger web platforms, vendors such as Cloudflare are offering their own analytics solutions. These are technologies that could be considered examples of edge analytics.
When implemented at the edge, analytics data is gleaned from the network edge as data passes through the edge provider e.g. Cloudflare. This means that no server or client side code is required to execute and user privacy is maintained as other sites are unable to derive information from any cookies or local storage information stored on the client. Performance is improved as there are no additional libraries to download or server side code to execute.
Ethical and legal considerations
It’s tempting to focus on the question of how data can be gathered, but it’s important to take a step back: as consumers are today more aware of how their personal data is gathered and consumed than ever, it’s always important to first ask a more fundamental question: should this data be gathered?
Implementing analytics can be incredibly powerful in helping you to understand how customers interact with your brand and platforms. However, it’s vital that the data that is gathered and processed is regularly monitored and audited to ensure full compliance with legislation data - and, indeed, user expectations.
Given the financial implications of legal breaches of GDPR legislation - not to mention the reputational risks of data misuse - a well defined analytics policy isn’t just a question of ethics or best practice, it’s an important investment that will protect the organisation.
Read next: FLoC: Can Google build a cookieless future?
Server side analytics and edge analytics are compelling alternatives to client side analytics in an age of ad blocking. However, while a rapid shift might sound like a no-brainer, it’s vital that you consider the ethical and legal implications of any change in your analytics approach. You need to ensure any changes are not only strategically sound, but also that they properly comply with any legal requirements in your jurisdiction.
Ben Scott is a Principal Consultant at AND Digital.
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