Comparing Client-Side and Server-Side Tracking
The difference between client-side and server-side tracking explained
In the world of web analytics, tracking user behaviour is crucial for understanding website performance and making informed, data-driven marketing decisions.
Currently, two options exist on how to measure your user’s online behaviour: client-side tracking and server-side tracking. Each approach offers its own advantages and disadvantages, making it essential to understand their nuances to choose the most suitable option for your specific needs.
We will explain in this article the main differences between the client-side and server-side tracking for GA4 and the benefits of each. This article is also for you if you want to get started with setting it up, as we will give practical tips on how to implement client-side and server-side tracking.
Client-Side Tracking: A Traditional Approach
Client-side tracking, the traditional method, involves embedding tracking codes (f.e. your Google analytics tracking id) into the website. These codes, often implemented through Google Tag Manager or other tagging solutions, collect data about user interactions on the client’s device, such as page views, clicks, and form submissions. This data is then transmitted to a third-party analytics platform (such as Google Analytics) for processing and analysis.
Advantages of Client-Side Tracking
Client-side tracking has some important benefits:
- Simplicity and ease of implementation: Client-side tracking is relatively straightforward to implement, requiring less technical expertise than it’s alternative.
- Real-time data collection: Client-side tracking provides real-time insights into user behaviour, enabling immediate identification of trends and patterns.
- Versatility: Client-side tracking can capture a wide range of user interactions, including advanced events and custom dimensions.
If you haven’t set up a client-side implementation of Google Analytics 4 yet, and this all sounds good to you, we recommend reading this page to get started.
Disadvantages of Client-Side Tracking
In the analytics ecosystem, criticism of client-side tracking has grown due to the following reasons:
- Concerns about accuracy: Client-side tracking is susceptible to data accuracy issues, as it relies on data collection from the user’s device, which can be influenced by ad blockers, browser settings, and privacy extensions.
- Limited control over the data flow: Client-side tracking often involves sending data directly to third-party vendors, raising concerns about data privacy and compliance with regulations like GDPR and CCPA.
We wrote an article about third-party cookies, the deprecation of it in 2024, and how to mitigate your impact. See here.
Server-Side Tracking: An Upcoming Alternative
Some of the main advantages of server-side tracking are:
- Better data accuracy: Server-side tracking eliminates data accuracy issues caused by client-side factors, providing a more reliable and consistent data stream.
- Greater control over privacy: Server-side tracking offers greater control over data handling and compliance with privacy regulations, as data is processed and stored on the server before being sent to third-party vendors.
- Reduced Reliance on client-side technologies and third-party cookies: Server-side tracking is less dependent on client-side technologies, making it less susceptible to third-party cookies (which will soon be deprecated. Read more here) ad blockers and browser settings.
If you want to get started with the set up in Google Analytics 4, we highly recommend starting off with this course. That will show you all required steps to successfully track your user behaviour from server to server.
Disadvantages of Server-Side Tracking
But still, disadvantages exist, which we do want to make you aware of:
- Increased Complexity: Server-side tracking requires more technical expertise to implement and maintain compared to client-side tracking (UP Analytics can help you with this)
- Potential for Data latency: Server-side tracking may introduce data latency. Data latency is the time between the collection of the data and the data information being available for analysis. When the data is processed on the server, time passes before it is sent to the analytics platform. You can overcome this by sending your data directly from the server to a data visualisation program, such as Looker.
- Limited Integration with other tools: Server-side tracking may not integrate seamlessly with all third-party analytics tools and platforms your business uses.
Choosing the right tracking solution for your business
The choice between client-side and server-side tracking depends on several factors, including technical expertise, data privacy requirements, and the desired level of data accuracy. Client-side tracking remains a popular choice due to its simplicity and ease of implementation, while server-side tracking offers enhanced data accuracy and greater control over data privacy.
As the digital landscape evolves, so do the methods for tracking user behaviour. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of client-side and server-side tracking is crucial for businesses to make informed decisions about data collection strategies. By carefully considering your specific needs and priorities, you can select the tracking method that best suits your requirements, enabling you to effectively measure website performance, optimise marketing campaigns, and make data-driven decisions that drive business growth.
If you find this information overwhelming, consider signing up for a GA4 UP subscription. With this subscription, we audit your setup, implement new feature releases and update you on new privacy releases (stay updated with GDPR / CCPA) for a small monthly fee. This subscription allows you to focus on your priorities while the experts handle the rest. Learn more about how we can support you here.