Cookie Deprecation and Server-Side Tracking: What to Know

One of the biggest changes in the history of digital marketing is looming, and people are not appropriately preparing. The good news: there is a viable alternative to 3rd-party tracking already available, and it’s time to start transitioning.

For most marketers I talk to these days, “cookie deprecation” means one thing: they’re losing lots of tracking. That said, there is a better way to track performance that is future-proofed against cookie deprecation, and an astounding number of digital marketers are completely unaware of it. 

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Yes, it’s technical and requires lots of resources, but the cookie apocalypse is coming, whether you like it or not, and if you’re not preparing, you will be left behind.

By the time you finish reading this, my hope is that you have “server-side tracking” stuck in your head, with motivation to learn as much as you can about moving your brand’s measurement in that direction.


Browser-side vs. server-side tracking

First, let’s take a closer look at cookies, which are snippets of code that provide in-browser tracking of web users. 

Since 3rd-party cookies live within browsers, they do have their limits – for instance, cookies won’t show the full journey of a user who visits a site on Chrome and converts in a subsequent visit on Safari, since those are separate browsers. Cookie deprecation is designed to keep a user’s browser activity private. 

As a result, advertisers who wish to preserve data accuracy and conversion tracking can’t rely on browser-side tracking. They also probably shouldn’t, even if 3rd-party cookies were not being deprecated, because there is a better alternative.

Enter server-side tracking. The first advantage of server-side tracking should be clear: the data doesn’t live on the browser, which means it’s not affected by cookies, cookie blockers, or the coming cookie deprecation. 

Moving from browser-side tracking to server-side tracking means moving your analytics from third-party tools to being at least partially self-hosted. Server-side tracking options include setting up a server-side GTM container or using a CDP (customer data platform) like Tealium or Segment.

One thing I also strongly recommend with server-side tracking is setting up a data warehouse, which puts you in complete control of your data and removes restrictions like Google Analytics storage (only 14 months’ worth of data) and restricted API reporting functionality. For warehousing, the most common option is Google’s BigQuery, but Snowflake, Metabase, Redshift, and other options are out there.

Essentially, the move to server-side tracking does a couple of things: it preserves greater control of your data, but it puts the onus on your team to maintain and document your storage requirements so that they can adapt and scale as needed.


The benefits of server-side tracking

I’m going to talk about several benefits here: 

  • a more seamless marriage of offline actions with online activity
  • the ability to implement offline conversion data
  • better tracking across all ad platforms

First, let’s talk about what cookies and other privacy-focused updates (like Apple’s iOS updates) are restricting. 

Google Ads are impacted because, in addition to cookies disappearing, click tracking parameters like GCLID are being phased out in favor of privacy-compliant parameters like WBRAID and GBRAID. This means that the only way to continue tracking offline conversions (e.g. CRM actions) will be to set up server-side conversion tracking through the Google Ads API. That setup will also continue to enable you to use Enhanced Conversions, which tie user data to online conversions (e.g. email addresses with form submissions) so that later offline conversions can be attributed to that user.

Of course, the issue isn’t limited to Google. Digital ad networks usually carry both a “pixel” (what Google calls a “tag”) and some form of Conversions API. 

  • Meta calls its Conversions API “CAPI” and has been leaning into it for the past few years. 
  • For Google, it’s Enhanced Conversions and the Google Ads API. 
  • For TikTok, it’s the Pixel and Conversions API
  • For LinkedIn, it’s the Insight Tag and Conversions API

In every one of these cases, we recommend using both methods, which allows the API to “enhance” your tag’s data with server-side accuracy and information.

What it means is that without server-side tracking, your ability to track both a user’s online activity and tie offline activity to known online users is severely compromised.

Advanced advertisers – particularly on Google and Facebook – understand that one way to make the platform’s AI-powered bidding algorithms more effective is to feed offline conversion data back into the platforms. The upshot here is that this restriction doesn’t just compromise tracking. It curtails your ability to find the right users in your ad campaigns. Server-side tracking is key to keeping that ability intact.

There’s another major benefit to server-side tracking that very few advertisers are aware of. It has to do with more robust reporting in Google Analytics – which is currently a source of frustration for marketers struggling with data loss in GA4. Google Analytics has two tracking measurements for most websites: through the GTAG (which is browser-based) and through the Measurement Protocol API (which is server-based). 

The API method, as you can probably guess by now, is tougher to set up but isn’t nearly as vulnerable to browser-based blocking (loss of cookies). Folks still relying on browser-side tracking generally see 20-30% data loss in GA4. 

When Google said they were “moving to a world without cookies” with GA4, they meant they were moving toward a world of server-side tracking. In my view, one of the biggest flaws in the GA4 rollout was that Google wasn’t explicit enough in making that connection for marketers, so many are still using browser-side tracking and wondering what happened to all that missing data.

If you remember one thing from all of this, remember that the loss of cookies can be mitigated in large part by moving your tracking server-side. Don’t wait until you lose all your tracking to worry about this – get it taken care of today.



At Jordan Digital Marketing, we’ve been helping sophisticated marketers make the transition and future-proof their marketing efforts. Let us know if you need help safeguarding the future of your campaigns.


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