Server-side tagging in Google Tag Manager

When it comes to tracking websites, or mobile apps, we generally use client-side tracking which is commonly achieved through tags in Google Tag Manager (aka GTM).

This method involves setting up tag which collects data from the browser (client)  and directly sends to the individual data services like Google Analytics, Google Ads and Facebook.

At Superweek 2020, Google announced server-side tagging, which means you can now run Google Tag Manager in a server-side environment. Currently, Google has only launched the beta version and it could be the paradigm shift to new ways of dynamic tagging in the future.

Let’s understand the concept of server-side tagging in more detail.

What is server-side tagging?

Server-side tagging is a new way to use Google Tag Manager (GTM) in Google’s cloud environment.

It has its own benefits such as reduced page load time, better security, and better control over the data that you send to Google Analytics and third-party tools. Like the normal Google Tag Manager container, which resides in a client-side environment, the server-side container resides in the Google cloud environment.

A server-side container also uses the same concepts, like tags, triggers and variables, which you have used earlier. A server-side container acts like a proxy in-cloud environment that you own. Instead of sending hits directly to the endpoint server (like in client-side GTM), you send hits to a server-side GTM container and then to the endpoint server which collects the data.

A typical client-side GTM container looks like below.

As you can see from the image above, whenever a server request is made by a user with different devices, the Google Tag Manager configuration without server-side tagging depends on a container in the website to send hits data to various third-party collection servers.

But in the case of server-side tagging, the Tag Manager configuration runs in a cloud environment and thus does not affect the website or application performance by having multiple scripts running on the devices.

Let’s see below image for the detailed working of server-side tagging container.

As you can see from the above image, the server-side container runs in the Google cloud platform owned by the customer and only the customer has access to the data which is being sent to third-party tools. You have complete control over the data on how it’s being routed to the third-party tool.

Let me explain the process of how server-side tagging works in a step-by-step method.

Step 1: When a user visits your website, a pageview request is made to the web server through a server request.

Step 2: At the same time, the client-side GTM container fires a ‘web tag’ which acts as an adapter between the scripts running on a user’s device and your server container. It takes the required measurement data from the user’s device and sends it to the client in the server-side container.

Note: We are still using the client-side GTM container but in this case instead of directly sending data to third-party tools like Google Analytics, Google Ads, and Facebook, it sends data to the client in the server-side container of GTM.

Step 3: The client in the server-side container is the type of adapters which receives measurement data from ‘web tag’, processes that data into one or more events and packages up the final data to send back to the requester.

Step 4: Now in the server-side container you can create multiple tags based on the requirements and then send them to the final third-party tools.

Benefits of server-side tagging

Reduced page load

One of the great benefits of server-side tagging is reduced page load time. As we define all the tags in the server-side container, the JavaScript loads in the cloud and then sends the data to the individual third-party servers which collect the information.

The server-side container is configured in such a way that it can map any incoming HTTP requests to the vendor format required by third-party tools like Facebook, Hot Jar, Google Ads and Google Analytics.

You can reduce all the JavaScript and third-party pixels running on the devices to the server-side container and thus improve user experience.

More secure and safe

In a typical GTM implementation, the GTM container resides in the client-side and the data processing can be exposed to the spammers who can send fake pageviews and events to your analytics property.

However, in the case of server-side tagging, the data processing happens in the cloud environment that only you own and have access to. This makes server-side tagging more secure and safe as all the hits to third-party tools are credential-based without exposing the sensitive data to the device.

Extra control for data collection

In server-side tagging, your server-side container resides between the user’s device and the endpoint. It acts as an intermediary for requests from users, processes them in the cloud and then sends the data to the endpoint.

Since third-party tools don’t have any direct connection to the user’s device there are no data leaks or setting-up of third-party cookies. You have complete control over what data is being sent to the endpoint tools, and these tools are communicating only with your server.

Key concerns

Even though server-side tagging has great benefits there are few key concerns that need to be evaluated before opting in.

Cost

Yes, server-side tagging comes with the cost incurred to host the server-side container in the cloud. Note that the server-side GTM container is still free to use and the cost incurred is only to host it in the cloud.

In general, a minimum of three servers are required in the Google cloud platform to host this solution and it may cost up to $120 USD per month.

If you track more data and process it in the cloud, the solution will cost more depending on the number of server calls.

Technical skills

Setting up server-side tagging needs advanced analytics skills and more technical knowledge of developing an analytics model. Thus, this solution is not recommended to everyone as it is much complex than you think.

Available GTM resources

Server-side GTM containers are similar to typical GTM containers in the client-side but they lack normally available tags and triggers. In fact, there are only three types of tags: ‘Google Analytics: App + Web’, ‘Google Analytics: Universal Analytics’, ‘Http Request’, and just one trigger which is ‘Custom’.

Now let’s dive into setting up server-side tagging.

How to set up server-side tagging

To use server-side tagging, you need to create a new Tag Manager server container.

Follow the below steps to create it:

Creating a server-side GTM container

Step 1: Navigate to your Google Tag Manager account and click on the ‘+’ button to create a container.

Step 2: Give your container a descriptive name, select ‘Server’ from the available target platforms and then click on ‘Create’.

Step 3: Once you click on ‘Create’ a pop-up will come like the one below asking you to provide the container with a tagging server (Google Cloud App Engine Standard Instance).

You have two option to select from – ‘Automatically provision tagging server’ and ‘Manually provision tagging server’.

If you are new to the Google Cloud Platform you can select the first option where you will need to create a billing account providing your financial details and Google will automatically create a tagging server for you.

If you already have access to Google Cloud Platform and have your own server you can select the ‘Manually provision tagging server’ option.

In our case, I already have access to Google Cloud Platform so I will go with manually configuring the tagging server.

Note down the container configuration to configure the Google cloud server in the next steps.

Note: In case you have selected ‘Automatically provision tagging server’, the container configuration will be loaded by default while setting up the Google server.

Configuring Google server for GTM container

Step 4: Navigate to https://console.cloud.google.com/ and click on ‘Select a project’.

Step 5: An overlay will appear. You can select the project from the available list or you can also create a new project by clicking on ‘New project’. In our case, I will select from the list of available projects since I have already created one.

Click on ‘Open’ at the bottom of the overlay.

Step 6: A dashboard for the project will open. Note down the project ID.

Step 7: Now click on ‘Activate Cloud Shell’ from the menu bar in the upper-right corner.

Step 8: A command prompt will appear at the bottom of your window, like below.

Step 9: Now we need to set the cloud platform project in the cloud shell.

Copy the following command and paste it in the command prompt. Replace the <PROJECT ID> with the GCP project ID that you noted earlier in step 6.

gcloud config set project <PROJECT_ID>

Step 10: Press ‘Enter’, an authorization overlay will occur to make the GCP call. Click on ‘Authorize’.

Step 11: You will now see the project ID set to the new ID for which we are going to set up the server.

Step 12: Copy and paste the following command in the command prompt and press ‘Enter’.

bash -c “$(curl -fsSL https://googletagmanager.com/static/serverjs/setup.sh)”

This script will configure the host for our server-side container. It will ask multiple questions for which we will need to provide input.

Step 13: Press “Y” and press enter. It will ask for “Container Config (Required)”.

Copy the container configuration we noted earlier in step 3 and paste in the command prompt. Press ‘Enter’.

Step 14: Now It will ask for the policy script URL which is optional and we can skip it. Press ‘Enter’ to skip it.

Step 14: The next input is to provide ‘Deployment type’. The options available are ‘testing’ and ‘production’. We are deploying this solution on a live website so we will choose ‘production’.

Type ‘production’ in the command prompt and press ‘Enter’.

Step 15: The next step is to provide the autoscaling option. Autoscaling lets your apps gracefully handle increases in traffic, and it reduces cost when the need for resources is lower. It is recommended that this is ‘on’.

Type ‘on’ and press ‘Enter’.

Step 16: In the next step we have to provide the minimum number of servers to host the container (minimum 3 to maximum 6). Type ‘3’ and press ‘Enter’.

Step 17: You will be prompted to provide the maximum number of servers. You can add up to 6 maximum servers but in our case 3 are sufficient. Type ‘3’ and press ‘Enter’.

Step 18: Now you will be asked to provide CPU target utilization. The target utilization level is the level at which you want to maintain your virtual machine (VM) instances. For example, if you scale based on CPU utilization, you can set your target utilization level at 75% and the autoscaler will maintain the CPU utilization of the specified group of instances at or close to 75%. Recommended to put at 0.6 (60%)

Type ‘0.6’ and press ‘Enter’.

Step 19: You will be prompted with the inputs you have provided so far and asked do you wish to continue. Type ‘Y’ and press ‘Enter’.

Step 20: Once you press ‘Enter’, your server will be configured and you will be provided with confirmation like below.

Note Down the target URL from the above image since we need to add this in our Google Tag Manager server-side container.

Congratulations! You have successfully configured your server now.

You can go to the dashboard and see the live requests coming in.

Now, let’s set up the Google Tag Manager container with the target URL we noted earlier.

Step 21: Navigate to the admin section of your server-side Google Tag Manager container. Paste the target URL you have noted down in the input box named ‘Tagging server URL’ and click on ‘Save’.

Your server-side container is now ready to use.

Sending data to server-side Google Tag Manager

You can send data to a server-side container in the following ways:

  1. Using GTM: You can use regular GTM on the client-side to send data.
  2. Using Gtag.js: You can also use Gtag.js to send data to a server-side container
  3. Custom code: You can also write custom code.

In our case, I am using the regular version of a client-side GTM container.

Follow the below steps to send data to a server-side GTM container:

Step1: Log in to your client-side GTM container and go to the ‘Variables’ tab.

Step 2: Select the ‘Google Analytics Setting’ variable. This is the variable which sends data directly to the Google Analytics server. We are configuring it to send data to our server-side container.

Step 3: A new overlay will appear. Click on the pencil icon to edit the variable settings.

Step 4: Click on ‘More settings’ and then click on ‘Advanced configuration’.

Step 5: In the ‘Transport URL’ input box, you need to provide the tagging server URL so that instead of directly sending the data to Google Analytics, it will send data to our server-side container. You can find the tagging server URL in the admin section of the server-side GTM container.

Copy this URL

Step 6: Paste the tagging server URL in the ‘Transport URL’ input box and click on ‘Save’.

Congratulations!!! You have successfully configured your client-side container to send data to the server-side container.

You can check this by enabling the preview mode of both the containers (client-side GTM container and server-side GTM container).

As you can see from the below image, the Google Analytics pageview has fired on the client-side container.

The same is received in our server-side container preview window as a ‘page_view’ request.

Now our client-side GTM container is all set to send all hits (pageview, events, transactions) to the server-side container.

From the above image, you can also see that the client is Universal Analytics, which has generated an incoming HTTP request. This means that that is collected from the website and is sent to our server-side container. Outgoing HTTP requests are ‘None’ since we have not created any tag in the server-side container and hence no data is actually sent to Google Analytics.

Let’s proceed further and understand the preview and debug method for a server-side container.

Preview and debug

You can preview the server-side container just like the typical client-side container by clicking on the ‘Preview’ button. It will open a new tab where you can debug your tags, variables, events, etc.

To understand it in more detail let’s create an analytics tag in the server-side container.

Step 1: Navigate to your server-side container and click on ‘Tags’ and click on ‘New’.

Step 2: Give your tag a descriptive name and click on ‘Tag configuration’.

Step 3: An overlay will appear in the right-hand side with a list of tag templates.

Since server-side tagging is still in beta version, there are currently only three types of tag template. ‘Google Analytics: GA4’, ‘Google Analytics: Universal Analytics’, and ‘HTTP request’. In our case, we will select ‘Google Analytics: Universal Analytics’.

Step 4: In the ‘Tag configuration’ window you have the option to select the ‘Enable overriding settings in this tag’ checkbox. We will keep it unchecked since, by default, the server-side container inherits the analytics ID from the client-side container.

You also get the option of advanced settings which is similar to the typical GTM container settings.

Step 5: Click on ‘Triggering’ to create a trigger for our tag.

Step 6: Click on the ‘+’ icon to create a new trigger. Give a descriptive name to your trigger.

Note that like typical GTM container you don’t get the predefined trigger ‘All Pages’ here. In fact, there is only one trigger type available at the moment which is ‘Custom Trigger’.

Step 7: Click on ‘Trigger type’ and you can specify the trigger condition here by selecting the ‘Some events’ option. You can also create a new variable to define your trigger condition or choose the built-in variables as well.

Step 8: In our case, we only want to pass data to Google analytics hence we will select condition as “Client name” equals “Universal Analytics”.

Click on ‘Save’.

Just to give you a bit more of an idea about clients, you would have noticed that in the server-side container there is one extra menu called ‘Clients’. Here you will find all the third-party tools to which you would like to send the data. Currently, there are only two clients available by default which are ‘Universal Analytics’ and ‘App + Web’. Hopefully, Google will come up with various clients (Facebook, Google Ads, etc) here in near future.

Step 9: Click on the ‘Preview’ button and a new window will open like the one below with a blank summary.

Step 10: Go to your website and visit any page which has the client-side GTM container code available on it.

Switch back to the preview window and you can see multiple hits received from the client-side container. As you can see from the below image, a pageview request is generated and multiple scroll events are also generated (I have implemented scroll tracking in the client-side container).

If you click on the ‘Request’ tab on the preview window you can check the Universal Analytics tag. You will also notice the incoming and outgoing HTTP requests to the Google Analytics server.

To see the details of tags fired you can click on the ‘Tags’ tab of the preview window and select ‘Universal Analytics’.

It will provide you with tag details, outgoing HTTP requests .and the trigger condition of the server-side container.

The ‘Variable’ tab in the preview window will provide the list of variables enabled and their corresponding values.

The ‘Event data’ tab will provide you with all the information which is collected and being passed to the endpoint tool, like Google Analytics in this case.

You can also check in real-time reports in Google Analytics, just to be sure.

Congratulations !!! If you have reached this point you have now successfully…

  1. Created a server-side container
  2. Configured server
  3. Create your first analytics tag in server-side container
  4. Debugged and previewed the analytics call

Setting up a custom domain

It is strongly recommended to map your custom domain to your server container endpoint. This is because the default server-side tagging deployment is hosted on an App Engine domain.

You need to modify the deployment to use a subdomain of your website instead, in order to use first-party cookies on the user devices. If you don’t map your custom domain you won’t be able to use the cookies information. It will consider the App Engine domain as a third-party context.

If you have noticed, the preview window opens a Google App Engine domain.

In order to consider all your server-side container in the first-party context we can map your own domain to the server by following these steps:

Step 1: Navigate to https://console.cloud.google.com/ and select the project you have created earlier.

Step 2: Click on the three horizontal lines in the upper left corner and then click on ‘App Engine’. An overlay will appear, click on ‘Settings’.

Step 3: A settings window will open. Click on ‘Custom domains’ and then click on ‘Add a custom domain’.

Step 4: Add your domain name without https:// or www and click on ‘Verify’. In our case, I will use gtm.optimizesmart.com

Step 5: A new window tab will open in which Google will ask you to verify your domain.

Step 6: Select ‘Other’ from the drop-down list and it will generate a TXT record which you will need to add to your DNS records to verify. Copy the TXT record.

Step 7: Log in to your DNS record manager. In our case, I use Cloudflare to manage all my domains and their DNS records. Once you have logged in, select the domain name for which we will add the TXT record.

Step 8: Click on ‘DNS’ to enter the record settings and you will get a window like below:

Step 9: Click on ‘+Add Record’ and select the type as ‘TXT’ from the drop-down menu.

Step 10: Paste the TXT record that we have noted down earlier in step 6 and click on ‘Save’.

Step 11: Now go back to the Google webmaster window and click on ‘Verify’.
Upon successful verification you will get the below notification:

Step 12: Now go to Google cloud console. You will see the message as ‘Successfully verified ownership of <your domain name>’. Now click on ‘Continue’.

Step 13: Select your newly added domain and map it with the Google cloud project by clicking on ‘Save Mapping’.

Step 14: You will get status marked as a green tick mark. Click on ‘Continue’.

Step 15: It will now provide you with a list of records that you need to add to you DNS to enable security. Navigate to your DNS console and add the provided list of records one by one accordingly.

Note that there are four “A” type records and four “AAAA” type records, you need to add these records to your DNS using the domain names like below.

  • Record type: “A” or “AAAA”
  • Name: gtm (prefix to our main domain)
  • Ipv4 address: record values which are provided in earlier step for ex: 216.239.38.21
  • TTL: Set to auto
  • Proxy status: set to DNS only

Click on ‘Save’.

Repeat this step for the remaining records.

Step 16: Once you have added all the provided records from the list you will see the below window:

Step 17: Navigate to Google cloud console and click on ‘Done’.

You will see the below screen with all records mapped to your custom domain:

It may take an hour or two for mapping to update in Google cloud. Once updated you will see the preview mode window in your own domain mapped.

But hold on, there is one more setting that we need to change before you can validate your custom domain mappings.

Step 18: Navigate to you server-side container admin settings and change the tagging server URL to your newly mapped domain.

For example, earlier our tagging server URL was “https://ethreal-art-293017.uc.r.appspot.com” (App Engine domain). Change it with your new domain URL like ‘https://abc.yourdomainname.com’. In our case, I will use ‘https://gtm.optimizesmart.com’. Click on ‘Save’.

Step 19: Enable the server-side container preview mode and visit your website. You will now see your custom domain URL along with the page_view tag firing.

Great, you have configured your custom domain to the server-side GTM container.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, server-side tagging offers great tracking benefits like reduced page load time, a more safe and secure environment and full ownership of data control, but there are still a few concerns like the cost associated with it and the technical skills required to set this up.

There are lots of steps you need to carry out in order to set up server-side tagging like setting up a custom domain, setting the transporting URL in a client-side container and then finally creating tags, triggers and variables in a server-side container.

As of now, there are only two clients available in server-side containers namely ‘Google Analytics: GA4’ and ‘Google Analytics: Universal Analytics’. I hope soon enough there will be more third-party clients available to set up in community templates.

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Himanshu Sharma

Digital Marketing Consultant and Founder of Optimizesmart.com

Himanshu helps business owners and marketing professionals in generating more sales and ROI by fixing their website tracking issues, helping them understand their true customers' purchase journey and helping them determine the most effective marketing channels for investment.

He has over 12 years of experience in digital analytics and digital marketing.

He was nominated for the Digital Analytics Association's Awards for Excellence. The Digital Analytics Association is a world-renowned not-for-profit association that helps organisations overcome the challenges of data acquisition and application.

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