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The end of free: How new regulations and policies are straining the use of free analytics

by Ben Magnuson May 3, 2021

Governments and large digital platform operators such as Apple and Google are simultaneously pushing regulations and policies that will define a new era of how much privacy people can expect with their data.

This upheaval has been particularly difficult for companies to stay on top of, requiring them to react quickly to new regulations on how to collect and store data on their owned digital platforms while also losing many common AdTech tactics for reaching their audiences across the Internet.

Companies have been stuck in a cycle of new policy or regulation arriving, waiting to get a response from their service vendor like Google Analytics on how it affects them, sending it off to the internal Risk team, and crossing their fingers that what comes back is something configurable and not native to how the platform operates.

So much wait-and-see is putting particular strain on a beneficial relationship between companies and data analytics platforms like Google Analytics that have been crucial for digital transformation for the last decade. The relationship went like this:

  • Google Analytics provided an easy to set-up, out-of-the-box service at no cost to the marketer
  • In exchange, Google was provided with an on-ramp to turn these relationships into customers for its ad network
  • And Google was allowed access to lots and lots of data* to help further improve its ad targeting and benefits

*depending on the set-up after 2018, etc., etc.

Free is great! And it was hard to beat; Google Analytics was consistently improving and competitive enough with paid options that it was really only competing with one value prop: Paid options allowed you to truly own the data and configure what kind of data was sent.

For the last decade, many did not have a strong use case for needing that control. But the last year has certainly highlighted the benefits of owning that data process, so that the data policy set by your own company can be instituted by your data collection platform.

However, this comes at a cost–once an absent line item, analytics may require both a subscription cost and higher headcount or consultant support for maintenance and improvement.

Paid options that allow more control over the collection and storage process include Matomo Analytics, a cookieless option, or enterprise solutions like Adobe Analytics.

Intro to Server-Side Tagging

Don’t count Google out, however. Last year, Google introduced Server-Side Tagging for Google Tag Manager. Google Tag Manager is a free tag management system, a flexible tool that allows all third-party vendor scripts to be managed and consolidated as well as the ability to create and deploy tags to capture on-page analytics, such as button clicks or scrolls.

Google Tag Manager (GTM) essentially injects code onto the site to execute utilizing the web servers. Server-Side tagging differs in providing a dedicated server for all of these tasks to execute, including the routing of data to outside servers.

This offers some key concrete benefits, including:

  • Sites running multiple vendor scripts (Facebook or Linkedin Pixels, heatmap tools such as Crazy Egg, Google Analytics, etc.) can slow down the site experience, which has become of high importance after Google’s introduction of Page Experience scoring into its search algorithm. Server-Side Tagging allows for data stream consolidation, where a single script such as GA4 could be used to send all required data to the other vendors and saving those resources.
  • In Server-Side Tagging, you are able to see what user data is sent within these vendor scripts and have the opportunity to change or remove it before sending it out into servers you don’t own and re-route it to servers you do.

Traditional website configuration without server-side Tag Manager

Website configuration with server-side Tag Manager

This offers much stronger protections for your user’s privacy. With Server-Side Tagging, you could send all the event data necessary to know how a Facebook campaign performed while removing sensitive geolocation or user-agent string, which could be used for fingerprinting.

You can even set up a server-to-BigQuery pipeline, where you can send data directly into a Google Cloud Services database and create your own analytics database entirely, bypassing Google Analytics servers.

Although Server-Side GTM itself is free, there is a cost to rent out the server. Each GCS server costs about $40/month, and Google recommends starting with at least three servers for a total cost of around $120/month expected. You do not have to use GCS servers to utilize the Server-Side Tagging product; with some expertise, you could provision outside servers such as AWS or others.

This brings up the other potential big cost–Server-Side Tagging is not a beginner-level product that just comes out of the box ready to go. Managing it requires at least some level of JavaScript to get the most benefit out of the setup.

However, you may find it worth it to regain control over what is happening to your users’ data while still being able to utilize important ad platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn.

This concludes our series on Data Privacy and Analytics. If you missed any of the previous posts in this series, see below for the links.

Ben Magnuson
Associate Director, Data Strategy

As Associate Director, Data Strategy at One North, Ben supports clients by applying a strong data focus to marketing initiatives across channels and tools. He starts by gaining an understanding of each client’s unique goals and tactics, and guides them toward a strategic analytics program. He focuses on the creation of a meaningful feedback loop to help support and steer decision-making.