The Future Of Google Analytics Is Server-Side – Here’s Why

Hugo Loriot, partner at fifty-five

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Hugo Loriot, partner at fifty-five.

The annual Cannes Festival has elevated France’s reputation in advertising and marketing technology over the last several decades. But at this year’s event, France’s stance on data privacy was a notable backdrop. 

Over the past two weeks, Meta lost in court against French ad-tech champion Criteo, and it will now have to grant better access to its inventory. Meanwhile, France’s data protection watchdog, the CNIL, just deemed Google Analytics illegal – a move that the Italian data privacy authority has just followed as well.

What happens now? It turns out there may be a server-side solution. 

Is GA-XIT around the corner?

The CNIL’s recent choice reflects a decision from earlier this year, when the organization found a local website’s use of the tool to be in breach of European Union law. The ruling points to the transfer of personal data – inclusive of but not limited to users’ IP addresses – to the United States, in the absence of a solid replacement to the defunct Privacy Shield.

This comes only one month after Google announced a series of measures to exclusively collect European users’ IP addresses in local servers, redact them before processing the information in the US and provide country-level data-sharing controls to marketers.

Adding to the confusion, the CNIL also recently ruled against Universal Analytics, the legacy version of Google Analytics, which most website owners still use. While Google’s new features are specific to Google Analytics 4 (GA4), there is still much uncertainty around compliance, especially amid recent rulings.

Only France and Italy have officially taken a stance against Google Analytics so far, but we can expect more EU countries to follow. Marketers now face a difficult decision: double-down on Google Analytics, migrate to GA4 and include regulators’ recommendations to handle personal data or preemptively move to a local web-analytics vendor. 

Google Analytics is by far the most popular web analytics technology. There are not many credible alternatives out there. Switching to a new tool takes time and is expensive. Marketers would need to build and implement a new tagging plan, train their teams to use new reporting workspaces, migrate dashboards and lose year-over-year key performance indicator comparisons. Global organizations face a particular challenge: having to maintain a local solution in Europe and operate Google Analytics everywhere else.

The server-side alternative

There is a silver lining. The CNIL has approved server-side implementations of Google Analytics, as long as marketers take responsibility for collecting and obfuscating personal data in Europe.

Browsers collect website page views, events or conversions and send them directly to Google Analytics servers for processing by default. But with a server-side implementation, events can be sent to a marketer’s cloud infrastructure in Europe, anonymized and then routed to Google Analytics servers for processing and visualization.

More than a work-around, moving server-side is becoming a major trend. It gives marketers more control over data for segmentation and attribution as getting users’ consent becomes even trickier. As an example of the growing popularity of moving server-side, Meta has recommended moving retargeting and conversion tags to its server-side tagging CAPI for the past 18 months. 

Still, there are obstacles. Despite its growing prominence, server-side implementations are complex to handle and require working in lockstep with the IT department.

More uncertainty ahead

Privacy regulations aren’t primed to slow down anytime soon. The legal compliance uncertainty around Google Analytics in Europe will likely remain. GA4 with a server-side approach may be the future-proof solution worth betting on for global success.

Follow 55 (@55FiftyFive55) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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