The Shift in Online Data Collection

19 October 2022

Our view on data and its governance has shifted over the recent years, and it is different from what we were used to, with privacy being the main driver of this shift. The time of placing cookies and saving (personal) data without clear communication and consent is over. The user and their privacy have been top priority, and this has to be respected. The many  changes that are currently taking place in the digital landscape have made this apparent.

This article is written by Steven van Eck, Data & Analytics Manager at SDIM Online Marketing. SDIM is sponsor of the DDMA Digital Analytics Summit, which recently (October 13, 2022) took place in B. Amsterdam. 

Besides new legislation and guidelines on privacy, new technical changes derive from this issue as well. One of the biggest changes in the digital landscape is the impending disappearance of third-party cookies and the set limitations of first-party cookies. The outcome of these developments and its consequences have been dubbed as the ‘Cookieless Era’ among digital marketers and analysts. This Cookieless Era has forced us to become not only critical of the way we have been collecting data, but also of the kind of data that we collect.

The aforementioned developments have led to a variety of changes in the market and have presented a multitude of changes that are yet to come. Our ‘need’ to collect as much (revelant) data won’t disappear, it’s just the rules that are now different. Logically, shifting the rules also requires its players to adapt different behaviors while simultaneously ensuring a minimized risk of ‘unwelcome’ consequences.

It is crucial that we remain mindful of this changing landscape by adopting critical mindsets. This will be the absolute key in order to stay ahead. Thus, this article will discuss a number of important topics that overlap with these developments.

Server Side Tracking

The current method for collecting data involves placing and firing a script that is placed on the website from the browser of a user or visitor (Client Side). Despite it being an industry standard, it does involve numerous drawbacks. One includes its sensitivity to adblockers: a user that has installed an adblocker in their browser can easily prevent their data from being shared with parties such as Google or Facebook. This limits the amount of data an online advertiser can collect. Another big constraint of Client Side tracking is the lack of control over your data and what information is being sent to third parties. Which makes sense, as you are placing a third party script on a website, and how often do we fully comprehend its functionality? Do we always know exactly what data is being collected?

A popular alternative that has been (and currently is) making waves, amongst both smaller and larger parties, is Server Side Tracking. With this new technique, a script is no longer fired from the user’s browser, but from an external server (which is governed by the website’s owner). This allows for both faster site speed and the circumvention of adblockers. Furthermore, because the data is being collected from a personally owned server, you gain full control over the tags you fire and the data you collect. You even prevent third parties from collecting data on your website without your permission, which could occur when placing third-party scripts Client Side. Data collected might include personal user data that is shared while filling in a digital contact form for example. Server Side Tracking would prevent this issue, in other words: you are in full control of your data and its collection.

From Third to First-Party Data

With the disappearance of third-party data, the need to collect first-party data naturally grows as it remains an invaluable asset to any kind of business. There currently are a number of browsers that already block third-party cookies by default, with Safari and Firefox being prime examples. Nevertheless, the browser with the biggest market share, Google Chrome, still allows the use of third-party cookies and has said it will continue to do so until 2024. Once they block third-party cookies by default, the ‘Cookieless Era’ will officially begin.

As mentioned before, our focus will shift from third- to first-party data. Creative solutions to tracking and data governance will become incredibly important in order to maintain a steady flow of data collection. We have seen quite some different solutions already, mainly in the shape of using email addresses. These include:

  • Log-in screen to read content
  • Newsletter subscriptions
  • Downloads of white papers or brochures
  • Quizzes that use email addresses to share results
  • Discounts in exchange for email addresses

Another solution is the collection of data first-party in order to use it for different purposes. These include:

  • Marketing automation: send personally customized newsletters to potential leads based on their position in the customer journey.
  • Website personalization: show personalized content depending on the profile of the visitor in question.
  • Advertising channels: email addresses can also be uploaded to platforms such as Google and Facebook for the purpose of advertising. This data could then be used for remarketing purposes or to reach similar user profiles.

An important thing to keep in mind is that with both collecting and using first-party data you need to be fully transparent towards users about your conduct. They have to be aware that their data is collected and used for other purposes, so that they can decide whether they agree or disagree with this.

Developments in Web Analytics

All current and upcoming developments also influence web analytics. Web analytics platforms mostly use (first-party) cookies to recognize visitors. Shortening the cookie lifespan will have a significant impact on the results we see in tools such as Google Analytics. If visitors cannot, or for a short period of time, be recognized, it will be increasingly difficult to map out a complete customer journey. Moreover, attributing traffic sources and channels won’t be possible in the same way that we are (or were) used to.

To fill these gaps in data, new techniques are used to maintain a similar way of collecting web statistics. For example, the necessary applications of machine learning and data modeling are becoming increasingly common. A prime example of this would be Google’s new Analytics platform, Google Analytics 4 (GA4). This new generation of Google Analytics has integrated said techniques to combat issues such as the loss of data, which was necessary as Google Analytics remains a market standard despite its numerous adversities this year alone.

With its machine learning algorithms, GA4 contributes to developing and recognizing important insights and trends. For example, when a decline in visitors from a specific campaign occurs, GA4 could potentially present this to you as one of its Insights. Moreover, it has predictive metrics that can calculate the expected revenue your visitors generate. This data can subsequently be used in your Google Ads campaigns to target users that potentially generate a higher revenue.

Machine learning also contributes to data modeling. For example, when users deny consent for analytics-cookies, that data will be unavailable to you, resulting in these so-called ‘data gaps’. In order to close these gaps, data modeling is applied by using data from comparable visitors that did consent to analytics-cookies. This way, you respect the agency of your visitors while simultaneously preventing you from having to deal with a loss of data.

The possibilities regarding machine learning are still quite minimal, as these functionalities are relatively new. We expect that developments regarding these functionalities will be introduced in the coming years.

Big Ad-tech developments

Big Ad-tech parties can actually thank their existence to data and, in today’s environment, are primarily concerned with new developments concerning data collection. This resulted in many new functionalities that support collecting more relevant (conversion)data and some examples of these new functionalities are:

  • Facebook Conversion API: a new technique developed by Facebook to collect and send data to Facebook. Data is sent from server to server without being reliant on client side tracking, which is becoming more difficult due to the disappearance of third-party cookies and the limitations applied to first-party cookies. With this server-side solution you can circumvent these obstacles. Moreover, you have more control over the data you sent from server to server.
  • Google Enhanced Conversions: with Enhanced Conversions from Google you include additional user data when registering conversions, for example, a user’s email address or home address. The data is then sent in hashed form to Google to ensure user privacy. This additional data will assist in matching a visitor to an existing Google account that previously had interaction with an ad. It allows for extra conversions to be attributed to users who use multiple devices.
  • Google Consent Mode: this new functionality from Google is used to collect information regarding the cookie-consent provided by the user, respecting their choice whether they want cookies to be placed or not. For example, if a user were to refuse giving consent, only a limited amount of data will be collected from their visit – data that will not require cookies. With the use of Google Consent Mode you respect the user’s agency while simultaneously allowing you to collect ‘cookieless’ data.

We expect that the development of new data- and advertising-related technologies will be ongoing in the coming years. Furthermore, they will surely play a big role in the online landscape.

Respect the User

One thing is certain: the past months have been everything but boring and we have many more exciting things to explore in the (near) future. Many new data- and privacy-related developments await us, as data will remain a vital part of our daily activities, even if we have to abide by the rules. These rules are set for a reason, despite how important data is, the security and privacy of our visitors need to be respected. Always be clear and transparent when it comes to data, what information is gathered from them and the potential application of this data for other purposes.

Don’t focus too much on what you won’t be able to track, but focus on the new possibilities, advancements and technologies that allow us to grow even more. This is a unique opportunity that is presented to us, one with many challenges. But, instead of running away, we should face them head on, as there are many exciting things waiting for us in our data-driven world.

About the author: Steven van Eck is Data & Analytics Manager at SDIM Online Marketing.