Learnings from a year with Google Tag Manager Server Side

Learnings from a year with Google Tag Manager Server Side

Over the last few years, I’ve written several times about Google Tag Manager, especially when I was at The Next Web as we had an extensive integration. Something we ran into over time was the lack of being able to send events that needed validation or were triggered from the front-end. At the time, I asked the Product team of GTM what their thoughts were about sending server-side events. It wasn’t a primary use case for a publisher, but for many others, it is. For example, you often want to validate data or check if an interaction has happened/passed a milestone (like verifying payment) before you can accept a purchase. In the web version (front-end) of Google Tag Manager, you either had to fire an event by hitting the purchase button or wait until the thank-you page was loaded. But sometimes, that doesn’t guarantee it, and the final confirmation takes place behind the scenes. This is where Google Tag Manager for the server-side will come in.

An intro to Server Side Google Tag Manager

Google Tag Manager server-side was released originally in beta in 2020, and since the early days, we’ve been in their program with RVshare. Server-Side (SS) leverages Google Cloud Platform (GCP) to host a GTM container for you that you then point via your DNS records to it. By doing this, you’re able to assure that any ad/privacy blockers are not blocking the default Google scripts hosted on google.com. But mainly, it will provide you with the ability to receive back-end requests. In our case, this means that we have more flexibility to validate purchases or user signups before we fire a successful event to SS GTM.

Learnings

New roads can be bumpy as you’re still trying to learn what should work and what new beta features might still not be ready for production. That’s why we gathered some learnings on our integrations that I wanted to share.

Server-Side Validation

Although we’ll likely all have to move to a world in which we run server-side containers there are still plenty of reasons why smaller sites don’t have to migrate yet and can avoid the overhead. But if you’re dealing with use cases that require validation, I would urge you to take a look.

Examples are:

  • You want to verify someone’s identification before registering a signup.
  • You want to verify payment information or inventory status before registering a purchase.

Those examples will require validation but will likely already send the user to a thank-you page without knowing if this is actually all approved or not. As a lot of this depends on business logic you want to ensure that your marketing or product analytics tracking in Google Analytics 4 supports this as in my opinion as you want to align your reporting with the business metrics that the rest of the organization cares about.

How to think about this for your setup? What are some of the examples or business rules that are in place for your organization that your current analytics integration might not line up with perfectly? Chances are that you find an opportunity to improve this by using server-side validation and only sending events once it successfully passes.

Managing Server Capacity

GCP and SS GTM on setup will create 3 (small) servers via Kubernetes by default. When you start receiving many events and send them in parallel to many different clients, you’ll start to notice the load on your servers increase. We didn’t realize that autoscale only goes up to 6? by default. Since then, we improved this, but it caused us to lack partial data for a few days after a significant release. So check how many servers your servers can auto-scale to avoid any issues. Realistically, you can quickly push that number up to 20+ without incurring any additional costs as they’re only used with a high CPU event, and they’re automatically being downsized after traffic slows down.

How to do this yourself?

As the procedure for this has changed since we ran the updates for this about six months ago, I recommend reading the instructions for reconfiguring the servers that App Engine creates as it will help you find the right command-line instructions to execute.

Monitoring Request & Server Errors: Slack & Email Alerts

Look at the trend line in the report. Notice the cliff? You never had to deal with this issue previously, as Google managed GTM web containers. But with SS GTM, things can go wrong, quickly and you’ll need alerting to tell you about it. In this case, an error came up on the side of Google Analytics with ec.js, which wouldn’t load for enhanced commerce, causing 5XX errors on the managed servers. That eventually led to conversions not being recorded, as that’s a mission-critical piece of our infrastructure. You can guess the implications.

How to do this yourself?

  1. Go to your Google Cloud Platform project that is associated with your GTM account, your project ID will look something like: ‘gtm-xxx’.
  2. Use the search bar at the top to find the ‘Logging’ product, you can also go there via App Engine which powers the servers for this.
  3. You can find all the requests that are being sent to this server and debug what could be going on.

Saving request & error logs in Google Cloud Storage

Server-side events can come in all shapes and sizes, POST/GET requests, and can contain many things that you care about. In our case, we sent a server-side event on purchase with a full POST body with data. But… this body isn’t shown directly in the logging feature that we just talked about, that we just discovered as only the request URI is shown: GET /request-path. When you’re sending an event to: /request-path?event_name=foo-bar with a body, this quickly can cause issues as you don’t have a place to debug the body. We opted for sending this full request as a JSON file to Google Cloud Storage so that we can evaluate the full request. As this technology is still in development I can’t share much more about it this time.

Special thanks to the team of Marketlytics and Data to Value (Rick Dronkers/Peter Šutarik), as they’re our marketing analytics partners at RVshare.


What books am I reading in 2022?

2021 was a failure… but I was right. Early 2021 I already predicted that I wouldn’t read as much, which indeed proved to be true. My newborn daughter (hi 👶🏻!) caused a good amount of sleep deprivation in the earliest months of the year. Only in the Summer period I slowly got back into reading but meanwhile also spent most of December catching up on my Pocket (app) reading list that had gotten out of hand. But 2022 could be more bright. I think I could end up at > 15 books again this year with some luck.

Why am I writing this blog post? For the last six years, I wrote blog posts (20212020201920182017 & 2016) listing the books that I read in the past year and wanted to read during that year. Mainly to commit myself to read as much as possible.

What books I didn’t get to in 2021 and have re-added to the list for 2022:

My favorites from 2020:

  • Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork: If you’ve watched the WeWork documentary on Hulu, you’ve likely already enjoyed the story. However, I thought the business angle was missing in the documentary. The book does a much better job providing that context and walks you through the entire history.
  • Amazon Unbound: It was a great look behind the scenes of one of the biggest companies in the world. Getting a better insight into their other business units, process, and organizational structure over the years was an interesting read.
  • Quantum Marketing: Although I’m afraid I disagree with the term ‘quantum marketing’, I think the book touches on a few good things and shows how important it is to stay ahead of the curve on trends.
  • Think Again: The concept of being able to ‘rethink’ is so important, but so many people struggle with it. From Adam Grant, who is great regardless, this book gave plenty of great examples to show how important rethinking your opinions is.

What books I’d like to be reading in 2022:


Supporting the role of Marketing Operations

Supporting Marketing: The Role of Marketing Operations

This blog post was written in partnership with Ian Hoyt, who’s RVshare’s Marketing Project Manager.

While you pass through the growth stages of departments, things start breaking. Teams become less efficient. There is more work and often less accountability. In a small startup, everyone shares the responsibility because there is no one else to blame or lead initiatives. While you grow to a marketing team of 5+, it becomes clear that there are owners for channels (social, SEO, creative, email, to name a few). At 10+, you’ll undoubtedly have the first manager, and you can see how things evolve from there (multiple managers, managers managing team leaders).

At RVshare, I hired a Marketing Project Manager to help manage scale. We had too many ongoing initiatives and team members late last year. Unfortunately, it became too much for one person to manage (welcome to me partially failing as a leader). In many startups/scale-ups, I’ve noticed similar roles, and people show up to help manage the growth and support leaders (often in the form of a Chief of Staff, which we’ll talk about later).

What this role is (for us).

There are plenty of different titles and nuances to the role of a Marketing Project Manager in a marketing operations structure. And it comes down to the lifecycle of your company. The role can wear many different hats, and often, they do. At RVshare, we had a choice to make when we hired for this role. We could either hire a project manager FOR marketing (think SCRUM master, JIRA wizard) or a well-rounded marketer who knows how to manage projects. We chose the latter.

The difference is subtle, but context is key.

As a department going through a growth phase, it isn’t always the prettiest, most neatly tied bow of an existence. You try your best to stay organized, but there is no perfect “hey, we have a campaign idea,” let’s set all the requirements and execute the project at perfect timing (or hand it off to an agency), always. Instead, growth can be messy because better (or bigger) opportunities come up, priorities shift, and then you’re left with a team that needs someone to help fill those gaps and navigate the tides of the unknowns in the project all at the same time. 

Kind of like someone sitting in the haul of a sinking boat with a rag and some wax ready to fill punctured holes as they traverse rough waters, all while screaming up to the captain what the heck their plan is. Except, our marketing project manager has never been in a haul of a boat, and no marketing campaign is ever that life or death. 

What this role is not.

It’s not an executive assistant (EA), period. This person shouldn’t manage the team’s calendar, transport, or travel expenses. You can manage these activities way more efficiently by hiring an EA or putting enough processes/tools in place to manage them.

You’re lazy. You should have just {fill in the blanks}…

  • Hired more interns or more Virtual Assistants
  • Build more technology to avoid overhead
  • Created less bureaucracy and processes, to begin with
  • Hire more agencies or contractors

Your thought process is likely correct, and there is a place and time to think about all these areas, especially before starting the hiring process and figuring out how to avoid needing more headcount. But a VA or intern isn’t usually the right pick to lead strategic initiatives as they lack experience and seniority in an organization. Technology supports initiatives but doesn’t lead them.

Also read: Deciding between who to hire: an Agency versus a Contractor versus Hiring?

Chief of Staff roles?

They have things in common. They’ll often lead strategic initiatives and have the autonomy to operate parallel with the rest of an organization. But this role is usually the right hand of a C-level executive and more often than not focused on cross-organizational initiatives. The role that we’re talking about is more supportive of a team, and its primary goal is to keep the team operating as best as possible.

The role of (Business) Operations in the High Growth Handbook

If you want to read more about the role of business operations, I recommend reading the specific chapters on that in the High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil. It gave me the first glance a few years ago into what a team like that can do and how they can support the overall organization by being a ‘gap-filler’. To a large extent, the role of Marketing Operations fits into that as well.

The background of Operational roles in for example Design & Business

  • Design: In bigger design teams (>15 people), you’ll often find people focused on design ops. They’re helping the overall team design more and be better at their job by creating tools, workflows, and processes that eventually will help the team create more output.
  • Business: Filling gaps, exploring projects, and chasing ideas that could help make an impact on a company. Meanwhile, helping out to operate the business better by leading the way on cross-functional projects. That’s often what the role of business operations is all about.

Working through inefficiencies & why you need this role

As described earlier, nothing is perfect, and things will be inefficient. In a growth marketing organization, you’ll miss certain skill sets once you go through certain levels. With a marketing team of 5 people, you will not have channel specialists or functional leaders for everything. At 20 marketers, you might need more bandwidth temporarily somewhere based on seasonality. With this role, we’re providing a way to work through those inefficiencies, and it’s a reason this role could be helpful.


Want to read more on this topic?


Calculating TAM (Total Addressable Market) for SEO

Calculating TAM (Total Addressable Market) for SEO

A couple of months ago, I was one of the participants in the SEO MBA program by Tom Critchlow. It was a 5-week long workshop series going through all kinds of subjects that matter in dealing with the executive level regarding SEO. We touched briefly on the subject of TAM (Total Addressable Market) along the way ts) as well. 

In itself, I’d say this is a topic that isn’t often talked about in the context of SEO, so through this blog post, I want to spend more time talking about it as through years of working in/with startups, it keeps coming back. An often discussed question in board rooms around company potential remains; “What do you think the TAM is for this market, and how does that influence the potential long-term valuation?”

Why is knowing your Total Addressable Market useful:

  • Find out the maximum reach for the product/service that you’re developing?
  • What is the maximum market share for you to gain in this TAM?
  • Provides you an insight into the size and adjacent industries that are relevant for you.

How to leverage TAM for SEO & PPC

In the context of industries and segments, TAM is a powerful tool for SEO & PPC because it will help prioritization for content creation. Companies with many smaller segments and an average SEO team will have to prioritize what they can work on as they often don’t have the resources to go broader. Knowing what a search-focused TAM looks like can help you identify what to focus on first.

Note: This is not the only exercise they should be doing to prioritize, as the competitive nature of the industry should also play a role in this.

Identifying segments

Most categories within your business can be easily defined. For example, RVshare is, guess what: RV rentals. Which wasn’t hard to figure out, and you can likely do this for your business as well. But where Total Addressable Markets come in is expanding this. Let’s use an example:

RV Rental > Camping > Outdoor > Vacation > Travel


See what just happened there. Within seconds we went from a subset of a subset to the major category of Travel. It’s a high-level example, but it also applies in a more granular way:

Red BMW X5 for Sale > BMW X5 for Sale > BMW for Sale > Car Sales > Vehicle Sales

On this one, the last piece is a stretch, if you’re a car sales company, it’s often unlikely that you sell tons of different vehicles as well, but if you’re specifically looking for a red X5, you’re likely in one of the upper segments as well.

Calculating Click Share & Share of Voice

In the context of PPC, most folks will be familiar with the click share for ad groups or campaigns as it’s the percentage of clicks you’re receiving as part of a keyword subset. It’s beneficial in the context of TAM and search channels as it could indicate what the maximum click share (read; market share) could be for clicks. Because the chances are high that you’re not able to capture 100% of clicks on your properties (even if you claim all other positions in the SERP).

Want to know more about this? I’ve previously blogged about:

Calculating TAM for SEO

All Keywords within your segment * Search Volume = Total Search Volume / TAM

Makes sense? Calculating this metric in itself is not that hard, as it’s just a quick math equation. However, getting the data for a full segment or industry is much more complicated, so how do you get this data. But there are many ways to do this yourself simply. Only if you’re in an industry with tens of thousands to millions of keyword combinations (home sales, travel, etc.), you likely need more resourcing to support this.

  1. Export all your keyword data from Google Search Console or Google Ads/Microsoft Advertising.
  2. Calculate the yearly total search volume for those keywords.
  3. Find any other related keywords in your industry:
    1. Leverage related keyword tools.
    2. SEMrush, Ahrefs can provide you with tons of keyword insights for your competitors.
  4. Gather all this data back together and calculate the total market size & your share (your clicks).

At scale, for bigger industries, the process is a bit more complex as you have to digest more data to get to an accurate answer to your sizing problem. In addition, you’ll run into more data or keywords that might look relevant but aren’t, which you’d have to shift through. So, what’s the size of your Total Addressable Market (TAM)?


Building a Templated Approach to SEO

SEO, in my opinion, is in many ways about scale. You want to rank for as many relevant keywords as possible as content is the leading factor in achieving that scale. Because let’s face it, who can rank for thousands of keywords with one blog post or piece of content? You want to ensure that ‘content’ can be positioned in such a way that it’s scalable and can do such things. This is where the templated approach for SEO comes in. Whether it’s about optimizing product descriptions or creating filtered pages, it’s often the way to go to target many (both head terms and long-tail) keywords simultaneously.

Getting Started

Step 1: Keyword Research

Especially for industries with lots of search volume, the big topics arise quickly. Quick initial keyword research provides an insight in most cases on where to start with creating templates, while at Postmates, it wasn’t rocket science to figure out that the most popular keyword themes were around:

  • {food category} delivery, for example, sushi delivery, Chinese food delivery.
  • {food category} {city name} delivery, example: burger San Francisco delivery
  • {food category} near me, example: sushi delivery near me

Note: There were many more other categories, but as the ambition was to compete for crucial high volume head terms, this is certainly where we got started.

Step 2: URL Structure

Decide on your URL structure, this isn’t too complicated either. But often, I’d recommend laying out what you’re planning on long-term with other projects as well so that specific projects don’t create overlap. You want to avoid that certain pages will be cannibalized over time by other terms that are served on similar URL structures.

In the case of our examples, we used:

Step 3a: Engineering Briefing

  • Internal Linking: Probably one of the most important pieces of a templated approach as you want to make sure that enough other pages are 
  • Headings, Titles & Content: Most of the content, including headings and titles, will be pre-formatted in a certain way so that it can be easily replicated across all the pages that you’re going live with. Usually, templated pages contain listings (restaurants, homes, products, you name it).
  • Random tags
    • META Description: Obvious, should this be templated, or do you have a way to write this manually for many pages?
    • META Robots & Canonical: Likely always has a default, although you want to override this information in some cases.
  • XML & HTML Sitemaps
    • Build an XML sitemap for all the URLs that are part of your templated approach.
    • HTML Sitemap: Is your overall structure big enough for it to need an HTML sitemap? For a big rollout of potentially thousands or more pages, you might want to think about doing this.
    • Robots.txt: Add the sitemap to the robots.txt, and don’t forget to list it in the XML sitemap index file.

Step 3a: Content Briefing

What type of content do you want to show up on the page? What should the headings and titles be? As you likely have to start on this with a templated approach as well you need to make sure that you can rely on a Content team to take care of this. Depending on the briefing this can be a longer or shorter briefing to gather the right assets.

Step 4: Launch & Iteration

Launch early & often is often my strategy around SEO so that it can be picked up as soon as possible by search engines. The same applies to the templated approach, getting them indexed is the first priority after which you can worry about optimized crawl patterns and getting them to rank higher in the search engines.

Examples

The templated approach isn’t new for many SEO teams in a B2C world, as it’s common to have a large inventory of products or services that can be segmented in many ways. In B2B, the approach is a little less common (but still often a good practice). Where I often see strategies fail around templated approaches is the entire focus of teams on content creation this way versus writing blog posts. They work hand in hand, but often, the long-term value lies more towards templated pages than content as it’s more scalable.

The caveat, a templated approach for smaller sites might take longer to perform than an actual blog post, for which you can right after hitting publish, start racking up visits via other channels (social, email) as well.

Let’s look at an example of good templated pages that have kept SEO in mind:

The Things to Do Places approach of Airbnb (especially for Places) is a great example (previously part of the Neighborhoods project, I believe) of a templated product approach that consistently works for SEO. While in their case, I bet it’s not just made for SEO, it does have a lot of great features that are easy to call out as being important for SEO.

  • Content Structure: It’s clear what the essential headings & titles on the page are.
  • Internal Linking: Take a look at how it collects all the relevant links to Places to Stay, Experiences, etc. There is a reason why they’re there.
  • Find the other ones yourself ;-). It was always a great learning exercise for me to dive into category pages and figure out why every little element on the page is there and how it could add value for SEO.

How to do this yourself?

Are you running an e-commerce store, are you a media company, or are you a marketplace? Chances are, you’re already more than likely set up to support this within your existing business model and organizational structure. So give it a shot if you haven’t explored this and let me know how it’s working out for you!