The Complexity & Confusion Of Tracking Without Tag Management

Part One of a multi-part series diving deep into tag management -- what it is, how it works, how to find a partner and how you can benefit.

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Tag management is a buzzword right now, but it’s not one of those vaporware phenomena. In this case, the buzz is legit. The tag management space has seen massive growth in the last two years thanks to strong vendors like Tealium, Ensighten and Signal, along with the introduction of Google Tag Manager.

In a survey report from Econsultancy published in June 2012, 73% of marketers using a tag management system (TMS) said it speeds up their ability to run marketing campaigns, with 42% describing it as “significantly faster.”

But to truly understand and appreciate the benefits of tag management, it helps to have a grounding in the traditional underpinnings of online tracking.

What Is A Tag, Anyway?

In the earliest days of online advertising, they were referred to as Web Bugs. Advertising networks needed a way to record interactions and ad activity across thousands of websites. According to Wikipedia: [blockquote cite=Wikipedia]“Originally, a web bug was a small transparent GIF or PNG image that was embedded in an HTML page, usually a page on the web or the content of an email. Whenever the user opens the page with a graphical browser or email reader, the image or other information is downloaded. This download requires the browser to request the image from the server storing it, allowing the server to take notice of the download. As a result, the organization running the server is informed when the HTML page has been viewed.”[/blockquote]

Today, we speak about tags more generally, such as a snippet of code that is placed on a website on behalf of a third-party to accomplish a specific purpose. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of legitimate uses for website tags, from analytics to remarketing, conversion tracking to surveys, even A/B Testing.

Nearly every web technology vendor utilizes a tag of some sort. Google AdWords alone has multiple tag types, include conversion tags, remarketing tags and custom audience tags.

The Most Common Types Of Tags

Two of the most common tag types used by many vendors are image pixel tags and JavaScript tags. (In truth, many JavaScript tags also make use of image pixels. For example, did you know that the Google Analytics code snippet actually produces a 1×1 image pixel request to


A Google Analytics Tag

The invisible pixel request method has been around for years, and is still a primary way to transfer data to a third-party. The image pixel request is sent with one or more data-points about the visitor and/or their activity.

For example, when the Google Analytics pixel is fired, the request is sent back to Google’s servers with information like the title of the current page, page URL, screen resolution, etc. JavaScript tags are more complex, and often make use of either first-party or third-party cookies. The tag may set a new cookie, or read data from a cookie that was previously set.

Using our Google Analytics example again, the GA tag sets one or more first-party cookies on the visitor’s browser which contain information like their unique visitor ID, campaign names, date of last visit and more. A cookie is used to identify whether the visitor has been to the website in the past or should be considered a new visitor.

What Has Tagging Looked Like Thus Far?

Traditionally, adding these marketing or measurement tags to a website was kind of a beating — especially for large sites. Why? Because each tag vendor has specific instructions for when and where to install it and, in most cases, marketers have to go through IT to get any changes made to the site.

Here is an actual excerpt from the tag implementation instructions from a leading ad network: [blockquote]Install tags across all pages of the website where tracking is desired, with the exception of pages that end in .aspx (.asp is OK) or any page that references the Apollo moon landing (this breaks the tag, our engineers are working on it). Further, tags should be placed in the body section of the HTML, not too close to the top but as far from the footer as possible. If you encounter situations where existing JavaScript code interferes with {Vendor Name} tag, please remove the tags from all pages and start over using a newer version of your operating system. Finally, tags must be manually typed in each time. Do not try to copy and paste tag code, as this can result in perfect implementation which might yield unexpected results.[/blockquote]

I kid, of course. But in my experience, this isn’t too far off.

A Hypothetical Example

So imagine — you’re a marketing manager who just helped launch a fancy new website. Now you are dealing with the various online marketing vendors your company has contracted with, and each of them are requesting their tags to be installed on the website “ASAP as possible” (as Michael Scott from The Office would say).

Fast forward six months and three IT nastygrams later, and you think 95% of the tags are properly installed and working on your fancy new website. Of course the website is spiffy, but now you are noticing something else… it is SLOW to load.

Hmm…I wonder what could have changed? You only added a bunch of extra browser requests on every single page requesting data from vendors spread out all over the solar system. But never mind…it is worth it because now you have sophisticated remarketing lists, an email marketing system that is integrated with your CMS, an affiliate program that is running on auto-pilot and killer metrics in your web analytics platform.

Fast forward another six months. The affiliate thing didn’t work out, and you’ve outsourced your remarketing campaigns to a high-end vendor (that has its own set of new tags which had to be installed). But did the old tags get removed? Nope.

Why not? Well, you didn’t want to bother IT with “another ticket request,” plus you didn’t feel like absorbing all the negative feelings from IT considering they “did you a favor” by spending six weeks installing the tags initially. Honestly, it’s not going to hurt anything to leave them right? This is what happens — I’ve seen it time and time again.

Give me any ten websites and I’ll show you seven of them that have old or unused tags installed in the HTML code, slowing things down and accomplishing absolutely nothing. (Editor’s note: some in the industry have expressed concerns about that old code continuing to send data to vendors that are no longer partners.)

Hopefully this helps tell the backstory of tag management and why it’s being seen as the holy grail by so many marketers. Stay tuned over the next several weeks as we dive deeper into tag management use cases, challenges, benefits and best practices.

For more on Tag Management, see later posts in this series: 

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Tyson Kirksey
Tyson Kirksey is COO at Vertical Nerve, a digital optimization firm headquartered in Dallas, TX, where he leads a talented team of analysts, search marketers, optimization gurus and other "Vertical Nerds". Tyson's online marketing career began in 2003, shortly after Yahoo almost bought Google (oops!) and META tags were the hit SEO strategy. In his spare time he enjoys hanging out with his wife and two kids, playing golf and exploring the fusion of baseball and analytics.

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