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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.
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:
“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.”
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
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.
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:
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:
- Part 2: What Is Tag Management And Why Should You Care?
- Part 3: Why Tag Management Isn’t Really About Web Analytics Anymore
- Part 4: 8 Questions To Ask Before Choosing A Tag Management System
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.