Marketing Tags and Pixels? What the heck are these people talking about?

Our team here at Tag Inspector specializes in all things tags and pixels. We implement them, audit them, monitor them, validate them, etc. Unless you work in IT or advertising/marketing operations, tags and pixels are probably a foreign concept that you’ve been hearing more and more about lately.

We’ve certainly been fielding more questions about them.

Over the past few weeks there have been a handful of people reaching out with a short, and seemingly simple, question. “So, uh, what exactly are tags?”

And it is not a surprise that more people that work in marketing, analytics, and media positions need a better understanding of what tags are, where they come from, and what they do. With the explosion of Tag Management Systems in the past few years, technical implementation and management of tags/pixels lies closer to those playing in analytics and making decisions from conversion and behavior data than ever before.

So let us help!


What is a tag/pixel?

A tag (or often called pixel) is a short snippet of javascript (code) that does something on your website. In the context of marketing/advertising tags and pixels, they are often collecting some information about the visitor to a website and their behavior on the site. This is then sent back to the respective marketing/advertising platform to be processed and reported.

A quick common example: Facebook tags/pixels – A Facebook pixel is implemented across all pages of a website to collect information about users that came to the site via Facebook. A Facebook tag may be implemented on a “Thank You” page after purchasing a product. When you reach the “Thank You” page, the Facebook tag will execute (or “fire”) and send Facebook information about the products you purchased, the revenue of the transaction, the advertisement/article you came to the shopping site from, etc.

In our example, the Facebook tag is what makes analysis and reporting on the user behavior possible.

This is what a tag looks like in the source code of a page (Google Tag Manager in this example from the Tag Inspector site):

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.21.42 AM

As you can see, nothing too impressive from the looks of it. But the real power is in how they work.

How do Marketing and Advertising Tags and Pixels Work?

Now this is a much more complicated question that depends greatly upon the individual tag we’re looking at. At a very high level, the process works as follows:

  1. A user pulls up a web page, thus initiating page load.
  2. The browser “reads” the source code of the page, embedded in the source code are the various javascript tags (like the script that you see above).
  3. When the browser “reads” the part of the page where the javascript tag/pixel is, it executes (or “fires”)
    • A little caveat here is if tags are managed through a Tag Management System or if they are piggybacking off another tag. In which case, the initial tag (or TMS) that is on the page is what is executed. That tag (or Tag Management System) that fired, fires the other tags that are contained within it. We’ll explore this a bit more when discussing Tag Management Systems later in the series.
  4. When a tag is fired, it’s given function is executed
    • For most tags this means that tracking information is sent. The tag will capture information from the user (possibly data such as user ID, the source that the user came from, location of the user, etc.), information from the page (if it’s an ecommerce site this would be information like the products being viewed, information about each product like SKU, price, color, etc. or for a content site would be information such as article title, author, etc.), and information from the URL (here is where the campaign information comes in, if using Adobe Analytics it may be the CID value or in Google Analytics it may be utm parameters).
  5. The data grabbed by the tag is then sent to a third party place where it is recorded and processed, leading to the pretty analytics reports and web analytics!
    • For many tags, the request being sent will be structured as follows: The first section ( shows us where the data is going and the section at the end is the data being collected in the query string. In a future section we will discuss how to see all of this and troubleshoot tracking.

This same process then continues for all tags deployed on each page and each event (or on-screen action, i.e. button click) that is set up. The result is the analytics reports that we all know and love.

Hey that’s pretty cool!

I know! And the process also highlights one major key that is often overlooked or unrealized, proper tag implementation and function is the basis for all web analytics, media campaign measurement, downstream big data analysis, and ultimately insights about performance of marketing and advertising efforts.

That old parable about a house built on solid ground? Proper tag architecture is that solid foundation that everything else is built on.

Now you’re saying, “So tags and pixels are pretty important to all the work being done in digital marketing and advertising, what can I do to make sure our tags are all working right?”

That’s a great question!

Easy answer? Contact us at Tag Inspector and let us help you out!

More difficult answer? Come back for Part 2 of our series and we will show you!

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