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March 16, 2020

How to Track Users across Websites and Applications

Millions of people are online at any given moment and visit websites to buy or to seek information. Their behavior is a rich mine of information that can help website owners and advertisers to refine their digital marketing techniques. There are reasons why it is important to track visitor journeys across websites and mobile apps. The tracking process can be simple or quite sophisticated, even including elements of artificial intelligence. 

In today’s world where most actions like searches and purchases take place online and websites have interesting content as well as ads, it is important to keep the spotlight on the visitor because he is a potential customer.

How do websites track users?

There are reasons for websites to track users. Data is what you get when you track users and data helps you refine contents of the site or develop a better strategy that will translate to revenues. One of the simplest ways a website can track user behavior is simply by placing a cookie on the user’s system that will know about the user’s IP address, time when he visited the site, which pages he visited and duration. 

Site owners can draw inferences about products that were of interest and areas that need improvement. They can modify sites for deeper engagement. 

Unfortunately, while plain cookies are harmless, the website may feature third party ads that could place trojans on a user’s system to track his activities on the computer even more. A site owner may signup with an ad platform like Google that will place ads on the site’s pages and track activities. The site owner may be part of a publisher network on programmatic adtech where even more sophisticated technologies are used to know visitor behavior,so that the ad server may serve the right ads to the right person to give maximum returns to the advertiser and to the publisher. 

Users may find it objectionable that every action, including mouse movements and clicks are under the scanner. This is one reason why it is mandatory by laws to have cookie consent such as the cookiebot consent management solution that complies with European GDPR/ePR and California’s CCPA regulations. Data collection is pervasive and extends to web searches, your emails and smartphone apps too. 

Cookies, however, work with websites but a user’s journey may take him to an app. In this case another method of tracking may be employed such as Google Analytics for Firebase. The website journey is handled by Google Analytics. 

The issue here is that data from apps and websites are siloed but need to be unified to help site owners and advertisers derive maximum insights. Happily for them it is possible to unify web and app analytics using a uniform set of parameters. It is easier to know the various points of a customer journey using the event based model of acquiring interaction data.

Google, for instance, can track a user journey across sites. This is how it is done:

A persistent cookie that stores the user ID is used to identify the browser and the device as well. The cookie has four sets of numbers. Client ID includes version, domain, identity and first visit time. The first number, usually 1, indicates the version of the cookie format. The second number depends on the domain. The third set is randomly generated to identify different users. The last set is timestamp. The cookie gives information about hits on a website, sessions and the user’s journey. A cookie, unless removed, will persist for about two years. 

This is a very simplistic explanation. There is more to how users are tracked across sites. The end purpose is to give owners and publishers information that will help tailor delivery of personalized ads and improve their earnings and/or reduce ad spends. 

Pixel tag

Cookies are one way to track users. Another way is to use tracking pixels or pixel tags. These are 1×1 transparent images present in a page or email. The tracking pixel loads on opening the mail or website. The pixel and its code gather data on OS used, browser used, time of visit, user behavior on site and IP address. 

Web beacon

Yet another way is to use web beacons. When a page loads the device is made to emit ultrasonic sound that is picked up by other devices in the neighborhood. Marketers can gather information about which types of devices are in use and the location to deliver relevant ads. This technology is more in use in mobile apps. 

Browser fingerprinting

Yet another, more sophisticated, way is to use browser fingerprinting to track users not across one or a couple of websites but their overall online activities. 

The technology even digs out users under a VPN layer. The fingerprint contains information on existing system and internet set up, screen size, location, language, fonts, browser and plugins and relevant data. 

A user can be identified with 99% accuracy using digital fingerprint technology and their journey tracked across the internet or across apps. This type of fingerprinting has huge potential for governments to carry out surveillance. 

From the digital marketing perspective it is possible to identify millions of users and design ad delivery in a very personalized way. Your data can be used for you and even against since you are so uniquely identifiable and, worse, locatable. However, for marketers, this is a huge plus in reducing ad spends by reaching out with their products only to users who exhibit purchase potential. 

Why track users? 

The reason is simple. You must know about users who are all possible future potential customers so that you can deliver ads that are in consonance with topics of interest to them and which will elicit response. Online ad spends are expensive and marketers want maximum returns. This is why advertisers must track users using one or more of the above technologies. These may be implemented directly or, better still, incorporated as part of the ad tech platform they use.

It is equally important for publishers who rely on the ad tech platform to track users so that their platform can deliver ads based on the content and behavior of the visitor and thus benefit advertisers.

It goes without saying that ad tech platforms are meant to promote online digital advertising. As such one can expect such ad tech software to include sets of various tracking tools. This is how it identifies users who visit a web page and the content they are accessing, leading in turn to display of the ad that relates to the content which is of interest to the visitor. Where does he go from there? The ad-tech platform is likely to follow the user’s journey. This can be tried out by visiting one site and then loading another website. The other site too will display the same digital ad that the user was shown on the first. Such data is used to calculate lead score to know just how promising that user is as a potential customer. 

One can track using Google analytics as well as use other tools such as LeadBoxer and Opentracker. However, digital marketers will find that the ad tech software is a better solution in that it gives other benefits as well besides integrating the tracking data with ad placement in an automatic, algorithm dictated environment. Businesses may not even know about ad-tech or tracking in which case it is best to let online digital marketers who use the ad-tech software to handle the matter of deploying ads and compiling user statistics.


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Hardik Oza is an SEO practitioner with more than 8 years experience. He helps companies to grow their businesses. He shares his thoughts on additional publications like SEMrush, Search Engine People, and Social Media Today and few more. Follow him on Twitter @Ozaemotion.

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