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Tech 101: What is a Tracking Pixel?

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Have you ever wondered how online advertisers seem to know every consumer action you take on the internet? For instance, how does a banner ad show up for something you were looking at on a totally different website a few days earlier? Or how does does a service you subscribed to seem to know if you’ve read an email they sent or what links you clicked through on their site?

Or, if you’re running your own website, how can you keep track of user information on your end? Having data on the way visitors find your website (and what they click on once they’re there) is critical for understanding the effectiveness of any online marketing campaign. You can’t create content for a custom audience unless you know who that audience is and how they’re behaving.

Enter the humble tracking pixel, a tool that websites use to track your internet activity and that you too can use to collect data on your own website’s traffic.

What Is a Tracking Pixel, How Do They Work, and What Are They Used For?

Before explaining tracking pixels in particular, it’s helpful to understand what pixels are in general. Pixels are small dots of light that combine to form an image on your computer, smartphone, or tablet screen. An image created by pixels is called a raster image and can be edited pixel-by-pixel using computer programs like Painter and Photoshop. Raster images are stored as recognizable image file types like GIFs, JPEGs, and PNGs. But exactly how small is each individual image pixel? Well, it depends. A single pixel is simply the smallest individual point on an image, so pixels don’t have standard sizes. Instead, they’re measured as pixels per inch (PPI), the number of pixels that are packed into each inch of a device’s display. The more dense the pixels, the sharper the images or text on your screen will appear. With this mind, a tracking pixel is one individual image pixel on your screen, meaning it looks something like this:

Yes, that barely perceptible dot is a 1×1 tracking pixel (or pixel tag), and—believe it or not—it can be a major tool used to track and analyze website traffic, individual user behavior, and overall site visitors’ patterns.

The ridiculously small size is actually part of a pixel tag’s function. Tracking pixels are purposefully hidden in the background of a web page or email so that they aren’t part of the user’s experience—they’re intended to be a back end process that shouldn’t distract from the content on a site or in an email.

When a tracking pixel is embedded into the HTML code of a website, an online advertisement, or a marketing email, each time a user loads that site, ad, or email in their web browser they also load the pixel tag. This event triggers a request to the web server where the tracking pixel is hosted. The server then sends the pixel tag to the user’s unique IP address (a string of numbers that identifies each machine connected to a computer network) and that address is logged by the web server. Website owners, authors of email marketing campaigns, or advertisers responsible for the tracking pixel can then periodically analyze server logs and understand how many unique views their content is receiving.

If 10,000 unique IP addresses have viewed a tracking pixel, then that means 10,000 viewers have seen the content the pixel was embedded in. Tracking unique views is the most basic function of a tracking pixel, but traffic data can be further analyzed from there. IP addresses, for instance, can give you a general idea of where your viewers are coming from geographically, as well as what kind of devices and operating systems they’re using to visit a site. IP addresses can also be tracked as they move across a website or click on different ads hosted by the same server. Again, this gives site owners and advertisers a clearer sense of what users are looking for, allowing content and ads to be tailored to meet users’ needs with targeted ad campaigns.

Using Tracking Pixels as a Conversion Tool

Expanding a bit on their most basic use, tracking pixels can help monitor online conversion behavior as well. These are instances where a website user, ad viewer, or email recipient takes a specific action they’re led toward by the site, ad, or email content. This includes things like signing up for an email list, entering an email address to receive a free .PDF book or guide, taking an online quiz, or ordering a product or service through an online form. Conversion tracking is a crucial part of digital marketing campaigns, and using conversion tracking pixels is a handy way of keeping tabs on conversion numbers.

The way it works is similar to the general use of pixel tags described above, but in the case of conversion tracking, this process involves embedding pixel tags in strategic content or site locations. Tracking pixels dedicated to conversion rates need to be placed on order confirmation pages, “Thank You” emails, or on any other content generated and sent to a user after a conversion action takes place. For instance, if entering a valid email address allows a user on your site to download a free ebook, a conversion tracking pixel could be embedded on the ebook landing page. Just like general pixel tags can identify and track unique visits to your website, ads, or emails at large, specifically placed conversion tracking pixels give marketing campaigns an accurate conversion count, while also allowing marketers to identify where their converted leads are coming from and to be able to assess the success or failure of marketing efforts.

The big takeaway? Tracking pixels are a nearly invisible piece of the tech landscape. But while their basic, day-to-day marketing utility is easy to overlook, they’re an essential part of contemporary digital marketing.

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12 comments

  1. Ad Guerrilla Replied

    They don’t just ‘count up how many times,’ they track which IP addresses, how many duplicates, where those IPs are physically registered, which ISP owns those IPs etc etc etc. Tracking pixels are not innocuous

  2. Hello,

    Nice article ! And nice webdesign btw. I’m looking for a tutorial on how to implement pixel tracking in emails? Could someone help me with it?

    Thank’s

  3. adblock-user Replied

    they could use the ad itself, but if there´s no ad they still want to count page-views, that´s my guess

  4. can’t they just do that using the ad itself? why would they need a pixel when the ad has to load as well?

    • WhataBunchofShi Replied

      Because the same ad may be used by numerous marketers that have a unique pixel assigned to them….

  5. Robert Drews Replied

    Sorry, I’m super late to this party. Besides looking at your own server records to see how many times the pixel was requested, who can you employ to host and record pixel tracking for you? I’m looking for a third party solution so we can provide accredited data on article impressions.
    thanks

    • vdumitrica Replied

      You don’t need a “tracking pixel in a still image”, as the image itself is made out of hundreds or thousands of pixels. You can make the image itself to be tracked on the server side. The tracking pixel is an image itself, it just happens the image size is 1×1 pixels.

  6. Dave Replied

    Is there a way to tell (in email marketing) which subscriber clicked thru an ad to completion using a tracking pixel or just how many “people” landed on the Thank You page? Is there a way to tell Who on your list is clicking thru and Who isn’t?

    • Dimitar Replied

      Hey Dave.

      I’m using Ontraport and it certainly can do those things. So yes, it is possible. I’m sure other similar solutions can do it too.

  7. Guest Replied

    Being able to know how many impressions (which is what the tracking pixel measures…more or less) were served allows an advertiser to do a quick calculation to determine click through rate (CTR = clicks/impressions*1000) which is a measurement of effectiveness of the ad or campaign.

  8. Jess Replied

    Silly question, but why wouldn’t they just count the number of clicks they get on the ad/website/email? Why do they need the tracking pixel too?

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