4-2- How online analytics work

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How online analytics work

– I find interpreting your data becomes easier and more meaningful if you understand the pieces that make data collection possible. Every action you take on the web is tracked one way or another. The pages you view, the files you download, and even demographic and interest data can be recorded. And this data is captured through the use of what we call cookies and pixels. A cookie is a small file that a website stores on your computer. And this file might contain the pages you visited and when, a unique identifier, and even if you’re authorized to view certain content if you’re logged in.

Typically, a cookie doesn’t have much identifying information. The website itself will store its own corresponding file and then it matches your cookie to the records on the server.And this is useful for knowing whether a visitor is returning for the second time, how long between visits, and even what advertisements they’ve clicked into. And speaking of advertisements, ad platforms such as Facebook or Google use cookies to identify the same user as they browse around the web. So you can see an ad from Google on The New York Times website and another ad from them while you’re browsing on a food blog.

As you continue to browse the web and load advertisements from the same publisher,they’ll see a list of the type of sites you visit and how you interact with these ads. This information can then be used to sell ads that you’re more likely to engage with. So beyond cookies, we have the tracking pixel, and a tracking pixel stores information on your web server, not your computer. A pixel is really just a one by one transparent image, and they’re often used to see if users convert after visiting a particular ad. Here’s how they work.

The server stores a small file, call it pixel.gif, and every time the server asks for the file, it’s going to log that request. Now instead of just asking for pixel.gif, we’ll instead add custom variables to the request, say, pixel.gif?ID=123 and so on and so forth. The server will be successful in delivering the image because all the extra text is irrelevant. So the user doesn’t see any issues, but it does a keep a log of that unique URL. And it can use those variables to then match that transaction back to a particular user or advertising event.

To put this another way, let’s say you click on an ad to buy movie tickets. As soon as you click, you’re going to receive a cookie. And the cookie will include information on the time,where you clicked, what banner was clicked, and so on. Now at this point, the advertising platform knows that the ad received an impression and a click, but it has no record of the sale. So now, let’s say you continue on and buy those tickets. On the confirmation page, the website is going to read the cookie on your computer, pull the information from it, and send it back to the server through the conversion pixel.

And now the advertising platform will connect the dots and indicate a sale for that ad. We’ll talk more about how these sales are attributed later. Now there are some other factors,such as how long it’s been since the click, if the click came directly from that last click or maybe a user saw an advertisement and then purchased without actually clicking. But again, more on that later. I could go deeper and deeper into the technical aspects of how cookies and pixels work, but the truth of the matter is you realLy don’t need to know all the nuances. With this high level overview, you’ll be able to make sure yours are set up properlyand tracking the right information.

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