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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.

Find Out in Three Minutes (or Less!) If a Career in Tech Is Right for You

Find Out in Three Minutes (or Less!) If a Career in Tech Is Right for You

Our quick and easy quiz will help you pinpoint exactly how to get started in tech, in hardly any time at all.

Scott Morris

Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely from his home in Napa, CA. He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, I spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.