How to Manage Tracking Tags on an Ecommerce Site

Ecommerce sites track visitor behavior in a variety of ways. One of them is the use of “tags,” small pieces of code from third-party websites, such as analytics programs and affiliate marketing partners. An active site can have many tags, and they sometimes conflict with each other. Monitoring and managing tags can be burdensome.

Tagman is a company that provides tag management services. We recently spoke with a member of its advisory board about the use and management of tags. He is Richard Last, an ecommerce pioneer who launched the first department store website — — in 1994. Last is also the past chairman of, the industry trade association. He is now a lecturer at the University of North Texas in its Digital Retail program.

Practical eCommerce: This conversation is about tags. What is a tag?

Richard Last

Richard Last

Richard Last: “In general, a tag is a piece of code — a piece of data —attached to your web page that allows you to track visitors and customers. Not necessarily the visitors and customers as much as their browsers. In that way, you can monitor their web behavior.”

PEC: Please give us some examples of a tag that would be on an ecommerce site.

Last: “As ecommerce merchants, we all use various affiliate marketing relationships — revenue share relationships — where we bring traffic to our site from a marketing partner of some variety. The way we are able to track the movement of that customer is the placement of a tag. It could also be on your own email program to monitor email performance or just in our analytics packages, to understand our customer’s site behavior.”

PEC: If a merchant is using an affiliate marketing network, most likely the merchant has a tag or tags from that network on its site.

Last: “Absolutely correct.”

PEC: And if the merchant is using Google Analytics, it likely has a tag on its site.

Last: “That is true as well. Where it gets real interesting and what got me interested in TagMan, about a year and half ago, was something I never really understood, as not a technical person, is that so much of this goes on, on the web. If you are relying on third party tags, like the ones you described, after a while you lose track of what kind of tags you do have on your site. When I’ve done this myself and on other sites, it is almost shocking. It is so surprising how many tags can be attached to a single page. That has an impact on a number of things, including just the load time of the page, when it is bogged down with all of these various tags.

“What I found was that, at times, on an ecommerce site you can end up with basically duplicate tags, if you will, taking credit for the same conversion because there are so many third party tags like this that are involved. You may have ended up paying two different partners for the same conversion, based on the way this data has been tracked and recorded.”

PEC: How does a tag get to a merchant’s site?

Last: “For the most part, it is gets there from a third party that we, as merchants, are working with. So that tag is coming along with the particular action. That is where it gets to be difficult to track without, for the lack of a better term, a traffic cop that sits in the middle and controls all of this, which was the whole thought behind the TagMan process, using a universal tag that you manage.”

PEC: Is there another term for a tag?

Last: “It might be referred to as a piece of metadata. It might be a cookie that is placed. It might be a web beacon that is placed.”

PEC: Can a merchant have a tag on its site without the merchant knowing about it?

Last: “Unfortunately yes, and it is more prevalent then you might think. It is certainly more prevalent than I thought until I started to research that subject, and it has a lot of implications. Not only for site performance and site ROI but also for privacy.”

PEC: So, you may have conflicting tags if you’ve got different affiliate relationships or different referral sources, each of which are looking for a commission. Could you expand on that?

ListenListen to the complete audio interview with Richard Last.

Last: “Sure. You summarized it well. I think there are probably three significant benefits of tag management to an ecommerce site. The first one, even before the one you mentioned, is just basically this whole problem of load time. If you could clean up web pages and eliminate all the different third party tags and cookies that are loading up every time a page loads up, then you can dramatically increase speed. So that is a very basic benefit that is measurable.

“The second one is that you might, in some cases, actually be paying two different parties for the same conversion without realizing it. And the savings could be quite substantial when you add it up. The good thing about folks like this is they are able to go in and do this kind of analysis on your existing site and go back and look at your data and determine where this might have occurred. So that is a real hard benefit that they can quantify for you.

“Then the third one, which is probably the biggest benefit of all and it is the newest one, is this whole area of attribution of our marketing span. By that I mean most of us basically evaluate our marketing budgets based on last click methodology. Customers search on a particular term, they came to the site, made a purchase, and therefore that particular search term gets the credit for that particular transaction. Or the customer goes to an affiliate site, picks up a coupon, looks over to your site, makes a purchase, we pay the affiliate their full revenue share, they get full credit for generating that coupon and that sale.

“What we’ve been missing with last click attribution is what really prompted the behavior in the first place. It might have been a display ad that you ran on a particular site that the consumer saw, they decided to buy from you but made a quick stop over at the affiliate site, in order to see if there were any coupons available first, found one and then continued on.

“So then the question is what really led to that sale? What the attribution modeling tells you that, ‘Wait a minute, there was more involved in this particular transaction and you need to make some adjustments as to how you allocate your marketing expand, by taking into account the pathway to conversion.’ That is impossible to do if you are relying on multiple third party tagging. On the other hand with a universal attend capability, like TagMan, they can deliver the attribution modeling as well so that you can make the necessary tweaks to the marketing budget.

“So marketing attribution of your digital behavior is almost like a brand new area, for most of us, but very lucrative in terms of improving the ROI on our biggest expense, meaning marketing expense.”

PEC: Anything else?

Last: “Just one thing additional to think about, and we touched on it very briefly, is this whole topic of online privacy. The direction that the laws will take is still up in the air at this point, but the one rule that does exist and it has existed for a number of years, with the Federal Trade Commission, is that an ecommerce company has to comply with whatever they state in their privacy policy.

“It seems pretty logical and pretty easy, but that is where not knowing all of these third party tags can really cause problems. In other words, we all have links to our third party partners, whether it is our analytics firm, our ad serving firm and so on. We can disclose these partners in our privacy policy. Where the problem comes into play is if you have other tags on your site and third parties that you are not aware of, then that means they are not called out on your privacy policy, which means the consumer cannot opt out. This means that, technically, you are in violation of your own privacy policy and that is the one place that the FTC could come down on you, the ecommerce merchant, and rightfully so. And the fines could be pretty costly. So that is just another thing to think about, beyond the cost savings, that there are some practical reasons why this idea of having a universal tag management is that it can get you out of a lot of trouble too or keep you out of trouble.”

PEC Staff
PEC Staff
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