Pixel Tagging: Self-Regulate or Self-Destruct

We usually refer to them as “pixel tags” or “tracers.” We use them to track Web sales or other actions back to the ads that referred them. But some privacy advocates are identifying them as “Web bugs,” and they’re suspicious of what online marketers are hoping to accomplish by using them.

Pixel tagging is a common tactic used by online marketers. Used in conjunction with an ad server, pixel tags can help provide information on which campaign ads are most effective at driving back-end actions for our clients. The concept is fairly simple: Tag critical pages on an advertiser’s Web site with 1×1 transparent GIFs, and you give your ad server the opportunity to check to see if a purchaser was referred by your ad campaign. This is accomplished by reading the cookie that was set when the purchaser viewed an ad. Most marketers using pixel tags use them for this reason.

It’s a fairly innocent practice. Most marketers use pixel tags to help determine which ads are performing best in a given campaign. Tracking the best-performing ads helps us to optimize campaigns and determine where our customers are. Very few marketers wish to use this technique to build profiles, collect personally identifiable information, or violate the privacy of Web users in any way.

Yet we haven’t taken adequate steps to educate the Web community about our intentions here. And we also haven’t done enough to ensure that pixel tagging isn’t abused. This recent post at Slashdot is indicative of a new backlash against the practice. The silly thing is that backlashes against pixel tagging can probably be prevented.

Across the Web, articles are springing up about pixel tagging. Many of these articles question what types of information the tags can report back to marketers. Some of the articles are outright paranoid, but can you blame Web users for being suspicious?

Let’s think back to the last time the industry was in a similar situation concerning privacy. Not long ago, privacy advocates came down hard on DoubleClick and other companies that aimed to merge online profiles with offline data by correlating personally identifiable information with data from large direct marketing databases. Because this type of information gathering was not discussed openly, the industry took a lot of heat for doing something that offline direct marketers do every day. Online marketing was placed under a huge magnifying glass and scrutinized by the media, privacy groups, and the government.

Have we not learned our lesson? If we educate the Web community now and take steps to avoid abuse of the technique, we can head off the vast majority of the consumer backlash that is no doubt looming over the horizon. I think we need to at least do the following in order to be able to continue the practice of pixel tagging:

  • Explain the practice in privacy policies. Sites that accept advertising sometimes inadvertently violate their own privacy policies by failing to disclose that advertisers are tracking back-end actions in aggregate. Privacy policies should be amended to reflect the fact that this is going on.

  • Outline what is being tracked. Advertisers should disclose the practice in the privacy policies on their own sites and make it clear that no personally identifiable information is being collected.
  • Adopt guidelines to guard against abuse. The Internet Advertising Bureau or another industry organization should issue guidelines to set limits on what can be done with pixel tags. We should allow for aggregate ad-effectiveness tracking but not for profile building based on personally identifiable information.
  • Blacklist anyone who abuses pixel tagging. Anyone attempting to pass personally identifiable information to their ad server for profiling purposes should face sanctions from the industry. Cooperation from the major ad servers should help in this regard.

We should take this opportunity to learn from our prior mistakes and self-regulate our industry before the government steps in and regulates things for us. Losing this valuable method of effectiveness tracking would be a major setback for the industry. We could lose out on what makes Web advertising unique — its ability to tell us how effective it is.

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