What Are Website Tags? [Tag Management 101]

September 22, 2015

A tag is a short piece of code, a transparent pixel, or an image that is placed in the code of a web page. When a visitor loads that web page, or when another pre-defined event happens, the tag calls on a third-party application to perform a marketing, content, tracking, or data collection task. Large companies can run dozens or hundreds of tags throughout their website.

Whether you are a digital data veteran or brand new in the business, a light brush-up on the basics never hurt anyone.

What, exactly, is a tag?

Have you ever visited a website to book a flight online, looked at prices, checked a few other sites and then returned to the first site only to see the price of that round trip from Vegas to Chicago has increased slightly? Does it almost feel as if the travel site somehow knows you need that flight and are willing to pay for it?

In a way, you aren’t wrong. There are technologies embedded on websites that help companies identify the behavior of customers who visit their pages. These technologies can enable companies to personalize on-site experiences to each user. “Tags” are an important part of this process.

A “tag” is a piece of JavaScript code, a pixel, or an image tag that allows a website to collect information about who you are, where you came from, and how you interact with a website. It helps you find the items that are most relevant to you and helps the website you are visiting understand your behavioral patterns and searching/buying trends.

Those of us who are digital marketers often describe what tags do as enabling third-party tracking, analytics, reporting, remarketing, conversion tracking, optimization and on-page functionalities like live chat.

Why tag management matters to you

We are all a part of the Digital Revolution, which allows us to access knowledge-based resources at the tips of our fingers. With so much noise on the internet, tags help the content providers of the world wide web offer what is most relevant to us in an intuitive way.

Tags also help companies gain valuable, measurable insights into what their consumers want and need. This way, organizations can provide the best experiences for their customers.

For example, companies can anticipate the types of products visitors may want, based on products visitors may have looked at previously, and serve custom advertisements for them. Tags can use data such as the color, price, and type of product viewed, advertisements that visitors responded to, the price of a product purchased, and more.

What does a tag look like?

Sometimes called “pixels,” tags may appear as a simple 1X1 transparent pixel or image tag loaded onto a web page that calls to a third-party server to enable the tracking of actions or events. Tags can also appear simply in the form of JavaScript code that allows for more complex data collection.

Types of different tags

Tags perform useful, repetitive tasks for companies. Marketing tags track conversions, serve customized ads, remarket to interested visitors, run ad split-tests, and more. Analytics tags gather data about visitor behavior on web pages and deliver it to analytics programs. 

Other tags run content such as videos and social media on web pages. A tag can also set a cookie on a visitor’s device. New third-party tags are constantly being created to increase the functionality of web pages, heighten your ability to deliver content, and help you improve your marketing campaigns.

What problems do tags create?

Too many tags can wreak havoc on your data collection processes. With rapid expansion of the digital marketing ecosystem, there are now thousands of vendors that each offer their own, unique tag (or tags), and sites can incorporate dozens to hundreds of these tags on each page.

With so many tags firing from each page, a Pandora’s box of analytics is often opened. The more tags you have, the more likely you are to have broken, duplicated, or abandoned tags – which can negatively impact agility and speed, data quality, transparency, load performance, and control over data collection.

Further, adding tags to your website requires technical skills and implementations that create more potential issues. And because the implementation process is often manual, the implementations and updates can be incomplete, inaccurate and can cause on-page errors.

How to test implemented tags

There are three ways to make sure your tags are working. First, you can manually check on each tag through a plug-in provided by that tag’s company. You can install plug-ins in your web browser. For example, Google has a plug-in called Tag Assistant, which you can use to track the performance of your Google tags. 

A second method is to use your web browser’s “Network” tab. Load up a web page in your web browser, right click on it, and select the “Inspect” option. This will reveal the code of the page. Above the code, click on the “Network” tab, which will show the network requests from that page, including requests sent out by tags to their applications. Click on the “Refresh” button in your browser to see on the “Network” tab if your tag makes a request when the page is loaded.

Third, a tag validation service like ObservePoint can run a scan that checks all the tags on your website to make sure they are functioning. This is a great solution for companies that run dozens of tags on their website, which would make manual tag inspection too time-consuming and confusing.

What is tag firing?

A tag “firing” refers to a tag running its function in response to a trigger event, which might be the loading of a web page, a button being clicked, or many others. 

It’s important to ensure that each tag is firing in response to the right trigger. Some tags should simply fire in response to a web page loading, but other tags will give you the results you want only if they fire on a different trigger. 

In general, companies with multi-page websites deploy tags through a tag management system (TMS), which will give you the option to set a custom trigger event for each and every tag. 

What is tag management?

Tag management systems—generally referred to as TMS– were born out of the need to control the tag chaos. Marketing professionals needed solutions that would help eliminate inconsistencies and inaccuracies while tracking their customer’s web activities so that they could collect real data that would lead to more effective campaigns.

Tag management systems control the deployment of a site’s many tags via an intuitive web interface. With point-and-click simplicity, a TMS empowers users to add, remove or edit tags. Enterprise solutions, sometimes referred to as paid or premium solutions, allow for further customization and application of this powerful tool.

What tag management is NOT

Sometimes the taxonomy of this technology can be confusing. Tag management is not related to blog tags, search engine meta tags or tag clouds. It is simply a reference for those little bits of JavaScript code that gather data and communicate it between a web site or mobile app session and the vendor.

A tag is also NOT a cookie. Cookies are something you erase from your browser so that websites cannot tell where you came from or if you’ve visited them in the past.

How tag management systems work

The “data layer” is the real star of a TMS system. The data layer is the behind-the-scenes TMS function that lies between the application layer (composed of various mission-critical digital solutions) and the experience layer (interface) that users interact with.

A well-constructed data layer acts as a common dictionary to support all of the various tags and campaigns present on your site. This way a product’s name is conveyed to your web analytics vendor with the same language used in your affiliate tracking system.

Types of tag management systems

There are dozens of viable tag management systems on the market. Some of the most popular ones are created by major companies like Google, Adobe, and Tealium. Each TMS has slightly different functions and advantages, so you could research several to find one that works best for your company’s needs. 

You may want to choose a TMS that integrates with software you already use. You may have wondered, “What is a tag manager?” Google Tag Manager is a TMS that’s convenient to adopt if your company already uses Google Analytics and Google products. Another example: those who use Adobe Marketing Cloud might benefit from the free addition of Adobe’s TMS, Adobe Launch.

Learn about the features and benefits of various systems in our blog post, “11 Tag Management Solutions You Should Consider Today.”

Continued evolution of tag management

As the way that consumers interact with the web continues to evolve, so too will web analytics and tag management solutions.

With mobile usage overtaking fixed desktop experiences, marketers now must rely on tag management solutions powerful enough to effectively maintain data collection efforts on mobile apps and mobile web, as well as across additional channels and devices.

Who is responsible for the tag management system?

It depends. Traditionally, the adding, editing or deleting of tracking tags was a tedious process that required IT involvement to manage hundreds of pieces of JavaScript code.

Tag Management Systems changed this cumbersome process by centralizing scripts, removing the tracking from the HTML itself—all of which makes it easier to modify, add or remove tracking at any time. TMS empowers marketers to manage tags without IT oversight and effort, allowing them to streamline workflows and reduce operating costs.

Tag management as YOUR solution

Tag management systems continue to become an important foundation for data management and business strategy. In determining if you are ready to adopt a TMS, there are several point to consider.
• Are you actively using 5 or more digital marketing solutions?
• Are you using an advanced, enterprise analytics solution such as Adobe Analytics, SiteCatalyst or IBM coremetrics?
• Are you becoming more interested in attribution tracking?
• Are you trying to accurately track consumer engagement on mobile web and mobile apps?
• Are you overhauling your website and worried about maintaining your web tracking architecture?

Benefits of tag management systems

In the old days, marketers and other employees who rely on tags had to send a request to their IT department every time they needed to place a new tag on a web page—or even just to modify or update a tag. In the midst of an online marketing campaign, you can imagine this process was too slow when visitor data was pouring in!

A key benefit of a website tag manager, therefore, is that non-IT personnel can manage tags directly. Also, a TMS is extremely convenient and user-friendly. It allows employees to work with a simple visual interface representing tags instead of trying to learn and manipulate HTML or JavaScript code. 

Finally, keeping all your tags in a TMS can actually make your website run faster! This, in turn, improves visitors’ experiences. When a web page loads too slowly, visitors may abandon the page and instead go to a competing website. Web page loading times can thus be crucial to your website’s ability to capture value from visitors.

Tag governance takes tag management to the next level

Though a TMS is crucial to maintaining a well-executed digital ecosystem, it only provides maximum benefit when you can guarantee your digital analytics efficiency and performance.

A tag governance platform ensures that all of the tags within your TMS are performing correctly, so that you are collecting completely relevant, accurate and actionable data, eliminating duplicate tags, optimizing page load time and protecting against data leakage.


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