What a PPC Professional Needs to Know About Tracking

What a PPC Professional Needs to Know About Tracking

Recently, one of the things that are keeping PPC professionals awake is tracking. If it’s not, then it should. And tracking concerns do not stop with PPC professionals. It affects everyone in the digital industry from display/video professionals, social media managers to web analytics experts. The reason is that tracking is changing and becoming increasingly more difficult.


Sales, Sales, Sales

The reason why digital marketing has been a growing industry is that advertisers love the idea of being able to measure things and make their marketing dollars more efficient. Ultimately, the marketing budget is for two things:


1) stimulate sales 

2) increase brand value to stimulate sales. 


Where traditional offline media has had decades to develop tools to measure brand uplift, the tracking to conversions is still a complicated and costly matter. Enter digital marketing and its ability to link investment to returns, next to the general Zeitgeist of digital media usage, and all boardrooms across the globe started earmarking (parts of) marketing budgets to digital channels.


Efficiency Through Tracking

Evolving from the ability to assign media investment to returns, the industry explored further ideas that seemed promising to add advertiser value. One of the core concepts to this is the ability to track a single user throughout their usage of digital media, be it an app on their phone, a news website, checking their emails on a laptop or being on the site of an advertiser. 


The idea is that we can make a client’s media investment work harder by micro-targeting the audience and users they want. In the simplest form, we are talking about retargeting. This is the ability to follow people over the internet after they had visited the website of the advertiser. In a different form, we are talking about prospecting, the ability to find potential valuable users based on their identification online. 


This identification is built up from multiple signals, in large parts based on the websites they visit (that are included in an advertising platform’s ecosystem). Based on these signals, people can be put in demographic, in-market and affinity groups.


Adding More Data

Prospecting, also considered new customer acquisition, is one of the most sought after results of marketing investment. That’s why prospecting has been supercharged in the last few years with considerable data, including personal identifiable information (PII). Think of surveys, competitions or antivirus programmes, all things that offer something (compensation, a chance to win or a free service) for seemingly nothing. 

Well, the value exchange is based on your PII to be linked to massive data sets. If you consider a company like Acxiom and assume they can provide services as “it says on the tin”, then the data they hold is considerable.


The Backlash

National and supranational (governments and) organisations have not meddled as much in the early days when all of this was going on, perhaps maybe in the periphery. However, recent hacks of websites, including those of well-known brands, has sharpened the discussion and put extreme scrutiny on websites, online databases and the digital industry as a whole. What do companies store of their customers, how protected is this data, and more importantly, do customers and users even know this information is stored? 


As governmental organisations were getting involved in these type of questions and the general public became more aware of the practises and issues of their data being harvested and stored, digital media has been lifted out as a primary perpetrator.


Much Ado About Cookies

The aforementioned method of retargeting and prospecting are relying on the ability to track a user throughout the world wide web. An essential element of this is the ability to “drop a cookie” on the user’s device. A cookie is a small file that finds its origin is mostly quality of life functionality of a website (such as remembering login username or what you put in your basket). 


It’s when a cookie is used for tracking purposes it becomes less innocent, collecting users browsing behaviour and this data being accessible by advertising platforms for collection and analysis. This is why there has been such a push to get website owners (including those who participate in advertising platforms) to obtain explicit consent from their website visitors before any tracking can occur. 


Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was the culmination of all the concerns into a piece of law with clearly stating sizable fines for anyone breaking the rules.


Browsers Weighing In

In the US, there were no such thing as GDPR, but there is a secondary movement related to cookies that are going to have a substantial impact on retargeting and prospecting, which is browser-based protection. You have undoubtedly heard of Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) which is built into Safari browsers (standard on Apple products, including iPhones), which essentially prevents cookies from being stored unless it’s the website’s own. Most advertising platforms will be out of luck with cookies being dropped on the user’s devices. In the same line, Firefox has recently disabled cookies altogether as the default setting and even Chrome, which is Google’s browser, has announced they might start blocking third-party cookies as a default.


What Now?

So where does that leave the PPC professional? One sure thing is that the concept of people-based marketing with a full understanding of who the user is, what his or her browsing behaviour is and additional contextual information, that concept is dead in the water, or at least now seems more challenging than ever. Practically it means that retargeting and prospecting audiences are affected and most likely will get smaller. 


There are some suggestions that, with lack of user-based cookies, the industry could look at “browser fingerprinting”, which, based on a multitude of signals, tries to identify a specific user. However, this type of identification is much debated and far from an industry standard.


In a way, this is a great way to reset the narrative around cookie/people-based marketing, which felt runaway and way too technological complex. For PPC professional, the keywords and search queries will still be the main pillar of what we do. The display/video (and maybe even social media) professionals might need to go back to selling the value of accurate placements to advertisers, which sounds familiar of how things are done in the industry it was supposed to supplant: traditional offline TV & press. 


It’s funny how things, despite technological progress, still seem cyclical.


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by albert somlith
About author
Albert Somlith

Co-Founder of PPC Ad Editor. I am a leader in digital marketing, specializing in strategic planning, implementation, and optimization.