WTF Is Tag Management? Do You Really Know, Or Just Think You Do?


In last month’s column (WTF Is A Cookie, Anyway? Do You Really Know, Or Just Think You Do?), I covered the basics of cookies and touched briefly on the idea of tag management. This month, I am going to dive deeper into those tools and explain why you should consider this as an option for your site… or not.

Let’s start with a definition. What exactly is a tag? A tag is a chunk of code — often JavaScript — that performs a given task on your site. Here’s an example of a retargeting tag (click to enlarge):

Pixel Code

Tag code can be meant to gather analytics data, or to cookie a site visitor you plan to retarget later, or perhaps it serves advertising. Some of these are colloquially called “pixels,” because they serve the same purpose as an old-school 1×1 pixel “clear gif” or “transparent gif” — they call to a third-party server and allow for the tracking of something.

What Are Tag Management Companies?

They are technology businesses that solve problems related to tags for site owners.

These companies (from Econsultancy’s buyer’s guide) include: Adobe, BrightTag, DC Storm, Ensighten, Impact Radius, QuBit, Site Tagger, SuperTag, Tag Commander, TagMan, Tealium and UberTags. Additionally, CoreMetrics has an option and Google introduced its free Tag Manager in 2012.

These tag management companies can be specialists, although many have now branched out to provide attribution data, and some (such as Google) came into the game later, having built other solutions first.

What Problems Do Tags/Pixels Create?

Marketers have many concerns related to placing tags on their site, and sometimes those concerns are valid — many reading this will also have stories where those concerns were complete nonsense, too, and just created problems. 🙂

A. Too Many Tags

A tag is a piece of code that can read cookies and drop cookies onto a user’s device (or perform other tasks, as mentioned above). Each tag must be processed by the browser. Every time this happens, the browser — as well as the called servers — have more work to do, and the page load time can slow down. Studies show that load time is an important factor in usability, search rankings and, ultimately, site revenue, and so the site owner has to be aware.

Tags themselves can break or run slow, and when they do, they can actually break the site they sit on. A break could look like an error message, a slowness or even a warning message shown to the user. The latter would usually occur when a non-secure tag is installed on a secure site, giving a horrid security problem dialog box back to the visitor. The more tags are placed, the more you increase the chance of such occurrences.

Surprisingly, we often see clients that complain about installing a tag at the start of a campaign but end up not removing it at the end. A good cleanup could boost performance.

B. Not All Tags Are Executed Asynchronously

Another way to think of “asynchronous” is “parallel.” It used to be the case that a browser would process all the content, including the tags, in serial order, meaning one after the other in turn. If a tag was at the top of the page above the content, nothing would appear on the page until the tag had loaded. An error here would mean nothing might load at all.

Asynchronous loading might be a term you first heard when Google launched its Chrome browser. They did a good job of explaining that JavaScript tags loaded this way if you used them, thus removing the problem. Google also made waves when it made its AdSense and Analytics tags asynchronous, since they are so widely deployed across the web.

Today, all pixels should load in parallel with the content, but there are still some older pixels out there that can’t.

C. Technical Requirements

Tag placement requires access to the site code, and as such, requires the time of an IT person. Typically, those people sit on a different team from marketing and a conflict of time and resources can occur.

It is not uncommon to hear from a marketer that placing a tag might take three months to complete as it is in a queue of other work. Additionally, if a site needs to be re-published for the changes to take effect, that can require an extensive testing process to double check there are no problems, and some sites enter a total code freeze for their busiest periods, meaning no tags can be added until it’s over.

The tag owner may wonder why a two-minute activity can take so long, but the site owners are rightfully protective of their revenue, and have processes to ensure they don’t break anything.

D. Tag Implementations Could Be Error-Prone

Adding a tag is a manual and human process and, as such, is subject to errors.

E. Changes On The Page Could Break A Tag’s Functionality

Some tags collect information from the browser itself or from objects on the page.

A simple example might be a tag designed to capture the product name that’s currently being viewed. The product name might be contained in an H1 tag or a DIV tag. Now, let’s say the site design is tweaked and the product name is now in an H2 tag, the tag loses its connection with the data and cannot complete its function.

How Do Tag Management Companies Solve For These?

With so many problems around tags, it’s clear to see why such management companies have grown in number and size, and have picked up a large amount of funding. But, how do they actually make things better?

A. Limited Firing

A tag management system can make smart decisions about when to fire each tag, i.e., on an individual’s first visit only, or when a specific page is visited. Fewer tags mean less load, and therefore, a reduction in the chances of an error.

B. Asynchronous Firing

Typically today, all tags will be fired asynchronously by the companies listed above, removing a big part of site load time.

C. Simple GUI Interface

Whilst not always the case, the contract for the tag management system often sits with marketing, giving them direct control over the tags they want to use through a simple interface.

A marketer can log in to the tool themselves and add, edit or delete tags as they see fit, without needing code-level access. To make it even simpler, these technologies have already integrated with other ad-tech companies, so the marketer can now just tick a box to activate the appropriate tags.

D. Site Changes Are Dealt With Once

If a change is made to the site that would affect the tag’s access to the data it needs, each tag does not need to be recoded or edited. The site owner can make the change in the system once, and all the right data can continue to flow to all tags.

E. Backend Data Transfer — Sometimes Tagless

To me, this is one of the best reasons for an ad-tech company (like my employer, Chango) to partner with all these different tools for our clients. A tag is typically used to register a page visit or collect basic information such as transaction amount.

However, the promise of programmatic marketing, or “flow advertising,” is to give the marketer access to more data for better decisions. That would require a lot more data to be passed between the marketer and the vendor, perhaps CRM data, past transaction history, etc. This data is too sensitive to pass through a tag and actually doesn’t need to be received in real-time.

The alternative then is to pass this data through a backend process, often called server-to-server integration or server-direct. Now, when the tag fires, live basic data can go through the cookie, and the supplemental data through the backend connection (note that cookie mapping is required). This keeps the load for the browser light, so the user experience isn’t hindered despite all the additional data being used.

Some even go a step further, collecting all the information themselves for all the tags, and passing everything through the servers.

F. Monitoring/Active Tag Management

Finally, a monitoring service is sometimes available where people watch traffic and performance and will deactivate or delete any tag on a client’s site if a problem occurs. That tag might stop functioning, but at least the site kept on ticking.

Is Tag Management Right For You?

Such tools cost money (with some exceptions) and so each site owner needs to determine whether the benefits outweigh those costs for them. For some, that value will come from the ease it brings alone, often related to the transference of control from the IT team directly into the hands of the marketing team.

More commonly, we hear from e-commerce sites that they see the benefit from the peace of mind. If tags are moved from the site to a specialist company that is solving the problems above and providing a monitoring service to deal with errors in the moment, their revenue is less likely to be impacted.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Dax Hamman is the Chief Strategy Officer at Chango, the solution to programmatic marketing and “big data”, and is based in San Francisco and London. You can follow him on Twitter @DaxHamman.



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