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Tracking pixel vs cookie explained (and why it should matter to you)

Tracking pixel vs cookie. These two technologies are both used for similar purposes, such as tracking behaviors or showing ads. However, a few things differentiate them. One thing is sure, though, is that you need to comply with data privacy laws when using them!

👀 Let’s dive in.

📎 Tracking pixel vs cookie: what you need to know about cookies

Cookies are small data files generally stored on a user’s computer/browser. When you go back to a website you visited before, cookies remember your preferences (i.e. your password). They can have different purposes:

  • To give you a more enhanced experience of the website you’re visiting: trackers can remember your password or the items you’ve added to your cart during online shopping;
  • To track your online behavior and give you targeted advice: trackers are the reason behind these shoes you’ve looked for online and that now keep popping up everywhere!

🔍 Learn more about what cookies track here.

🍪 How do cookies work?

When you visit a website, your browser and the web page interact with your web server. Then, your web server transfers a cookie to your device’s browser. Finally, your computer stores the cookie on your hard drive.

This means cookies allow a website to store information (i.e. a unique ID number) on a user’s machine and later retrieve it.

🔍 You are a website owner? Find out what cookies your website uses.

🔒 Privacy concerns surrounding cookies

Cookies are great for marketing purposes, that’s a no-brainer. Though, when used for tracking behavior or showing ads, cookies can be quite invasive to user privacy. That’s why they are regulated.

🇪🇺 In Europe, under laws like the GDPR and ePrivacy, users must grant their consent before cookies or similar tracking technologies can be deployed or installed on their computer.

🇺🇸 Under US laws such as the CPRA or the VCDPA, you have to disclose the categories of personal information you process in your privacy policy, as well as provide a means to opt-out of this processing.

💡 You have a WordPress site and use cookies?

🚀 Click to see how easy it is to get compliant with our WordPress plugin

📎 Tracking pixel vs cookie: what you need to know about tracking pixels

◻️ What is a tracking pixel?

Taking a look at the general definition, a pixel is a measurement unit and the smallest element of a digital image. It is often presented as a small square. That’s technically also what they are in the context of tracking technologies, though used in a particular way.

What is a tracking pixel, then? Tracking pixels are transparent 1×1 images embedded in the HTML code of an email, ad, or website. It is considered a marketing pixel when used for monitoring traffic, conversions, behavior, i.e. for knowing when a visitor has clicked on an ad and then made a purchase.

💡 A Facebook tracking pixel, for instance, allows you to track ad conversions, build a targeted audience for other ads, and optimize these ads.

◻️ How do tracking pixels work?

Tracking pixels contain a link to an external server. This server will ultimately receive some information about the user who views an ad, interacts with an email or navigates a website. This is done thanks to the user’s browser, which downloads this invisible image file (or pixel).
The following data, among others, can be obtained:

  • IP address;
  • type of operating system (mobile vs. desktop) or browser used;
  • time the website was visited or email was read;
  • activities on the site during a session.

tracking pixel vs cookie

🔒 Privacy concerns surrounding tracking pixels

If you use tracking pixels, same as for cookies, you most likely gather some specific personal data. Pixels bring quite a few concerns in the sense that they are not visible on a website or email, and users are unaware they’re being tracked.

Under main privacy laws, you are required to disclose whether you collect any personal data that can be used to identify an individual. It is the case with pixels and therefore, you have to:

  • specify your use of tracking pixels in your privacy policy;
  • request user prior consent to using these technologies (European laws);
  • provide a means to opt-out (US laws).

📎 Tracking pixel vs cookie: main differences

Cookies Tracking pixels
User experience and marketing purposes (tracking user activity and behavior) Marketing purposes (tracking user activity and behavior)
Cannot follow users across devices Can follow users across devices
Information is placed on users’ browser Information is sent directly to web servers by pixels
Can be blocked or cleared by users from the browser settings Not easily disabled by end-user

🔒 Tracking pixel vs cookie: how to comply with privacy laws

This can be quite complicated as tracking technologies are regulated in different ways and by various privacy laws.
As a quick reminder:

  • 🇪🇺 Main European privacy laws refer to trackers and similar technologies. This means informing users and blocking trackers before obtaining consent (opt-in) are requirements that apply to both cookies and tracking pixels;
  • 🇺🇸 Main US privacy laws require that you disclose processing/sharing of personal information and provide a means to opt-out. By using cookies and/or tracking pixels, you gather personal information on users and have to comply.

How can I comply with all these requirements?

It’s easy: use our iubenda software solutions!

🚀 Select the services/technologies used on your website that collect personal data;
🚀 Choose whether to comply with US and/or European laws simultaneously, in one click;
🚀 Generate automatically a privacy policy with all country-specific disclosures;
🚀 Customize and display a consent banner, set prior blocking of trackers!

👋 Get started now! It’s never been so easy.

Find out which technologies run on your website:
👉 How to use iubenda site scanner