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What are trackers?

Have you ever looked for something to buy online and then ads for that same thing would pop up everywhere? Well, that’s because of trackers.

But what exactly are trackers? Is there a difference between trackers and ad trackers? How can using them affect your online business?

In this short post, we’ll answer all these questions! Jump to →

what are trackers

🔍 What are trackers?

Trackers are scripts that websites install on your device.

They can have different purposes. Some of them are meant to give you a more enhanced experience of the website you’re visiting. For example, they can remember your username and password or the items you’ve added to your cart during online shopping.

Others can track your online behavior to give you targeted advice, like the ads we’ve mentioned earlier.

Cookies and trackers: is there a difference?

Not really. Cookies are a type of tracker.

More specifically, cookies are small data files generally stored on a user’s computer/browser. Every time you go back to a website you’ve already visited, cookies remember your preferences (such as your password).

💡 Cookies are usually divided into first-party and third-party cookies.

  • First-party cookies are those managed directly by the owner of the site/app.
  • On the contrary, third-party cookies are managed by third parties and enable their services. Typically, third-party cookies are present when a site/app uses third-party services to incorporate images, social media plugins, or advertising.

What about ‘similar technologies’?

Alongside cookies, you may have heard the expression “similar technologies.”

Even though cookies are the most popular of trackers, they aren’t the only ones. Mozilla has listed some of the most common:

  • Embedded scripts: these trackers are embedded as visible or invisible elements on a web page, like pixel tags and tracking pixels. Pixel tags are short snippets of code that collect information about your browsing activity.
  • Fingerprinters: these are one of the most complex. Fingerprinters can record your online behavior and the configuration and settings of your device: what browser you use, what’s your operating system, or your screen resolution. In this way, they can create your unique profile, just like your fingerprint.
👉 So, if you’re running an online business – be it a simple website, an app, or e-commerce – you are probably using trackers.

That’s why it’s useful to know more about how trackers work and how international privacy laws regulate their specific usage.

For example, the European Union issued the ePrivacy Directive – also known as Cookie Law – which establishes provisions for the protection of the electronic privacy of EU-based users. Though the Cookie Law was first enforced in 2002, it still applies today, complementing the GDPR.

🔍 Is there a difference between trackers and ad trackers?

As we explained in the paragraph above, not all trackers are advertising ones.

Let’s take cookies, for instance.
While there are cookies that are essential to the functioning of a website (the so-called “technical cookies”), there are also others – usually third-party ones – that are installed by ad networks. They are responsible for the tailored ads you see when surfing the internet.

As a website owner, you may want to monetize your website’s traffic through digital advertising. That’s 100% lawful, but you must be aware that there are guidelines to follow.

To ensure that digital advertising is carried out under the GDPR, IAB Europe created the Transparency and Consent Framework:

The TCF creates an environment where website publishers can tell visitors what data is being collected and how their website and the companies they partner with intend to use it. The TCF gives the publishing and advertising industries a common language with which to communicate consumer consent for the delivery of relevant online advertising and content.

You can learn more about the TCF here.

Yes, there are.

Let’s take the EU Cookie Law, for instance.

The Cookie Law requires that every website or app owner who uses trackers should do at least these three things:

  1. inform users that the website uses cookies through a cookie banner;
  2. disclose all relevant details about the usage and purpose of cookies in a cookie policy;
  3. block cookies from running if users’ don’t grant their informed consent.

Curious to learn more about collecting cookie consent?

If you need to set up a cookie banner (or have already done so!), make sure to check out this short guide:

👉 Don’t make these 5 mistakes when collecting cookie consent!