History of Tags & Tag Management

Third-party tags for online marketing solutions started out simply enough, but have grown from a few pixels to full-on data chaos. Here’s a brief look at how it happened and where we go from here:

Third-Party Tags

Third-party tags were introduced in the 90s to help ad servers and analytics packages measure the effectiveness of online advertising and site usage. Tags work by requesting an invisible piece of content — often a transparent image file that is one pixel in size — from a third-party server, allowing the server to record basic data about the user’s visit to a website. As online marketing has expanded, every third-party service provider has created a tag to help collect the data needed to power its solution.

Tags have evolved beyond simple “pixels” into sophisticated JavaScript programs that collect a broad range of data and in some cases even update website content dynamically to show targeted messages based on the data that they collect. As the number of tags has exploded, so has the level of effort required to add complex third-party code from multiple providers into websites.

  • Third parties in control of data collection
  • Complex implementation of tag code
  • Updating tags requires a site build

Tag Containers

As the number of third-party service providers has grown and site owners have taken advantage of innovative services, third-party tags have created operational headaches. Thus the tag container was born. Containers were designed to make it easy to add a lot of tags to a site by injecting them into the web browser through an invisible frame or JavaScript code. While ad servers introduced basic tag containers nearly a decade ago, many third-parties now offer a tag container solution.

  • Basic tag containers can’t handle complex tags
  • Most tag containers are not designed for universal deployment across all pages of a site
  • Page performance degrades as tag containers insert more third-party code onto a site

Piggybacking & Data Chaos

While basic tag containers have evolved to help site owners wrangle their tags, third-parties have needed their own mechanism for extending data collection beyond a single tag. As online display ad spending grew, ad networks chained together ad server tags in order to increase audience reach across multiple publisher sites. This chaining, often called “piggybacking,” allowed one tracking server to introduce tags for another tracking server, which could then in turn introduce tags for yet another tracking server, and so on. The ability to connect audiences across sites through piggybacking has allowed dramatically new ways of buying and selling advertising to emerge, and is at the heart of today’s real-time bidding systems and data exchanges.

  • Data chaos: Site owners have no visibility or control over the tags that third-parties piggyback
  • Piggybacking chains can add literally dozens of tag calls to a site
  • High-levels of data loss due to tag loading issues


Learn more in our articles on Tag Management 101 and Server Direct 101.

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