What is tracking on the internet and how does it work?

Tracking on the internet: data points get analyzed

When it comes to tracking, many internet users – and especially data protectionists – don’t feel much like laughing. This is because so-called tracking is often labelled as an illegal method of spying on, tracking and collecting sensitive, personal data. On the other hand, web tracking is extremely popular among website owners and marketers because targeted marketing measures can be taken on the basis of the information collected.

What exactly web tracking is all about, how online tracking works, what role data protection plays on the internet, what exactly you as a website operator have to consider and much more will be explained in this article!

We must point out that the following statements do not constitute legal advice. Therefore, we can only give you evaluations from our intensive experience with the EU legal regulations in practice and a technical assessment of the situation.

What does website tracking mean?

What does tracking on the internet actually mean? Tracking is a technology in which a user’s steps on the internet are followed and evaluated. Web tracking is often also referred to as user tracking, since data about user behaviour (across domains) can be collected.

Parcel service providers also use tracking procedures. However, the recipient of the parcel receives a tracking number, which allows the location of the associated parcel to be viewed at any time.

What data can be tracked?

Internet tracking is very broad. In addition to the user’s movements on a website, personal data such as the IP address can also be recorded. Other data that can be tracked:

  • Which websites were visited
  • Which sub-pages of a website were visited
  • How long the dwell time on individual sub-pages is
  • From which website the current website was referred to
  • Which elements (links, buttons, etc.) were clicked on
  • Which products were viewed and purchased
  • Which device and which browser were used
  • Which files the website visitor downloads
  • What mouse or eye movements were made on the website

All this and much more data can be collected through tracking technologies.

How does web tracking work?

There are a variety of tracking methods that provide information about (individual) user behaviour. We have explained the most common tracking technologies in more detail below.

🍪 Tracking Cookies

Website tracking by using cookies is definitely one of the most popular methods.

💡 If you are now wondering what exactly a cookie is, you can read all the important information in a compact and understandable way in our separate article.

Roughly summarised, a cookie describes a small data package that stores individual data on the user’s computer or smartphone when a website is visited, for example. The storage location of cookies depends on the browser. When the website is visited again, the information stored in the cookies can be read out automatically by the website.

Web cookies are divided into first-party and third-party cookies. Unlike first-party cookies, third-party cookies allow the user to be tracked across multiple websites.

You have probably already experienced an example of such third-party cookies, either consciously or unconsciously, when browsing the World Wide Web. You are looking online for a new coat for the upcoming autumn season and browse through the corresponding online shops. Strangely enough, when you visit other websites, you are later shown advertisements for exactly these types of coats. This is not magic, but the result of the use of tracking cookies. The Facebook Like button can also specifically track information about the behaviour of users.

So-called tracking pixels are also valuable helpers in the context of web analysis. Website operators can embed various “pixels” (small pieces of code) of different services such as Facebook or Google Analytics into their website. By executing a certain action of the visitor (e.g. scrolling), the pixel collects corresponding data and sends it to the service. The action can be defined by the website operator when setting up the pixel (so-called “events”). You can find more important information on this topic in our article on the popular web tracking plugin for WordPress PixelYourSite.

🤚 Fingerprinting

The aim of fingerprinting is to create an individual digital fingerprint of the user based on aggregated information about the configuration of devices and browsers – such as operating system version, browser version, browser settings. In contrast to cookies, this method uses software and hardware characteristics of the device used by the user. These characteristics are in part automatically transmitted to the server of the visited website when a website is accessed.

📍 IP address

Internet protocol addresses are another method used in website tracking. Roughly speaking, an IP address is a network address consisting of a unique sequence of letters and numbers, which allows data packets to be transmitted to the correct recipient. Similar to a postal address in the analogue world. IP addresses are used to identify devices that use the internet.

However, it can be problematic if several users share one internet connection or connect to the internet via VPN encryption. This makes the identification of the user significantly more difficult. Nevertheless, an IP address can usually be used to determine relative location data (e.g. in which city you live, but not exactly where).

📧 E-Mail-Tracking

By means of email tracking, it is possible, for example, to see which recipient has opened a particular email, when, whether and how often. Clicks on links can also be assigned to the respective recipient. As the sender of a newsletter, it is therefore possible for you to determine the opening rate or to record the click rate on certain elements. Based on these values, optimisation measures can be derived, such as compiling the recipient list for certain topics.

📱 App-Tracking

In addition to tracking on a computer, there is also tracking using apps. In the context of app tracking, it is sometimes evaluated which apps are used by a user and what the behaviour of the user looks like within the app. Furthermore, many apps collect information about the users. For example, it is often requested during the installation of the app that it be allowed to access data such as the gallery and the location. In some cases, this sensitive data is then transmitted to the app operator’s servers.

Goals of website tracking

The primary goal of web tracking is definitely web analytics. This is also the reason why many companies make use of web tracking methods. As you already know, there are a variety of ways to access the valuable data of users. Once collected, this data can be analysed and concrete, target group-specific marketing measures can be derived.

Campaigns that have been conducted can also be evaluated excellently with the help of tracking data. For example, it can be determined whether clicks on internet advertising led to purchases in the online shop.

But marketing measures are not the only result of website analysis. The data collected can also be used to identify and eliminate sources of website errors.

Many tracking methods are also cost-effective and time-saving. Data is therefore also called the gold of the 21st century.

Web tracking – advantages and disadvantages

The benefits of web tracking reflect the goals mentioned in the previous section. This means that tracking user data can be used to create user profiles, targeted campaigns and advertising, or to optimise the website.

Probably the biggest disadvantage of website tracking is the issue of data protection, which we will discuss in the next section. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to comply with the legal requirements. Furthermore, not all tracking tools are easy to use. Also, a too large, confusing amount of data can quickly lead to overload or incorrect evaluation. In addition, in some cases there are also the costs involved in using a good tracking tool. Another hurdle can be the user’s browser settings, which block certain tracking methods.

Is tracking on the internet legal?

Web tracking and data protection is extremely relevant. Many internet users legitimately ask on what legal basis web tracking is actually used.

This is where the ePrivacy Directive comes into play. It stipulates throughout the EU that the user’s consent must be obtained before the use of non-essential cookies, tracking technologies and similar methods that collect and process personal data (opt-in procedure). This was also ruled on by the ECJ (C-673/17) in October 2019.

If you want to collect the data of your users, you must therefore conduct web tracking in accordance with the ePrivacy Directive and the GDPR. This means: first obtain the active, informed consent of your visitors and then track them. If you do not comply with this, you could face very high fines for these data protection violations.

Is it possible to deactivate web tracking?

Even though legislators have in theory elaborated many security measures regarding online tracking methods, the reality is often different. To further protect themselves, website visitors can take various measures to prevent tracking in the best possible way.

Among other things, tracking cookies can be disabled in the cookie settings of many browsers. Likewise, some browsers such as Mozilla Firefox already block third-party cookies by default. The danger here, however, is that disabling or not allowing cookies can lead to limited functionality of the website.

There are also browser extensions such as adblockers that prevent web tracking as much as possible.

Another method is the Do Not Track header, which allows users to decide for themselves whether they want to be tracked. As soon as a website is accessed, the user’s device sends a signal that basically tells the website that the user does not want to be tracked. However, website operators can comply with this – but do not yet have to.

Are there alternatives to web tracking (to still advertise in a targeted way)?

Cookies, fingerprinting or the storage of the IP address for marketing purposes – all this is not possible because the consent of the website visitor is not available. What can you do without these web tracking methods to still play out targeted advertising, for example?

Semantic Targeting

With semantic targeting, no personal data is collected. In contrast to tracking by means of cookies, for example, semantic targeting selects the advertisements displayed on the basis of the page content. This makes it easier to avoid wrong placements and users are picked up thematically where they are at the moment.

The individual user is therefore not tracked, but the content context in which he or she is located is recorded. In this way, suitable advertising can be displayed, which, however, is not tailored to the individual user, but only to their current environment.

Of course, the effectiveness of the advertising suffers. However, it is one of the few ways of not having to display completely random advertising when web tracking is not possible or allowed.

Legally compliant tracking with Real Cookie Banner

The whole tracking tangle can quickly become a headache. And complying with – and especially implementing – the strict legal requirements can also make website owners sweat.

To save you from exactly that, you should take a look at our WordPress opt-in solution Real Cookie Banner. 100+ templates for popular services such as Google Analytics and Google Ads allow you to easily obtain consent to track your website visitors in a legally compliant manner.