At the latest since the cookie banner became mandatory on many websites as a result of EU regulation, the topic of web tracking has also reached the general public. Against the background of the complexity of the topic and the permanent technical development of algorithms, data structures and artificial intelligence, it can be assumed that the existing knowledge on this topic, although it affects us all every day, is rather low. What tracking methods are available? How are they applied? How can I protect myself? Questions upon questions.
In order to counter these questions, the four tracking methods most frequently used by companies will be presented in the following.

Web tracking

But slow down for now. What is web tracking anyway? The term web tracking is understood as the analysis of digital data traffic and is mainly used in the field of online marketing, although synonyms such as web controlling and web analysis are also frequently used. The purpose of web tracking is to control and monitor entire websites and the online marketing measures used. Success and efficiency are subjected to analysis. In addition, web tracking is described as a procedure for collecting personal data, which enables website operators to record their site visitors by means of various tracking methods used. The user data collected can be used to create user profiles so that targeted advertising can then be placed. The legal prerequisite for web tracking is governed by the German Telemedia Act (TMG), which came into force in 2007 and is one of the central provisions of Internet law, regulating the basic legal conditions for so-called telemedia in Germany. With regard to usage data, Section 15 (3) stipulates that the service provider may create pseudonymous user profiles for the purpose of advertising or market research, provided the user does not object to this. According to Section 13 (1), the service provider must inform the user of his or her right to object.

Google Analytics

Now let's talk about the individual tracking methods. Google Analytics is a free website analytics tool from Google that is used for traffic analysis and tracks and reports website traffic. The behavior of visitors to a website is analyzed and tracked here. The service is used by companies in marketing, for example, to better control the success of advertising campaigns. The most important key figures that Google Analytics offers are, for example, the counting of individual users of a website in a certain period of time by setting cookies as well as the indication of how many and which individual pages a user looks at on a website on average and in which order the pages are called up. In addition, Google Analytics offers the analysis of the bounce rate of a user and the calculation of the average session duration. Google Analytics can also be used to track demographic values such as age and gender, as well as the interests of a website's visitors. The conversion rate, which is to be understood as the turnover or conversion rate, is also of great importance for web store operators. It indicates the ratio of visitors to a website to conversion into a buyer. In addition to the named exportable parameters, Google Analytics also provides clear and descriptive overviews in the form of dashboards, as shown below, to display the most important results at a glance. The interaction with Google Adwords, which is an advertising program from Google, is particularly effective.

Google Search Console Dashboard
Google Analytics Dashboard

Cookies

Most people have heard of cookies; it is not for nothing that they are among the most common tracking methods. Cookies are small text files of a few kilobytes (max. 4KB) that are stored locally on the hard drive of a website visitor. This allows the user behavior of each consumer to be recorded and read out again at any time. In addition, it is possible to track which advertising content has already been displayed to a user, so that a website can be dynamically adapted to individual users. Cookies are usually used for identification and recognition purposes. According to the current state of the art, cookies are needed to conduct web analyses with regard to the behavior of website visitors. In the case of cookies, a distinction is made between session cookies and permanent (persistent) cookies, as well as between first-party cookies and third-party cookies for advertising purposes. In addition, cookies can be used to determine the number of visitors and thus also the reach of a website within a certain period of time. According to the European General Data Protection Regulation, the use of cookies is permitted provided that a user consents to this in full knowledge.


Fingerprint tracking

Alternative and advanced tracking methods include fingerprint tracking. This technology specifically reads various configuration aspects and system properties from consumers' end devices. First and foremost, this includes the IP address. In addition, the browser version, browser settings and extensions as well as applications, operating system and log files are read at various levels. Each individual feature is to be understood as an identifier and forms a combination that is equivalent to a fingerprint and is used to identify and recognize consumers. If sufficiently complex, such a fingerprint is unlikely to be duplicated. It is an alternative tracking method without cookies. The provider must provide legal information about the use of the method and, if necessary, obtain the consumer's consent, since personal data may be collected, but in any case pseudonymous user profiles are created. The method is thus suitable for permanent identification of consumers and solves the problem that cookies are not accepted by the browser or are deleted after a short time.

Log file analysis

Last but not least something about logfile analysis. A log file is an automated protocol of all activities of a server. In this file all accesses on a web server are logged. For example, the number of web pages accessed, the time of each access, the IP address of the consumer, general browser data, the length of stay of individual users, etc. are recorded. Log file analysis is considered a conventional method and the oldest technique for evaluating web server usage and is classified as a server-based method. Specifically, the existing log files of the web servers are used to analyze visitor movements from the retrievals recorded there. Log files are generally measured anonymously and not in relation to specific individuals, so that they are of no significance in terms of data protection.

1. Cf. Berg, C. (2018), p. 57.
2. Cf. SIT Technical Reports (2014), p. 7.
3. Cf. BMJV (2017).
4. Cf. Holzapfel, F. (2015), pp. 176 - 179.
5. Cf. Körner, A. (2010), pp. 168 - 169.
6. Cf. Schwarz, T. (2012), p. 236.
7. Cf. Holzapfel, F. (2015), p. 214.
8. Cf. Schirmbacher, M. (2017), p. 345.
9. Cf. SIT Technical Reports (2014), p. 11.
10. Cf. Schirmbacher, M. (2017), p. 349.
11. Cf. Eisinger, T. (2009), p. 363.
12. Cf. Schwarz, T. (2012), p. 236.

Markus Hetzenegger
Founder and Managing Director
Markus Hetzenegger
Founder and Managing Director

Markus Hetzenegger is the founder and CEO of NYBA Media GmbH and shares his experience from almost 10 years of performance marketing and many millions of managed advertising budgets in presentations and this blog.