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  • Writer's pictureJason Burlin

The Dangers Of The Meta Tracking Pixel

Regardless of the advertising platform, the tracking pixel is often a topic that marketers and business owners tend to overlook. To many, it seems merely like a technical requirement, involving the installation of a few lines of code on their website to enable ad running, conversion tracking, and ad performance optimization in line with their core advertising objectives, which typically aim to drive sales or increase sign-ups. While this is partly true, it’s not the complete story. There’s a significant aspect of this puzzle that many advertisers and businesses either deliberately ignore or are simply unaware of.

I want to start this article with a pivotal question: If your website has a tracking pixel installed, do you believe that this pixel is attracting more new customers, or is it possible that you're losing potential customers to your direct competitors who are using similar targeting strategies? Essentially, is the tracking pixel aiding or impeding your business?

This article aims to uncover the potential dangers associated with using the Meta tracking pixel. Meta, previously known as Facebook, boasts the most advanced technological capabilities in monetizing data derived from tracking pixels. However, this practice is not exclusive to Meta; all major advertising platforms employ similar technologies in their tracking pixels, with the unified goal of amassing as much data as possible, irrespective of whether you are actively advertising on the platform. Therefore, if your website hosts a variety of tracking pixels, it warrants your careful attention.

It's important to note that Facebook was not the inventor of conversion tracking. Looking back at the early days of Google Ads, before the rise in popularity of Facebook Ads, we find that Google AdWords was the pioneer in introducing conversion tracking. This tool was revolutionary, enabling advertisers to discern the actions users took on their websites following a click on their Google ad. Advertisers could then determine which ads or search keywords were yielding the most beneficial results, allowing them to shift their focus towards ads that not only had lower costs per click but also drove the most valuable conversions.

Facebook entered the advertising realm in 2007, facing a significant challenge: how to present users with ads that truly resonated with their interests and, simultaneously, offer advertisers an effective advertising solution. Google had an advantage in this area, offering advertisers the ability to directly target users based on specific search queries. Facebook, not being a search-centric platform, struggled to deliver ads that were as relevant, based solely on general user interests. Even if the system occasionally succeeded in showing pertinent ads, it needed to maintain a high level of accuracy to be truly valuable to advertisers. The solution, initially, was to implement conversion tracking, allowing advertisers to target users more likely to complete a purchase or meaningful action after viewing an ad. This approach marked Facebook’s initial steps toward advertising dominance, laying the groundwork for future developments. However, this strategy only provided Facebook with data on what users purchased after seeing an ad, not their broader search interests, which would prove crucial for the platform's future advertising success.

A significant breakthrough occurred within Facebook around 2012-2013. It’s speculated that during this period, a revolutionary idea was proposed: "What if, instead of solely tracking user purchases, we could track every page a user visits on a website? This would enable us to understand what people are browsing for even before they make a purchase." This idea likely sparked a wave of excitement and innovation within Facebook, leading to significant advancements and bonuses for those involved. This strategy became the cornerstone of Facebook's revenue growth from advertising and opened the door to its dominance as the most influential social media advertising platform in history.

If you advertised on Facebook in its early days, you probably remember seeing recommendations for targeting users based on their interests, which were primarily determined by their activities on Facebook. Additionally, Facebook acquired a substantial amount of data from third parties to provide advertisers with options for targeting based on user behavior, which was categorized in various ways. However, this approach wasn't as successful as anticipated, mainly because it wasn't updated in real-time and often lacked relevance. Even back then, I refrained from using lookalike audiences, behavioral targeting options, or anything similar. My understanding was that the essence of the ad platform rested on objective-based advertising. This means the system is most effective when it focuses solely on your main goal, finding similar users by analyzing those who have already converted and using that data as a model to identify more potential customers.

In short, Facebook has developed models and advanced machine learning capabilities, all hinging on the massive amounts of data it gathers from user activities outside of Facebook, including Instagram and WhatsApp. For instance, the videos you watch on Instagram or the comments you leave on Facebook don't provide as clear an indication of your purchasing intentions as, say, browsing Nike for Jordan shoes. Such specific browsing behavior signals to Facebook that you're actively in the market for shoes, which is where the real value lies. This is why major companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google choose not to use Facebook's tracking pixels. It's not merely because they aren't currently advertising on Facebook or Instagram, but rather because they are cautious about risking their data privacy and sharing it with Meta. Many marketers and advertisers praise Meta's machine learning capabilities for its precision in predicting user interests and delivering highly relevant ads. However, they often overlook the fact that much of this data is either "borrowed" or willingly provided by business owners to Meta. When I mention Meta, I'm also referring to platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, Google X, and others that use tracking pixels to collect user data.

It's a common misconception that your data remains private if you're not actively advertising on a platform. In reality, just having a tracking pixel installed on your site means your data could be collected and used by the platform. For example, if you started advertising on Facebook, installed tracking pixels, and spent a few thousand dollars on ads, but then couldn’t find a profitable strategy, you might have ceased your ads. However, did you remove the tracking pixel? Like most advertisers, you probably didn’t. This means your data is still accessible and potentially being used. Consider a scenario where a competitor begins advertising the following week, seeking to target people interested in their products. Facebook, or any platform with similar capabilities, can predict potential customer interests based on online behaviors using statistical matchmaking and data modeling. However, a more straightforward method would be to target someone who has visited your website and is now browsing Instagram. These platforms can scrape your data, categorize it based on keywords, images, and product types, and determine competitive relationships. They can then display ads with extreme accuracy using the data originally collected from you, regardless of whether you are currently advertising or not.

Just as tracking pixels help you find customers, they also assist your competitors. When we examine our ad spending and the revenue we “generate,” it doesn’t offer a comprehensive understanding of the efficiency or true return on our advertising investment. This is because we often overlook how many customers we lose to our direct competitors versus how many we gain. Consider the analogy of two modern fishermen using advanced technology in the same river, both utilizing the same computer system to locate the best fishing spots. The computer leverages all its data to assist both fishermen, yet it simultaneously increases competition between them by directing them to the same location, making them compete directly for the same fish. Similarly, tracking pixels allow you to quickly find new prospective customers with remarkable relevance, but they also enable your competitors to do the same. You can accurately target individuals who have visited your direct competitors' websites, and they can target those who have visited yours. The critical question is whether you can acquire more customers on these social media platforms than you potentially lose to your competitors.

Regarding the iOS 14 privacy updates: Recall the widespread panic over Apple's iOS 14 privacy update, which led Facebook to publicly condemn the move, claiming it would devastate small business advertisers and portraying themselves as a Robin Hood figure. This controversy has since diminished and seems quickly forgotten. However, Apple's intention with this update was precisely to address the concerns highlighted in this article. They aimed to prevent platforms like Meta from tracking users without their awareness or explicit consent. The objective was to ensure that users’ activities weren’t shared with advertisers without their full consent. Apple deserves recognition for this initiative, but like nature, advertising platforms quickly found workarounds, ensuring these changes no longer pose a significant threat to their ecosystems.

Meta and other advertising platforms rapidly developed a server-to-server tracking system. This approach involves partnerships with various website platforms, such as Shopify and Wix, where they transmit user data directly to Meta, circumventing the need for tracking codes in users' browsers and sidestepping privacy policies. While users have the option to disable this feature on Meta, the platform banks on the likelihood that few people will take the time to read and adjust these settings. In summary, regardless of whether you are actively advertising, your data is still being sent to Meta and other platforms equipped with tracking pixels on your websites.

It’s Your DATA

Not sure how deep data tracking goes? Try this experiment: visit some online stores, pick a few items, and add them to your cart, then go to Facebook or Instagram and start scrolling. You'll quickly notice ads showing similar products to what you were just looking at on other websites. This happens because social media platforms have collected data about your browsing habits.

The situation isn't as great as it might seem. The power of these platforms' machine learning mainly depends on the data they take from your website. They use this data to help your competitors target their ads and do the same with your competitors' data to target ads at you. It's a give-and-take system, all based on the smart idea of using the data from business owners like you to build their advertising systems.

Do You Get More or Give More to the Meta Pixel?

Remember the question I asked at the start of the article: are you getting more from the tracking pixel than you're losing to it? Think about what's happening: are you attracting more customers than you might be losing to competitors? Imagine your business has a steady group of 100 customers visiting your site daily. Some might find you through a simple Google search, others might be regulars. Now, say you try to increase your sales by advertising on Facebook or Instagram. But what if the ads don’t bring in enough new customers to cover the costs? In this case, you're giving access to all your customer data to the tracking pixel, but only seeing a small return that doesn’t even profit you.

On the other hand, if your business mainly gets customers from Facebook & Instagram, and you see a big drop in sales when you stop advertising, it's a different story. Here, you might be benefiting more from the tracking pixel than competitors who get customers from different places and don't rely as much on these platforms. This situation is hard to measure exactly. It’s important to look beyond just the numbers you see in reports from Facebook or Instagram about your ad performance. What counts is the real effect of using the tracking pixel on your business.

In summary, the deep dive into tracking pixels highlights their significant yet often overlooked impact in digital advertising. While they are vital for optimizing ads and driving key business objectives, there's a hidden side to their usage, including data privacy concerns and unintentional aid to competitors. For businesses and advertisers, a thorough understanding and strategic approach to using tracking pixels is essential for gaining an edge in the ever-evolving digital advertising arena.

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Jason Burlin

A seasoned marketer with more than a decade of experience in online paid advertising. Managed more than $150M in ad spend and worked with more than 500+ brands. He is known as the unconventional marketer.

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