Attribution

Pixels vs. Postbacks: Which Tracking Method Should You Be Using?

Emily Breuninger

November 2018 update: With the introduction of enhanced anti-tracking and cookie blocking measures by Apple, Mozilla, and Google in 2018, server-side tracking has become more important than ever. Specifically, the September release of ITP 2.0 on Safari for iOS 12 and macOS Mojave has severely impacted the tracking capabilities of traditional performance and affiliate marketing platforms. Not so on HasOffers. As we invented postbacks, server postback tracking is natively built into our platform, and therefore tracking on HasOffers using this method has not been affected by ITP and related updates.

To learn more about ITP 2.0 and how the HasOffers platform can future-proof your tracking capabilities, see “The Future of Performance Marketing: An ITP 2.0 Update and Tracking FAQ,” or contact [email protected].


When it comes to performance marketing, one of the biggest questions you can ask yourself (or your advertiser) is what kind of conversion tracking protocol you want to use: pixel tracking (client-side) or postback tracking (server-side). There are benefits and disadvantages to each, and it’s important to distinguish between them if you wish to be successful. So, let’s break it down.

First — definitions:

Pixel Tracking

Also called client-side, cookie-based, in-browser tracking. This method relies on the user’s browser to track conversions by placing a cookie on the click that is called again on conversion to authenticate the session and attribute the conversion to the correct affiliate. Pixel-based offers use cookies to track because they can store the session values in the cookie, and with the way pixels are designed to track, can extract this information from the browser easily. As a result, setting up an offer to tracking using pixels is very simple and only involves placing the HTML offer pixel on the conversion page.

Use pixel tracking when:  You don’t have the technical resources necessary to implement postback tracking.

For more information, check out this HasOffers support article explaining implementation of pixel tracking.

Postback Tracking

Also known as server-side, server call, server 2 server, s2s and, mistakenly, server pixel tracking, relies on the advertiser’s servers to track sessions generated on clicks to attribute conversions.  The servers record and then pass the transaction ID back to HasOffers. This method is independent of the user’s browser. Postback tracking can be thought of as two separate processes: what happens when a user clicks on an offer and what happens upon conversion.

Leading up to the conversion:

  1. User sees an offer.
  2. User clicks on the offer.
  3. Click goes to a HasOffers server. The server records the click, then generates and records the ID for that session (in most cases the transaction ID).
  4. HasOffers immediately directs the user to the offer’s landing page, including ID for that session in the offer URL.
  5. User sees offer’s page on advertiser’s site. Advertiser’s site handles recording that session’s ID however it deems fit, such as storing it as a variable in an e-commerce site or SDK in a mobile app.

When the user converts on that offer:

  1. The advertiser’s server sends a signal to HasOffers (a.k.a. fires a postback) that includes the ID HasOffers initially supplied. The user is not directed back to HasOffers in any way.
  2. HasOffers records the conversion for that session.

HasOffers has another great support article explaining postback tracking.

Use postback tracking when: You have the technical resources available to implement the server-side calls (see below for details on implementation).

Pros and Cons of Pixel Tracking

Pros:

  • Pixel tracking is extremely easy to implement. Because it’s just copying and pasting code into the HTML of your website, you don’t need to be a developer to set up tracking. Along the same lines, the learning curve for implementation is not as steep.

Cons:

  • Pixel tracking typically doesn’t work if the conversion occurs on a mobile device. Mobile devices and smartphones usually have cookies blocked as a default setting, so a cookie will never be placed on mobile in the first place.
  • Pixel tracking is more prone to fraud. As you can imagine, because the tracking is done in the browser, it would be fairly easy for a tech-savvy affiliate to fire pixels without an actual conversion occurring.  
  • Sometimes, pixels just don’t fire and you won’t know why. A possible reason for this could be that the user cleared their cache between click and conversion, but occasionally the reason is unknown. Reporting will be of little help for troubleshooting, because you won’t have server logs to utilize.

Pros and Cons of Postback Tracking

Pros:

  • Much more reliable because all tracking is done server-side, so you’re leaving a lot less up to chance.
  • Much easier to troubleshoot, using HasOffers’ server logs.
  • Less prone to fraud, and many more options available to mitigate fraud, like adding an offer whitelist, advertiser security token, or hashing the postback URL. Read more about preventing postback fraud.
  • You have the option to set up a global postback (on a per advertiser basis), where a single postback implementation can register a conversion for all offers for that advertiser. Pixels don’t have that option.
  • In general, Postback tracking will allow more options for conversion firing beyond when the user is on the webpage. Instead of being limited to a simple page load, you can have your advertiser send back the conversion URL whenever they please. This will become helpful if your advertiser doesn’t want to register conversions until after an order has shipped, or a lead has been qualified, for example.
  • Postback tracking works on mobile devices! Remember, pixel tracking will often not work on a smartphone or mobile device.

Cons:

  • Postback tracking is  harder to implement. It requires direct communication between the network and the advertiser to make sure that the ID is passed into the correct parameter, and then it requires technical implementation on behalf of the advertiser to store and pass back the value. The advertiser will need to have someone with server-side HTTP experience in order to code the requests.
  • Implementation time varies widely. Postback tracking could be set up in a matter of minutes, but for some advertisers, it could take an entire day to code the database to store the IDs.

Want more information? Contact [email protected].

 


November 2018 update: With the introduction of enhanced anti-tracking and cookie blocking measures by Apple, Mozilla, and Google in 2018, server-side tracking has become more important than ever. Specifically, the September release of ITP 2.0 on Safari for iOS 12 and macOS Mojave has severely impacted the tracking capabilities of traditional performance and affiliate marketing platforms. Not so on HasOffers. As we invented postbacks, server postback tracking is natively built into our platform, and therefore tracking on HasOffers using this method has not been affected by ITP and related updates.

To learn more about ITP 2.0 and how HasOffers can future-proof your tracking capabilities, see our previous article, “The Future of Performance Marketing: An ITP 2.0 Update and Tracking FAQ,” or contact [email protected].

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Author
Emily Breuninger

Emily is an Account Manager at HasOffers. She received her bachelor's degree in Marketing from Western Washington University. In her spare time you can find her reading, hiking, running, and/or sipping on a gin martini.