Tag Archives: implementation

Why (and why not) use a Data Layer?

What’s a Data Layer?

Tag Management Systems can get data a variety of ways. For instance in DTM you can use query string parameters, meta tags, or cookie values- but in general, data for most variables comes from one of two sources:

  • To really take advantage of a tag management system like DTM, I may choose to scrape the DOM. I’m gonna call this the MacGyver approach. This uses the existing HTML and styles on a site to For instance, DTM could use CSS selectors to pull the values out of a <div> with the class of “breadcrumb”, and end up with a value like “electronics>televisions>wide-screen”. This relies on my site having a reliable CSS structure, and there being elements on the page that include the values we need for reporting.
  • If I want even more flexibility, control and predictability, I may work with developers to create a data layer. They would create a JavaScript object, such as “universal_variable.pageName”, and give it a value based on our reporting needs, like “electronics | televisions | wide-screen > product list”. This gives greater control and flexibility for reporting, but requires developers to create JavaScript objects on the pages.

Conceptually speaking, a data layer is page-specific (but tool-agnostic) metadata that describes the page and the actions a user may take on it. Practically speaking, a data layer typically consists of a JavaScript object that contains all of the values we’d want to report on for a given page or user.

Data layers are important because they save developers time by allowing them to abstract out the metadata into a tool-agnostic syntax that a TMS like DTM can then ingest and set as data elements. Whereas once I would have told IT “please set s.prop5 and s.eVar5 to the search term on a search results page, and set s.events to event20” now I can just say “please put the search term in a javascript object such as digitalData.page.onsiteSearchTerm and tell me what object it is.” Then the TMS administrators could easily map that to the right variables from there.

You can see an example data layer if you’d like, or you can pull open a developer console for this very blog and look at the object “digitalDataDDT” to see the data layer that is automatically created from Search Discovery’s wordpress plugin.

Why a Data Layer?

My friends at 33 Sticks also have a great blog post on the subject, but I’ll list out some of the reasons I prefer clients to use a Data Layer. To me, it’s an upfront investment for a scalable, easily maintained implementation going forward. It does mean more work upfront- you have to first design the data layer to make sure it covers your reporting requirements, then you’ll need developers to add that to your site. But beyond those upfront tasks, configuration in your TMS will be much simpler, and it will save you many hours of CSS guess work and DOM scraping, and it may prevent broken reporting down the line.

    Upfront LOE Maintenance LOE
Route Amount of Control Dev Analytics Dev Analytics
Old fashioned “page on code” Medium Heavy Heavy Heavy Heavy
DTM + “Macgyver” Low Minimal Heavy Minimal Heavy
DTM + Data Layer High Heavy Medium Minimal Minimal

Another potential benefit to a Data Layer is that more and more supplementary tools know how to use them now. For instance, Observepoint’s site scanning tool can now return data on not just your Analytics and Marketing beacons, but on your Data Layer as well. And one of my favorite debugging tools, Dataslayer, can return both your beacons and your data layer to your console, so if something is breaking down, you can tell if it’s a data layer issue or a TMS issue.

Ask Yourself

Below are some questions to ask yourself when considering using a data layer:

How often does the code on the site change? If the DOM/HTML of the site changes frequently, you don’t want to rely on CSS selectors. I’ve had many clients have reports randomly break, and after much debugging we realized the problem was the developers changed the code without knowing it would affect analytics. It’s easier to tell developers to put a data layer object on a page then leave it alone, than it is to tell them to not change their HTML/CSS.

How CSS-savvy is your TMS team? If you have someone on your team who is comfortable navigating a DOM using CSS, then you may be able to get away without a data layer a little more easily… but plan on that CSS-savvy resource spending a lot of time in your TMS.  I’ll admit, I enjoy DOM-scraping, and have spent a LOT of time doing it. But I recognize that while it seems like a simple short-term fix, it rarely simplifies things in the long run.

How many pages/page types are on the site? A very complicated site is hard to manage through CSS- you have to familiarize yourself with the DOM of every page type.

How are CSS styles laid out? Are they clean, systematic, and fairly permanent? Clearly, the cleaner the DOM, the easier it is to scrape it.

How often are new pages or new site functionality released? Sites that role out new microsites or site functionality frequently would need a CSS-savvy person setting up their DTM for every change. Alternatively, relying on a data layer requires a data-layer-savvy developer on any new pages/site/functionality. It is often easier to write a solid Data Layer tech spec for developers to reference for projects going forward than to figure out CSS selectors for every new site/page/functionality.

How much link-tracking/post-page-load tracking do you have on your site? If you do need to track a lot of user actions beyond just page loads, involving IT to make sure you are tracking the right things (instead of trying to scrape things out of the HTML) can be extremely valuable. See my post on ways to get around relying on CSS for event-based rules for more info on options.

What is the turn-around time for the developers? Many clients move to DTM specifically because they can’t work easily within their dev team to set up analytics. A development-driven data layer may take many months to set up, stage, QA, and publish. Then if changes are needed, the process starts again. It may be worth going through the lengthy process initially, but if changes are frequently needed in this implementation, you may find yourself relying more on the DOM.

Are there other analytics/marketing tag vendors that may use a data layer? You may be able to hit two birds with one stone by creating a data layer that multiple tools can use.

Have you previously used another tag management system? Often, a data layer set up for a different tool can be used by DTM. Similarly, if the client ever moves away from DTM, their data layer can travel with them.

Does the site have jQuery? The jQuery library has many methods that help with CSS selectors (such as .parent, .child, .closest, .is, .closest…). A CSS-selector-based implementation may be more difficult without jQuery or a similar javascript library.

Who should create my Data Layer?

Ideally, your data layer should be created by your IT/developers… or at bare minimum, developers should be heavily involved. They may be able to hook into existing data in your CMS (for instance, if you use Adobe Experience Manager you can use the Context Hub as the basis for your data layer), or they may already have ideas for how they want to deploy. Your data layer should not be specific to just your Analytics solution; it should be seen as the basis of all things having to do with “data” on your site.

Yet frequently, for lack of IT investment, the analytics team will end up defining the data layer and dictating it to IT. These days, that’s what most Tech Specs consist of: instructions to developers on how to build a data layer. Usually, external documentation on data layers (like from consulting agencies) will be based on the W3C standard.

The W3C (with a task force including folks from Adobe, Ensighten, Microsoft, IBM…) has introduced a tool-agnostic data layer standard that can be used by many tools and vendors. The specifications for this can be found on the W3C site, and many resources exist already with examples. Adobe Consulting often proposes using the W3C as a starting point, if you don’t have any other plans. However, in my experience, generally that W3C is just a starting point. Some people don’t like the way the W3C is designed and most everyone needs to add on to it. For example, folks might ask:

  • why is “onsiteSearchTerms” part of digitalData.page? Can I put it instead in something I made up, like digitalData.search?
  • I want to track “planType”- the W3C didn’t plan for that, so can I just put it somewhere logical like digitalData.transaction?
  • I don’t need “digitalData.product” to be in an array- can I just make that a simple object.

The answer is: yes. You can tweak that standard to your heart’s delight. Just please, PLEASE, document it, and be aware that some tools will be built with the official standard in mind.

The Phased Approach

Many folks adopt a TMS specifically because they don’t want to have to go through IT release cycles to make changes to their implementation. You can still use a TMS to get a lot of what you need for reporting without a data layer and without a ton of CSS work. It may be worthwhile to put a “bare minimum” TMS deployment on your site to start getting the out of the box reports and any reports that don’t require a data layer (like something based on a plugin such as getTimeParting), then to fill in the data layer as you are able. I’d be wary though, because sometimes once that “bare minimum” reporting is in place, it can be easy to be complacent and lose some of the urgency behind getting a thorough solution implemented correctly from the start.

Conclusion

I fully understand that a properly designed data layer is a lot of work, but in my experience, there is going to be a lot of effort with or without a data layer- you can choose for that effort to be upfront in the planning and initial implementation, or you can plan on more longterm maintenance.

Get the most out of DTM for deploying Third Party Tracking

One of the benefits of using a tag management system like DTM is the ability to lighten the load on your page by moving tracking pixels into DTM. Now, simply moving code into DTM may not improve page performance- there are best practices you need to follow to get the most out of what DTM can offers.

1. Decide on the scope

When the DTM library loads, it defers as much code as possible to later in the page. In order to map out what should run where it must run through each of your rule conditions and see which conditions are currently met. That means that additional rules and additional conditions will actually slow down the synchronous part of your DTM library. When possible, don’t create a new rule for each new tag, but rather, have rules be specific to their condition. I have a partner post about how to improve page performance when planning out your rules, but for now, try to start thinking of your rules in terms of the user action- have one rule for when the user sees a product details page, for example, rather than a series of Product Details Page rules, each with a different tag.

2. Decide which type of DTM script to use

Since 3rd party Tag vendors generally deliver their code in HTML form, intended to be pasted directly into your page, there are usually a few changes you need to make before DTM can fire the code non-sequentially.  What you do varies by the tag.
Before proceeding, you need to decide: should you use non-sequential HTML or non-sequential javascript? DTM loads non-sequential HTML by setting it in a side <iframe> so it can load the content without blocking anything else. This can work well, but has some downsides: that iframe can’t get all the same information the parent page can. This includes many data elements- for security reasons, it can’t reference a data element that pulls from Custom JS or JS objects. If you’re referencing a data element, you need to use “%dataElementName%” rather than “_satellite.getVar(“dataElementName”)”. This isn’t the most supported usage, so definitely test it thoroughly.

3. Remove unneeded pieces

Next, remove any <noscript> tags: they won’t do any good in a Javascript-based framework like DTM. These days, these tags aren’t really needed and may actually inflate your data because the only folks who don’t have JavaScript enabled are bots.

4. Convert the code to suit your script type

Next, convert the code to the appropriate format (see below) and add it in a rule as a Third Party Tag.

Purely Script

Some tags are already just javascript. For instance, take this code from facebook:

<!-- Facebook Pixel Code -->
<script>
!function(f,b,e,v,n,t,s){if(f.fbq)return;n=f.fbq=function(){n.callMethod?n.callMethod.apply(n,arguments):n.queue.push(arguments)};if(!f._fbq)f._fbq=n;
n.push=n;n.loaded=!0;n.version='2.0';n.queue=[];t=b.createElement(e);t.async=!0;
t.src=v;s=b.getElementsByTagName(e)[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(t,s)}(window,
document,'script','//connect.facebook.net/en_US/fbevents.js');

fbq('init', '123456789123');
fbq('track', 'PageView');
</script>

<noscript>
<img height=""1"" width=""1"" style=""display:none""
src=""https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1552630471664132&ev=PageView&noscript=1""
/></noscript>

<!-- End Facebook Pixel Code -->

I would remove the <script> tags, the <noscript> portion, and HTML comments, and paste it directly as JavaScript:

!function(f,b,e,v,n,t,s){if(f.fbq)return;n=f.fbq=function(){n.callMethod?
 n.callMethod.apply(n,arguments):n.queue.push(arguments)};if(!f._fbq)f._fbq=n;
 n.push=n;n.loaded=!0;n.version='2.0';n.queue=[];t=b.createElement(e);t.async=!0;
 t.src=v;s=b.getElementsByTagName(e)[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(t,s)}(window,
 document,'script','//connect.facebook.net/en_US/fbevents.js');

fbq('init', '123456789123');
fbq('track', 'PageView');

I know Facebook and Chango are two tag types that fall in this category.

Simple Pixel

The easiest of pixels are those that just require the loading of a tiny invisible image. For instance, let’s say I got the following Yahoo dot code:

<img src="https://sp.analytics.yahoo.com/spp.pl?a=123456789&.yp=98765&js=no" height="0" >

If I want to load an image like this asynchronously, I could paste it in, unchanged, as a non-sequential HTML third party tag. As mentioned earlier, this would create an iframe that loads on the side of the page, so as to not slow down page performance.

I could also add it as a non-sequential javascript third party tag using document.body.appendChild to append it to the body, whether it has finished loading or not. This also makes it so you can add these pixels in event-based rules on SPAs or post-page-load user actions.

var dcIMG = document.createElement('img');
dcIMG.setAttribute('src', 'https://sp.analytics.yahoo.com/spp.pl?a=123456789&.yp=98765&js=no');
dcIMG.setAttribute('height','1');
dcIMG.setAttribute('width','1');
dcIMG.setAttribute('border','0');
dcIMG.setAttribute('style','display:none');
document.body.appendChild(dcIMG);

To my knowledge, Yahoo Dot, Bing, Vibrant/Intellitxt, Gumgum are examples of simple pixel code vendors.

Pixel with query params

Some vendors have simple pixels, with query parameters in the src url that helps tell the vendor what they need to know. (Coincidentally, this approach is the approach used by Adobe Analytics.) Let’s say I got this code from Doubleclick:

<!--<script type="text/javascript">
var axel = Math.random() + "";
var a = axel * 10000000000000;
document.write('<iframe src="//0.fls.doubleclick.net/activityi;src=123456789;type=clientsale;qty=1;cost=[Revenue];ord=[OrderID]?" width="1" height="1" frameborder="0" style="display:none"></iframe>');
</script>

<noscript>
<iframe src="//0.fls.doubleclick.net/activityi;src=123456789;type=clientsale;qty=1;cost=[Revenue];ord=[OrderID]?" width="1" height="1" frameborder="0" style="display:none"></iframe>
</noscript>
<!-- End of DoubleClick Floodlight Tag: Please do not remove -->

I could add this to my site like this, using data elements in place of [Revenue] and [OrderID]:

var axel = Math.random() + "";
var a = axel * 10000000000000;

var dcIMG = document.createElement('iframe');

dcIMG.setAttribute('src', "//0.fls.doubleclick.net/activityi;src=123456789;type=clientsale;qty=1;cost="+ _satellite.getVar('purchase: revenue') +";ord="+ _satellite.getVar('purchase: order id') +"?");


dcIMG.setAttribute('height','1');
dcIMG.setAttribute('width','1');
dcIMG.setAttribute('Border','0');
dcIMG.setAttribute('style','display:none');
document.body.appendChild(dcIMG);

Pixels with Script tags

Many vendors require you to add their javascript file to your site, as well as set some variables.

For instance, I might get this code from twitter:

<!-- Twitter single-event website tag code -->

<script src="//platform.twitter.com/oct.js" type="text/javascript"></script>

<script type="text/javascript">twttr.conversion.trackPid('123456', { tw_sale_amount: 0, tw_order_quantity: 0 });</script>

<noscript>

<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="https://analytics.twitter.com/i/adsct?txn_id=l5jl4&p_id=Twitter&tw_sale_amount=0&tw_order_quantity=0" />

<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="//t.co/i/adsct?txn_id=l5jl4&p_id=Twitter&tw_sale_amount=0&tw_order_quantity=0" />

</noscript>

<!-- End Twitter single-event website tag code -->

So there is a script that needs to run, then script that needs to fire afterwards. We can remove the noscript portions, but we still need to figure out a way to get the .js script to run before I fire twitter.conversion. There aren’t a lot of options for running a .js file after a page has loaded- if you have jQuery, you can use $.ajax, but if you don’t have jQuery you can use the below to append the .js file, make sure it has completed, then run twttr.conversion:

var dcJS = document.createElement('SCRIPT');
var done = false;

dcJS.setAttribute('src', '//platform.twitter.com/oct.js');
dcJS.setAttribute('type','text/javascript');

document.body.appendChild(dcJS);
dcJS.onload = dcJS.onreadystatechange = function () {
     if(!done && (!this.readyState || this.readyState === "loaded" || this.readyState === "complete")) {
          done = true;
          callback();
 
           // Handle memory leak in IE
           dcJS.onload = dcJS.onreadystatechange = null;
           document.body.removeChild(dcJS);
     }
 };
 function callback(){
      if(done){
           twttr.conversion.trackPid(pid,{
                tw_sale_amount:_satellite.getVar('purchase: total revenue'), 
                tw_order_quantity:_satellite.getVar('purchase: total units') 
           }) 
      }
 }

Google Adwords/Remarketing, Twitter, Linkedin, and Eloqua can all fit this general idea.

5. Validate the tag

There are many tools on the internet for validating tags are working. Some vendors, like Google, may have their own tool, but most tools can be validated either within a Developer Console or by using tool-agnostic tools like Ghostery or the chrome Observepoint plugin. Most methods require opening a developer console. An easy way to do this in most browsers is to right-click anywhere on the page and select the “Inspect” option. For instance, in Chrome:

chromeConsole

First, check there are no errors in the console. Then, to validate a specific tag:

Using the Observepoint plugin: Within the developer console, go to the “Observepoint” tab:

observepoint

Click the “Recording” button, then refresh the page. Observepoint should show every tracking technology running on the page, including the one you are validating.

Using the built-in tools in your browser: Open the network tab, then refresh the page. Often you can search for the name of the tag- for instance, here I’m searching for “twitter”, and it shows me that data was sent to twitter:

netTab

Other vendors use slightly more disguised names. Check with the vendor if you need more details on how to validate.