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What is a tracking pixel and how does it work?

You’ve probably never seen a tracking pixel, but they’ve almost definitely appeared on your screen before. Tracking pixels allow companies to gather useful marketing information and assess the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. But what are they, exactly, and how do they work?

Malcolm Higgins

Malcolm Higgins

What is a tracking pixel and how does it work?

What is a tracking pixel?

A tracking pixel is quite literally a tiny, often invisible pixel that appears on a user’s screen. It serves a similar purpose as a browser cookie, although it has some distinct differences and advantages.

Tracking pixels usually take the form of small 1×1 squares (referred to as a 1×1 tracking pixel) and are designed to be transparent or at least to blend in with the background of the page they appear on. That’s because users aren’t meant to notice them.

A tracking pixel can provide its creator with useful information about certain internet users, and helps online stores and advertisers assess the effectiveness of various marketing strategies.

How tracking pixels work

So how do tracking pixels work? Pixel tracking is quite a simple system. Imagine that a company launches a new email campaign. They send out hundreds or even thousands of emails, but they need to know how effective those emails are; are people opening the emails, at least?

If they include an email tracking pixel, then when someone opens the email, their browser will automatically run the tracking pixel code. This will cause the browser to send a signal to the company’s servers.

The signal confirms that the email was opened, and can also communicate other details, including information about the operating system, IP address, and the location of the person who opened it.

Types of tracking pixels

There are two main types of tracking pixels; conversion pixels, and retargeting pixels.

Conversion Pixels

Conversion pixels are intended to track the effectiveness of different marketing campaigns and sales funnels.

They’re usually included in an order confirmation email, or on a “thank you” page that appears after a customer makes a purchase.

The pixels can help companies assess the route by which the customer came to make the purchase. For example, it can show that they responded to a particular advertisement, or came through an affiliate partner’s link.

Retargeting pixels

Retargeting pixels operate more like browser cookies. They can provide information to a website about where a user has previously been, which helps them target advertising more effectively.

If you’ve just been looking up flights for London, and then notice that an entirely different website is now advertising London hotels, that could be the result of a retargeting pixel. In this function, they work in the same way as cookies.

Pros and cons of tracking pixels

Tracking pixels aren’t universally popular. Here are the arguments for and against their use.


Pixels are very useful for companies and websites. And they can, in theory, improve a user’s online experience.

They help businesses work out what the most effective marketing strategies are, making it less likely that they’ll waste money on ineffective ads and email campaigns. They also help websites provide more tailored advertising to their visitors. Arguably, many internet users would prefer to get useful ads, responding to their needs, rather than completely random ones.


While pixels are very useful for companies and online businesses, they can also be used by less reputable online entities. You might have noticed that, after opening a spam email, you received an increased number of similar annoying messages.

That’s because spam emails and phishing messages often contain pixels that tell the emailer whether your address is active. If you open the email, the pixel signals this to the spammer, and they target you with more.

How to protect yourself from tracking

From browser cookies to tracking pixels, these methods have their uses, and aren’t always a negative. However, you should always have the power to choose whether you want them or not.

Why is data privacy important? Because your data is valuable, to you, to companies, and to criminals.

One way to protect yourself from tracking on the Internet is to pay attention to privacy settings on websites. It’s very easy to get into the habit of clicking “Accept all” when faced with a privacy preferences pop-up, but that’s actually a good place to start if you want to limit tracking. You may be able to switch off a website’s tracker functions, or at least limit them.

It’s also worth using privacy tools, like a VPN or tracker blocking software. NordVPN comes with a built-in feature called Threat Protection, which can block trackers, as well as limiting annoying ads and shielding you from malware. And one NordVPN account, you can cover up to six devices, raising your overall protection level.

Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm Higgins Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm is a content writer specializing in cybersecurity and tech news. With a background in journalism and a passion for digital privacy, he hopes his work will empower people to control their own data.

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