Getting into the guts of Ecommerce

I find little talk online about the basic underpinnings of ecommerce. Albeit the topic is a little dry, I am still surprised at the void. I am talking about the core pieces of technology that allow us ecommerce folks to do what it is we do. I am speaking about three core things:

  1. URLs
  2. Cookies
  3. Pixels

I told you it was a rather mundane topic. It is mundane, but it is not. It is where the competitive intelligence, strategy and self-identified key performance indicators (KPIs) reside. The irony is that unlike the brick and mortar retail world, these juicy tidbits are sitting out there for all to see. Let me take an example in each case and show you what I am talking about. Obviously, interpreting these things takes some educated guessing, but in many cases it is not that big of a jump.


Let’s take this url I found on Google Base (formerly Froogle) as just one example of the intelligence embedded in public URLs:

I know it looks like a jumbled mess of slashes and code. But trust me, their is intelligence in here. Let’s break it down a little ways down the URL.


This little snippet of the URL clearly shows that for some reason QVC is pre-occupied with AOL and MSN traffic. My guess is that QVC either renders a special splash page or wants to see how much traffic comes from these two portals.


The first of the telltale name-value pairs. Admittedly I am non-tech, but have been doing this long enough to glean the important parts. Clearly here is the name-value pair QVC is using to track marketing vendor or “ven”, in this case Google Base.


The second of the name-value pairs denotes the category the product falls in. The name-value pairs are also indicative of the levels of reporting important to a company. In this case QVC will be able to roll up marketing results for all of Google Base where the category of interest was Jewelry.


I don’t know what pla stands for, but effectively it is the sub-category of Jewelry that is Rings. Like any of the name value pairs, usually reporting can roll up both vertically, meaning show me all results for Rings in Jewelry on Google Base or horizontally, meaning show me all results for the Ring sub-category regardless of marketing vendor.


The most atomic level – the item number or SKU. You can clearly see the item number or “ite” in the tab to the right above the product name, in this case “J70538”.


Cookies are used to track behavior and store relevant attributes about a surfer. All legitimate ecommerce shops make these cookies non personally identifiable information (PII) meaning any data associated with a cookie cannot be tied back to an individual. The one exception to this rule is Google where I see my email address as one of the cookie attributes tracked, albeit is noted as “secure” by my browser.

In most browsers you can go see what a cookie is tracking by going to main menu of your browser (click on its name in the top tool bar), then click on Preferences, then click on Security, then click on “Show Cookies”. I find it fascinating (and a tad worrisome) to see what people are tracking. I think there is probably some correlation between an organizations online moxie and the number of cookies it drops and the variables it is tracking within those cookies. Here is a quick rundown of what I found on my computer for a few of the top sites:

– 3 cookies (1) (2) and (3)
– The cookie “” tracks 22 variables.
– The cookie “” tracks 10 variables.
– The cookie “” tracks 2 variables.
– Google could be tracking up to 34 different things every time I use their services and it looks like probably more if I click on the adwords ads often enough.

– 2 cookies (1) and (2)
– The cookie “” tracks 9 variables.
– The cookie “” tracks 5 variables.
– Overstock tracks some cool stuff in there like original visit (guessing this means the website you first came to them through), surftype (guessing this means basic surf types like search and/or browse), lastvisit (a date stamp that changes based on when you last visited the site – a key recency metric) and much more.

Other sites drop fewer cookies, almost always at least one, and track fewer variables.


Pixels are pieces of Javascript usually included in the footer of web sites. It is easy to see by clicking “View” in the menu bar of your browser and click on “View Source”. Skimming through the code can show you any sites SEO strategies, implemented technology from third parties including clickstream tracking software like Omniture or Google Analytics.

I will keep posting interesting tactics from time to time embedded in cookies, URLs and Pixels. These are powerful pieces of technology that drive our industry and help ecommerce companies improve every users shopping experience and give those who employ them intelligently a significant competitive advantage.

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This post was written by DEP Ecommerce Consultants