Explicit vs Implicit Data Event Tracking: What Is the Difference?

Written by Indicative Team


When it comes to user interaction data, organizations have two options:

  • Build a tracking plan and track specific event data needed to answer key questions
  • Collect all event data and decide how to use it later

That’s the core difference between explicit versus implicit data event tracking, and there’s a lot of debate over which is the better option.

Below, we break down how each type of event tracking works, along with pros and cons for each, and a guide to help you figure out which tracking model may work best for your team.

What is Explicit Event Tracking?

With explicit tracking, you define events at the tracking level—and this often requires engineering resources. That’s distinct from implicit tracking, where events are defined within the user interface and may or may not require technical help.

To use explicit tracking effectively, teams across your organization need to work together to develop a data tracking plan that identifies the events and properties required to perform the type of analyses—and answer the questions—you’re looking for.

Because of that, there’s more upfront setup required to implement explicit event tracking. There’s also more technical resourcing needed since events are manually defined and tracked using code.

What is Implicit Data Event Tracking?

Implicit event tracking goes by a few names. You may have also heard it referred to as “auto-capture” and/or “codeless” event tracking.

All three mean the same thing: automatic collection of all event data.

With implicit event tracking, all you need to do is deploy one code snippet on your site. From there, all event data is collected automatically.

That means every user interaction across your website, app, and other digital products and experiences is automatically tracked—regardless of whether you manually define the event or have a current plan to use that data.

Who Should Use Explicit Data vs. Implicit?

There’s no right answer as to which type of tracking is best. That said, here’s our baseline guidance:

  • Companies with a more mature engineering team, or one looking for a long-term data strategy, typically benefit from explicit tracking because it gives them control over what’s tracked–and often leads to cleaner data
  • Non-technical teams that want to iterate quickly and have limited engineering resources often benefit from implicit tracking—because it isn’t likely to cause additional resource constraints

Pros and Cons of Explicit vs. Implicit Data Collection

If you’re looking to choose between implicit and explicit tracking, there are a lot of things to consider (we’ll get into those later).

But each method of data collection comes with its own broad pros and cons, which can help clarify the implications of each and begin to give you a sense of which may work best for your org.

Explicit Event Tracking

With explicit event tracking, you collect only the event data you’ve manually defined and deployed code to collect. There are several benefits to that.

  • Track only what you need and know what your data means. When you collect only the data you need, you limit how much data gets collected—which comes with a host of privacy, storage, and other benefits. Plus, manually defining events makes it easier to understand the context of your data because you aren’t tracking any unnecessary data.
  • You can ensure you’re collecting relevant data from all your different data sources when you have an explicit tracking plan in place, making it easier to further enrich your data and create a cohesive view within your data warehouse.
  • Get cleaner, more reliable data because you’re in control of what’s being tracked, not an auto-capture that can make data messier and add noise.
  • You have more control to govern your data since you know exactly what data you’re collecting, where it’s going, and who has access to it. And you have the control to change all of those things.
  • You can use backend data to mitigate ad blockers. Your backend system isn’t subject to client-side ad blockers that can cause inconsistent or missing data. When you define sensitive events (like purchases and registrations) explicitly, you can ensure your data is accurate and complete—so you don’t underreport things like revenue and conversions.

Along with those benefits, explicit data tracking comes with its own set of cons, too—largely related to the technical resources and upfront investment required to do it right. Explicit tracking requires:

  • Technical resources for implementation because explicit tracking requires a developer or engineer to write and deploy code for each event you want to track.
  • More time to implement and get value because, when defining new events, you’re just starting to track that data when the code gets deployed. So there’s a built-in delay before you can start analyzing it.

For example, if you release a new feature, your engineering team needs to implement tracking for the feature right when it’s launched. Otherwise, you’ll be missing out on data. With implicit tracking, the new feature would be tracked from the beginning automatically thanks to auto-capture.

  • A data tracking plan upfront because, thanks to the points above, explicit event tracking requires your team to develop a data tracking plan upfront, so you can streamline implementation and ensure you get all the data you need.

Implicit Data Collection

On the other side of the debate, automatically tracking every user interaction comes with its own pros and cons. On the pro side, auto-capture is great because:

  • It’s easy for non-technical users to deploy tracking on your site. It’s also called codeless tracking for a reason: just add one snippet to your site and every interaction gets collected.
  • Since you’re collecting everything, minimal upfront planning is required. That means you can decide what to analyze and which questions to ask later on—and you’ll already have the data you need.
  • You can retroactively define events, so you can add additional use cases and analyses without deploying new code or waiting around for new data. Auto-capture ensures you’re tracking data from new features right from the start, even if the engineering team doesn’t incorporate tracking into the launch.

In addition to those pros, there are also myriad cons to automatically collecting all your event data.

  • Implicit tracking still requires developer work. Implicit tracking requires more than deploying a single line of code, and you’ll likely need developer resources to ensure you’re getting the data you want and nothing else. Excluding data (for privacy reasons), for example, and adding context that isn’t automatically tracked require help from engineering.
  • For a number of reasons, your data can get messy. Since you’re tracking everything, you have to sift through everything to model what you actually care about. Plus, you may end up with different people modeling the same event in a different way, and getting different results.
  • Privacy and security concerns are only getting more prominent, which makes indiscriminate tracking of every user interaction a hard sell. To exclude data with an auto-capture tool, you need to explicitly mark every data point you don’t want to track. For companies that deal with a lot of sensitive data (like healthcare and finance companies), this can require extensive engineering work.
  • Auto-capture tools don’t capture context, so if you’re using implicit event tracking without any technical help, you’ll get less granular data. Or, you’ll need the help of a developer or engineer to add code to track event properties and characteristics and user properties like lifetime value, which subscription plan they’re on, and more.
  • Implicit tracking is often susceptible to ad blockers because tracking happens on the client-side, which means you’ll likely lose anywhere from 10-30% of your events to ad blockers.

When Should You Use One Over the Other?

As we mentioned earlier, there’s a lot to consider when deciding whether implicit or explicit event tracking will work best for your team and the broader organization. With the pros and cons above in mind, here are some additional factors to look into.

Ease of Use

Depending on your use case and who inside your organization will use event tracking, one type of collection may be easier than the other.

Implicit tracking, for example, is often easier for non-technical teams and users because it’s codeless. That said, your event tracking should be an organizational decision, made in conjunction with technical and non-technical teams.

Plus, it’s important to remember that most implicit tools do still require some degree of manual tracking in order to add the event properties and characteristics, user properties, and other context your team needs in order to perform valuable analysis and make data-driven decisions.

And explicit tracking often makes it easier for those who do have the technical expertise to govern customer data.

Surfacing Insights

Implicit tracking collects every user interaction. This makes it easy to create insights quickly—because all the data is already tracked and available, you can perform analyses and surface insights right away, so you can get to value faster.

But it also sometimes requires data quality control after the fact.

Explicit tracking can allow for more complete, reliable, and contextual data, with events and properties rigorously and consistently defined. That makes it easier to surface meaningful insights and make decisions based on your event data.

Data Governance

Historically, this point has been pretty cut and dry: explicit tracking is the best option when it comes to data governance because you control what data is being tracked and which tools, platforms, and team members have access to different properties and data.

With that said, implicit auto-capture tools are getting more sophisticated when it comes to data quality, finding solutions for event definitions, security concerns, and more.

Explicit tracking still reigns for data governance today, but the race is getting tighter.

Privacy and Ethics

As we said, auto-capture tools are working to address privacy issues with features designed to help you ignore sensitive data and automate redactions and APIs to allow for data deletion.

Despite that, today, explicit tracking is still the better option for privacy and ethics—because it limits the scope of the data you collect on users to what’s truly valuable to you, and it’s easier to govern (see above). Instead of redacting personal information and securing it after the fact, explicit tracking lets you avoid collecting that data in the first place.

Explicit tracking also makes it easier to ensure compliance with government regulations around online privacy and data collection (like GDPR in Europe and COPPA in the United States).

Explicit or Implicit Event Tracking?

While there’s no right answer as to whether implicit or explicit tracking is best for your team, one thing’s for sure: choosing your tracking model is just the beginning.

What comes next are the insights and answers your event data empowers you to find—and how you use that data to create a better product and experience for your customers.