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What is Session-Based Call Tracking?

6 min readApril 2, 2013

Call tracking systems are used by marketers to monitor and measure the impact of marketing efforts on phone calls. While there are several types of call tracking solutions, session-based call tracking remains one of the most controversial and least understood methods of tracking calls. It is primarily used by businesses to minimize the call tracking numbers needed to track high volumes of paid and organic search keywords used in SEO and SEM marketing efforts. A phone number is provisioned for a finite period of time starting when a user visits from a search engine, and this finite period of time is known as a “session.” When the session is over, the number is recycled and can be assigned to a different keyword.

It works like this:

hourglass with dollar gold sign with clipping pathSTEP 1 – A prospect clicks on an SEO or paid search keyword and visits your site. During this process, a third-party cookie is stored on their browser at the beginning of their “session.” The length of the session is determined by the tracking cookie placed on the prospect’s browser, and typically lasts between one and 12 hours.

STEP 2 –  The prospect sees a unique phone number associated with their keyword on your site during the duration of their session.

STEP 3 – Some percentage of those prospects call the displayed phone number within the session window. Those calls will be associated with keywords or channel web visits.

STEP 4 – Regardless of whether the number is used, at the end of the session, the call tracking number returns to the dynamic number pool and can be assigned to another keyword.

Disadvantages of Session-based Call Tracking

Session-based call tracking is most useful when prospects are extremely sales-ready. For example, if a lead is looking to switch to solar power, clicks on an AdWords ad for “photovoltaic solar panels,” sees a number and then calls right away, the solar panel company will know which keyword delivered the sale. In this case, Marketing would get insight into the fact that the prospect called using the ad associated with “photovoltaic solar panels” without needing to provision a call tracking number for that individual keyword.

However, many prospects are not ready to buy or even call right away when searching for a business organically or even clicking on a paid search ad. If a prospect calls a business after their session expires, then a business loses insight into their referral keyword.

Additional Downside

  • Session Length – A substantial portion of callers, especially those doing extensive product research, will not call immediately after completing a web search. They may call hours or days later, once they have completed their online research. 
  • Keyword Data in CRM – Compared to other types of call tracking, session-based call tracking is substantially more difficult to track on a keyword-level within a CRM.
  • Privacy Measures – An increasing number of web users are blocking third-party cookies in their browsers. If a session-based cookie can’t be associated with a browser visit, then tracking is impossible.

Alternatives to Session-Based Call Tracking

As ROI marketers, we understand that call tracking is integral to gaining true visibility into marketing ROI. Many businesses close 50% or more of their deals over the phone, yet without deploying a call tracking solution it’s near-impossible to determine which online efforts trigger calls. While most modern marketers have a general understanding about how call tracking works, it’s important to understand that there are different types. Here are some alternatives to session-based call tracking that don’t require time limits or third-party cookies.

One-to-One Keyword-Level Call Tracking

To ensure the highest level of reporting accuracy, one tracking number should be assigned to each keyword. This seems like a lot of trouble, but it’s actually fairly simple. Local and toll-free phone numbers can be generated quickly and cheaply for each number tracked. For most businesses, tracking a few dozen or at the most, a few hundred keywords is all that is needed. The rest are tracked through a “catchall” tracking number that is used if an untracked keyword brings traffic to a website.

The best part about one-to-one tracking is that it works regardless of when the prospect calls, or whether they have “do not track” measures on their browser.

Dynamic Channel-Based Call Tracking

In channel-based phone call tracking, which is a from of one-to-one tracking, a dynamic number is generated based on the channel that refers a customer. For example, a customer who finds a website via Bing would see a different number on your site than a customer that reaches your site by clicking on an AdWords ad. Channel-based call tracking can give marketers some basic insight into which channels drive the most calls.

Dynamic URL-Based Call Tracking

Another form of one-to-one tracking is URL-based call tracking. Using this method, marketers can assign unique call tracking numbers to various URLs. Since every piece of web content, banner ad, paid search ad or email blast can be associated with a different URL, marketers can get greater insight into which digital efforts are triggering calls. This method is also used with paid search ads.

Additional Considerations

A Race Against Time

In a world where every customer is sales-ready (if only!), session-based call tracking would be the option for tracking calls from keywords. But a principle problem with session-based call tracking is that many customers are not ready to call when they click on a keyword. Consumers routinely investigate several solutions before making a purchase decision or even picking up their phone. While investigating competitors, they may write down a variety of numbers on a notepad, and by the time they actually call, their session will have expired and their referral data will be lost. Some call tracking solutions provision numbers for sessions that last as short as one hour. With all the content that modern brands make available to their prospects, it can take hours or day to make major purchasing decisions.

Insight is Lost

Let’s suppose that 80% of customers who click on your business’ AdWords ads call within the session duration (this is likely your best-case scenario). Marketing will still be in the dark as to which AdWords keywords refer 20% of calls from that channel. For many businesses, that blind spot could amount to substantial revenue losses. The percentage of customers who find a site through long-tail organic keywords is even lower since leads using organic search are more likely to be in a research phase than those who click paid search ads.

A Growing Privacy Culture

Consider another sweeping disadvantage of session-based call tracking: personal privacy concerns. A growing internet privacy culture is spurring increased suspicion of third-party cookies. More and more users are taking action to conceal their activity from third-party sources. A 2012 survey of internet users by Sequential Media found that 63% of users delete, disable or block third-party cookies. That’s nearly two thirds of all users! This percentage is only going to grow as more browsers adopt a Do Not Track (DNT) HTTP header field that requests that a web application disable its tracking of an individual user. In the future, expect it to become easier and easier for users to opt out of being tracked by cookies. In fact, Internet Explorer 10 on Windows 8 enables DNT by default. As users embrace DNT in greater numbers, session-based call tracking software will prove to be increasingly ineffective at reporting referral sources. By employing one-to-one keyword-level call tracking, the javascript on your site will always trigger a unique phone number associated with a prospect’s referral keyword. That number can remain associated with that keyword for as long as you like, without any need for time limits or cookies.

If you are considering a call tracking solution to track keywords, it’s important to understand that session-based call tracking is not a way to close the reporting loop. Rather, it is a way to gain some keyword-level call tracking insight without provisioning numbers for every keyword. While session-based call tracking has benefits, it cannot compete with the granular insight that one-to-one keyword-level call tracking offers.