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Understanding events

An event is something that occurred at a particular point in time. Examples of events include:

  • Load a web page
  • Add an item to basket
  • Enter a destination
  • Check a balance
  • Search for an item
  • Share a video

Kinds of events

At the high level, there are 3 kinds of Snowplow events:

You can create all of these by using various tracking SDKs.

In the data warehouse, all 3 kinds of events share a number of standard columns, such as timestamps. That said, event-specific data will be stored differently, as explained below. See also what Snowplow data looks like.

Out-of-the-box and custom events

Snowplow supports a large number of events out of the box, for example:

  • Page views and screen views
  • Page pings
  • Link clicks
  • Form fill-ins (for the web)
  • Form submissions
  • Transactions

Some of these are baked-in events, while others are self-describing events that were predefined by the Snowplow team, e.g. link clicks. Tracking SDKs usually provide dedicated API to create out-of-the-box events (regardless of their kind).

You can also create custom events to match your business requirements. For that purpose, you can either define your own self-describing events (recommended), or use structured events.

Out-of-the-box eventsCustom events
Baked-in eventsStructured events
Self-describing events
(predefined by Snowplow)
Self-describing events
(defined by you)

Baked-in events

The following events are “baked in”. They get special treatment because they are very common:

  • Page views (page_view)
  • Page pings (page_ping)
  • E-commerce transactions (transaction and transaction_item)
Transaction events

The transaction and transaction_item events are not very convenient to use and exist mostly for legacy reasons. One of their significant downsides is that you have to send a separate event for the transaction itself and then an event for each of the order items in that transaction (as opposed to including all items in a single event).

Over the years, it has become more idiomatic to use entities for order items in e-commerce transactions. For instance, our E-commerce Accelerator uses this approach.

Tracking and storage format

Snowplow tracking SDKs provide a dedicated API for these events. For example, if you want to track a page view using the JavaScript tracker:

window.snowplow('trackPageView');

In the data warehouse, any event-specific information for these events will be in standard columns (in the Snowplow events table). You can find those listed here.

Structured events

caution

We recommend using self-describing events instead of structured events whenever possible. While structured events are simpler to create (as you don’t need to define a schema), they have a number of disadvantages:

Structured eventsSelf-describing events
Format❌ Data must fit the 5 fields below✅ JSON, as complex as you want
Validation❌ No validation (beyond field types)✅ Schema includes validation criteria
Meaning❌ Can only infer what each field represents✅ Schema includes field descriptions

Structured events have 5 fields:

  • Category: The name for the group of objects you want to track
  • Action: A string that is used to define the user action for the category of object
  • Label: An optional string which identifies the specific object being actioned
  • Property: An optional string describing the object or the action performed on it
  • Value: An optional numeric data to quantify or further describe the user action
Tracking and storage format

To track a structured event, use one of the tracking SDKs. For example, with the JavaScript tracker:

snowplow('trackStructEvent', {
category: 'Product',
action: 'View',
label: 'ASO01043',
property: 'Dress',
value: 49.95
});

In the data warehouse, these events still use the standard columns for general information, like timestamps. In addition, the above fields for all structured events are stored in a set of 5 standard columns. See the structure of Snowplow data for more information.

Self-describing events

Terminology

In the past, self-describing events used to be called “unstructured events”, to distinguish them from structured events. However, this was misleading, because in a way, these events are actually more structured than structured events 🤯. The old term is now deprecated, but you might still see it in some docs, APIs and database column names.

Self-describing events can include arbitrarily complex data, as defined by the event’s schema. We call them “self-describing” because these events include a reference to their schema.

note

Because the event references its schema (in a particular version!), it’s always clear to the downstream users and applications what each field in the event means, even if your definition of the event changes over time.

Each self-describing event consists of two parts:

  • A reference to a schema that describes the name, version and structure of the event
  • A set of key-value properties in JSON format — the data associated with the event

This structure is an example of what we call self-describing JSON — a JSON object with a schema and a data field.

Tracking and storage format

Some self-describing events were predefined by Snowplow and are natively supported by tracking SDKs. For example, the mobile trackers automatically send screen view self-described events. You can find the schemas for these events here.

To track your own custom self-describing event, e.g. viewed_product, you will first need to define its schema (see managing data structures). This schema might have fields such as productId, brand, etc.

Then you can use one of our tracking SDKs. For example, with the JavaScript tracker:

window.snowplow('trackSelfDescribingEvent', {
event: {
schema: 'iglu:com.acme_company/viewed_product/jsonschema/2-0-0',
data: {
productId: 'ASO01043',
category: 'Dresses',
brand: 'ACME',
returning: true,
price: 49.95,
sizes: ['xs', 's', 'l', 'xl', 'xxl'],
availableSince: new Date(2013,3,7)
}
}
});

In the data warehouse, these events still use the standard columns for general information, like timestamps. In addition, each type of self-describing event gets its own column (or its own table, in the case of Redshift) for event-specific fields defined in its schema. See the structure of Snowplow data for more information.

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