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Changes to third-party cookie use on Google and what it means for your Google ads

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Google ad tracking

Google will be joining Safari and Firefox in blocking, or phasing out, third-party cookies in its Chrome web browser. This could affect how your business uses third-party cookies vs first-party cookies in our marketing tactics. Here’s what you need to know...

What exactly is the difference between a first-party cookie and a third-party cookie?

There are updates coming to Google cookie settings that are likely bringing up questions about what data you can track and utilize from digital advertising campaigns. You might also be asking yourself before you even read this, “I kinda get the idea of a third-party cookie, but what EXACTLY is it?”. Here is a simple explanation for both first-party and third-party cookies and what they do:

First-Party: These are stored by the domain, or website, that you are directly visiting. They collect data like what pages you visited, what you might have put into an e-commerce cart, if you completed a checkout process, etc. Basically tracking useful data to provide a good user experience. Without a cookie, your cart would reset every time you visited a different page within the same domain.

Example: If you are on an e-commerce site shopping and place an item in your cart and continue shopping, once you go to another page on the e-commerce site, without a first-party cookie, the items in your cart would not retain from page to page.

There are three distinct types of first-party cookies:

  1. Session Cookie which tracks website session data and disappears when you leave a domain.
  2. Tracking Cookie which is long-term and tracks activity on a website.
  3. Authentication Cookie which tracks user and login information.

Third-Party: These cookies are created by domains, or websites, other than the one you are directly visiting. These cookies are specifically used for online advertising purposes. So, how is this done? If you visit a website, that specific website will create a first-party cookie. If that website supports advertisements like banner ads, etc, that ad, which belongs to a different website or domain, will also create a cookie, a third-party cookie that includes user data, such as their behavior on the website, the content looked at, the items they clicked on, the device they are using, and their location. Now, all of this data can be used by advertisers to display ads to that person via the info collected by the third-party cookie. Got it? Good!

So why are browsers deprecating the use of third-party cookies?

The answer is simple. There has been a significant increase in the need and awareness of personal privacy protection. This began with the European Union’s (EU) GDPR Laws or General Data Protection Regulation and continues with compliance seals and data protection from companies like ePrivacy. California is following suit by implementing the CCPA or California Consumer Privacy Act which gives consumers more control over the personal information that businesses can collect about them and their activities.

Browsers like Firefox and Safari have already blocked third-party cookies by default. Google Chrome has stated that it will stop the use of third-party cookies by or before 2022.

What does this mean for your business’s online ads?

Ah, the big question, does this mean the end of remarketing and behavioral targeting? Will we still be able to use powerful tactics like visitor remarketing and retargeting? The quick answer is that this is not the end of tracking. Third-party cookies are not the only form of targeting or technology that can track user behavior across domains and websites.

Let’s focus on Chrome for a moment since the browser has a 64.15% global market share. (The closest runner-up is Safari with 19.05%.)

Google is creating a privacy sandbox for Chrome that they are calling FLoC — Federated Learning of Cohorts — which hides individuals “in-the-crowd” and uses on-device processing to keep an individual’s browsing history and actions private on the browser. The short explanation is when you visit a website, Chrome will tell the site that the visitor is basically part of a Cohort specific to an interest or behavior. They recently launched the trial of this targeting technology on millions of instances of Google Chrome grouping users by behaviors and interests. This trial is not yet replacing third-party cookies but is supplementing them with tracking FLoC IDs. The trial is said to last through June of 2021.

No other browsers have signified that they will be using the FLoC technology. I guess they are sitting in the wind and waiting by to see what will happen… as are curious digital advertisers.

What are the proposed alternatives?

Here is a list of some of the proposed alternatives to third-party cookie technology:

  • Conversion Measurement API - This will allow advertisers to measure conversion performance without the use of third-party cookies. Apple currently has an experimental attribution API.
  • Contextual Advertising - There are various forms of enhanced contextual advertising, as explained above, which include:
    • FLoC - Federated Learning of Cohorts
    • PIGIN - Private Interest Groups, Including Noise
    • TURTLEDOVE - Two Uncorrelated Requests, Then Locally-Executed Decision on Victory.
  • Capped Privacy Budgets - This would set a cap to the amount of personally identifiable data that can be gathered and shared.
  • Aggregated Reporting - This eliminates the need for cross-site identification and combines data into a single report.
  • Trust Tokens - This has been suggested for cross-browser tracking at an individual level but only to trusted users yet unavailable to tracking.

There are many more alternatives in process like cache inspection, navigation tracking, and network tracking but we still need to look at and consider what will benefit us now.

What are the conclusions?

One major point that we all need to understand as marketers and how this may affect our future tactics is that while big changes are underway, there will be new alternatives emerging. Remember, not all cookies are being banned — we will still retain first-party data. We also have time to prepare. This is certainly not a surprise; Google’s Privacy Sandbox has already seen some successful results from FLoC.

Third-party cookies are a 25-year-old technology. Finding, innovating, and exploring new technologies is well overdue. We need to take advantage of first-party data. After all, that is how people are directly engaging with our brand.

At the end of the day, we are marketers, and pivoting and adjusting our tactics with clever alternatives, ads, and innovation is what we do. We need to stay up to date with news related to third-party cookies and alternative solutions. Safari and Firefox have been blocking third-party cookies for some time, and here we are, still moving forward.

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