Third-Party Cookies Are Being Phased Out: How Digital Marketers Need to Prepare

People are becoming more aware than ever before of just how much information they are revealing every time they leave behind their digital footprint on the web. This has sparked a new firefight in the browser wars - this one is over the use of cookies and user privacy. For example, Firefox has made its Enhanced Tracking Protection a default feature, and Apple continues to incorporate privacy-focused elements into its Safari browser.

With the newest version of its Microsoft Edge Browser, Microsoft is the latest high-tech company to ramp up an attack on ad trackers. Using the same open-source code as Google’s Chrome, Microsoft Edge now incorporates an enhanced tracker-prevention feature that is turned on by default. Microsoft claims that this feature blocks 25% more trackers than before.


How First- and Third-Party Cookies Work

First-party cookies only track activity on the website a user is browsing and enable the user to move seamlessly from page to page. Without first-party cookies, for example, a user would be unable to place an item in the shopping cart and keep on shopping, and no billing and shipping information would be stored.


Third-party cookies track user activity across the web and do not originate from a website that a user has interacted with in any proactive way. Advertising networks such as Google Adsense are generally the source of third-party cookies. These cookies track users across multiple websites and use that information to more precisely target users with ads. The user has not granted permission for this, so it can easily be regarded as an invasion of privacy.


What Is Google Doing?

Google announced last year that it would bring new privacy controls to Chrome that will block third-party cookies. It plans to follow the same path as Safari and Firefox but with a slightly different approach. Safari uses machine learning to assess whether a technology has tracking capabilities and limits the lifetime of cookies if this is the case. This applies whether the cookie is the first or third party. Firefox has taken a more blunt approach. Any domain that is classified as having tracking capabilities is unable to set or read cookies.


Google Chrome’s Privacy Changes

Google has determined that the classification of cookies as first or third party needs to be done on the site. For a cookie to be used outside of the domain where it originated, it will be required to be classified as third party. Chrome will then give users the option to block or delete just these cookies. The default position is that cookies will only be allowed to be used in a first-party context.

There is also a requirement of having secure connections to be able to use cookies in a third-party context. In practice, a site must have a valid https protocol and the correct definition of the samesite attribute for cookies to be passed between sites. The samesite attribute provides Google with an easy way to identify third-party cookies and their purpose, and this would seem to be the first step in eventually disabling third-party cookies. Browser fingerprinting is also going to be blocked. In addition, consumers will be able to see what data has been used to target advertising.


How Will Google’s Privacy Changes Impact Digital Marketers?

The question is, will consumers start blocking/deleting more cookies because of these changes? One school of thought says that most people who are already wary about such things are already deleting their cookies or using ad blockers. This means that although some impact can be expected, it will probably not be massive. And, from a technical point of view, ad tech vendors and site owners only need to add one value to cookies for things to function as they have been doing.

Google has announced plans to block third-party cookies from Chrome within two years. As Chrome controls almost 70% of the desktop browser market, this will mean a big change in user data collection and advertising targeting. However, the need for targeted advertising is not going away anytime soon, so it seems inevitable that, eventually, new ways to build audiences will replace the need for third-party cookies. Since cookies aren’t compatible with mobile apps, alternatives like location data and advertising IDs are already being used as “real-world behavior” alternatives to cookies.

The Focus Will Be More on Marketers’ Own Data

Emphasis will be placed more on marketers’ own data (first-party data), which is easier to utilize and scale. Moreover, Google has pledged that cookies will not be deleted before there are other ways in place to target advertising and measure performance. This will incentivize technology producers and advertisers to cooperate and find new ways to handle things.

Programmatic Advertising

The biggest impact of cookie blocking will likely be felt in programmatic advertising because it relies almost entirely on third-party cookies. Without these cookies, marketers will be unable to target users with highly relevant ads or assess whether those ads are leading to sales. However, there will be more reliance on contextual targeting that was once the sole domain of mobile.


The Effect on Historical Data

One possibly unintended result of shortening the lifespan of first-party cookies could impact the way marketers track website visitors. Up until now, a Google Analytics cookie could reside on a browser for a couple of years. With this lifespan curtailed to as little as just one day in the Safari browser, the consequences will likely be duplication of unique users and huge inflation of their numbers in Google Analytics. If you are an e-commerce marketer assessing site visits, for example, this may end up making a mess of your historical data.


Final Thoughts

So far, the world has not changed, and everything still continues the same until further notice. However, going forward, digital marketers need to keep paying attention. It is more than likely that cookie-related updates to Chrome may occur before the 2022 deadline. Each change to the Chrome browser will have an impact on the media business, advertising, and website monetization. A post-cookie world is clearly on the horizon, and marketers need to get ready.

About Author

Tim has been building, designing, and executing websites since 1999, and joined in 2009. His specialties include online e-commerce consulting, web and business marketing, and project management. With technical and creative savvy, Tim is a born entrepreneur & problem-solver. When not staring soulfully at Google Analytics, Tim enjoys roughing it Apple-free in the great outdoors.

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