With Google’s plans to remove support for third-party cookies by the end of 2024 big changes are coming to the way e-commerce retailers collect user data and target ads.
Concerns over web privacy have been growing in recent years, as evidenced by initiatives like the EU’s GDPR legislation and various data protection scandals hitting big players like Facebook.
One of the most controversial issues in online privacy is that of cookies – those little files of data stored in your browser that help website owners and brands track the behaviour of visitors as they travel between different sites and target ads accordingly.
Whilst third-party cookies are a key pillar of online marketing their days are numbered in our privacy-conscious times. Browsers like Safari and Firefox already removed third-party cookies back in 2013, whilst Google dug their heels in. But in 2020 they announced they would begin phasing out support for third-party cookies starting in mid-2023 and finishing later that year. This really does sound like the death knell for third cookies. But this is not the end of user tracking, and nor are privacy concerns going away any time soon.
Since the early 90s cookies have been used by third parties to track user data and behaviour. The scope of this data has expanded vastly over the decades, from storing details such as whether you have visited a particular site before to username and password info, IP addresses, and a worryingly wide range of sensitive private information like user health, gender and ethnicity, sexuality, religious and political beliefs and more.
Third-party cookies help businesses understand their audience, analyse their online behaviours and target relevant ads. This has been a very powerful component of digital marketing and this data has in itself become big business, with private user information bought and traded in a multi-billion dollar industry.
Despite the obvious benefits of third party-cookies for businesses, especially in an ever more online world, there have been major downsides for consumers. User knowledge of what cookies do, what data they contain, and how they are used is usually quite limited, and even the near-ubiquitous cookie consent forms and popups we’re all accustomed to on a daily basis have done little to avert the privacy issues this form of tracking throws up.
Google are of course the world’s biggest digital ad sales broker and their relative slowness in removing cookie support is in part due to their attempts to develop alternative tracking technology to replace third-party cookies. To do this they launched an initiative called the Privacy Sandbox. Google consulted with publishers and other web community stakeholders to find a solution to cookies that would protect user privacy whilst keeping digital ad targeting alive to help support publishers maintain a “vibrant” web ecosystem; research has shown that disabling cookie support reduces publisher ad revenue by 52%, and covert practices like “fingerprinting”, where websites store data about browsing devices to try and piece together unique user profiles, further erode privacy (such data is inherently non-consensual and can’t be scrubbed clean like with cookies).
Though still in an embryonic form, the Privacy Sandbox is a set of proposals for individual APIs that would replace core functions of cookies without encroaching on user privacy. In essence, limited user data would be stored in the Chrome browser and relevant third parties would have a “budget” limiting how much of this data they can access, and for what purpose. In addition, machine learning would be used to analyse anonymised data to deliver audience insights whilst one-off captcha-style authentication combined with “trust tokens” (that let third parties communicate proof of user authenticity) would eliminate ad fraud. If this all sounds a little complicated, that’s because it is; so watch this space as events develop.
How can I prepare for the removal of third-party cookies?
Despite Google’s best attempts to smooth the transition away from third-party cookies, this will likely have a significant impact on the e-commerce sector in particular, as well as impacting web publishing more generally. But with the right data collection strategy in place, there is still a lot you can do to understand your audiences and effectively target online ads.
Tech solutions are also being developed independently of Google, like Unified ID 2.0 which uses a one-time encrypted email consent form to allow tracking and targeting for individual websites and associated third-party websites. The post-privacy world of online advertising is still emerging so it’s important to keep up with trends and solutions as they develop. Keep an eye out for updates from Google, and stay up to date with the work of adtech and SEO experts.
You can still target your audience by placing ads on sites that publish content relevant to your audience and share similar keywords with your brand; a technique known as contextual advertising. You can use platforms like Google Adsense to automate contextual advertising.
Lean into SEO
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a powerful way to leverage user behaviour without accessing private user information. If you are using cutting-edge SEO techniques to target user search terms that draw prospects into your sales funnel you can achieve higher ROI than even targeted advertising can deliver.