By Paul Wright
Google’s announcement that its Chrome browser would phase out third-party cookies has caused quite a stir.
For advertisers and marketing companies that have relied on them to track users across the web, it certainly does have ramifications. For most website owners though, the change when it finally comes (probably now in 2023), will have little effect.
How do we know this? Well, for many website users, the change has already happened. Safari and Firefox browsers that make up over 20% of the market began phasing out third-party cookies a few years ago. However, Google will bring a more noticeable change to the landscape as its browsers control around 64% of the market.
So, is this the end for cookies?
In short, no, but you need to understand what cookies are and how they are used. A cookie is a tiny file stored in your browser to save some information. Without them, every time you visited a website would be like the first time. All cookies are essentially the same, but who creates them and why are the crucial elements.
There are cookies that are created by the website you visit, known as ‘first-party cookies’ and there are cookies added by other websites known as ‘third-party cookies’.
What are first-party cookies?
First-party cookies are used by websites to store useful information about a user that in turn make that user’s life easier when they visit a website. The cookie can hold details such as sign-in information, so you don’t have to keep logging in. They can also store language preferences, basket details, the last page you visited, or product viewed; pretty much anything that will make the user experience that bit easier. For the website owner, they can store analytic information about your visit, such as the pages you viewed, which device you used, how long you spent on the website and more.
What are third-party cookies?
Third-party cookies are ones added by a domain other than the one you are visiting. For example, a website could have a “Like” button that will store a cookie on the visitor’s computer, that Facebook can use to identify the user and the websites they have visited. Such a cookie is known as a third-party cookie. Another example would be an advertising service that creates a third-party cookie to monitor the websites visited by a user. This is the main technology behind products you have previously viewed showing up on a completely different website. The companies are using cookies to ‘track’ you across the internet.
Before cookies, a brand might cut deals with individual websites based on the hope that people who watched or read about sailing would were the type of people to buy an expensive waterproof watch. Now brands can just say they want to advertise only to wealthy, middle-aged men who are interested in sailing and have browsed a website selling watches in the past year, and cookie tracker advertising companies will provide you with a matching audience.
So, are first-party cookies staying and third party cookies going?
Kind of, but that would be too easy. While third-party cookies are used for tracking, they can also be used for legitimate purposes. As Safari and Firefox have found, if you are strict and remove all third-party cookies, some features on a website may not work as a plugin that adds tracking code may also use the cookie for functional purposes. And even if Google did get rid of all third-party cookies, companies are already looking at ways of continuing to track you.
Will I still need a cookie banner on a website?
Cookie banners are legally required by a website to get your consent to store and use your information. While tracking by third parties is going, first-party cookies and the data collected by analytics for the website you are on is not. Therefore, consent will still need to be given for the website to track and store data about you.
Is this the end of tracking me across the internet?
Highly unlikely. Safari (Apple) and Firefox aren’t really in the business of using your data to sell to advertisers. Google very much is. It won’t get rid of third-party cookies until it has an alternative in place for advertisers to purchase targeted ads, hence the delay until 2023. Other companies that have been tracking you and selling your data aren’t just going to give up either. Alternative ways are being worked on to replace third-party cookies. Some will be opaque and others less transparent.
It looks like one of the key methods will be more websites asking you to login before you can view content or more encouragement to be logged in when just browsing. Every wondered why websites are so keen to offer you 10% off when you go to look at a pair of jeans on fashion site or constantly asking you to ‘continue’ using a Google or Facebook account? They want you logged in for tracking purposes.
Once logged in, they have your identifier (email address or digital identity via a company like SwissID), that they can use to identify you. That identifier can be anonymised, and the data pooled with other companies to help build a profile with you. Therefore, when you log in to read the newspaper in the morning, it will still be able to advertise that pair of jeans you were looking at yesterday and as you were looking at the most expensive pair of jeans and also read about sailing, you might be in the market for a waterproof watch.
Bottom line, what do I need to do?
That depends on who you are.
If you are in the business of making money from trading data, you will probably already be looking at how to find new ways of getting the same information.
If your business currently uses remarketing advertising, AB’s Digital Marketing team can help navigate the post third-party cookie world and advise how you can still make the most of your advertising budget with targeted adverts. Just give us a call to talk through the options with you.
If you are a website developer, you will need to ensure that any third-party plugins or code you use for websites operate correctly without relying on third-party cookies.