Third-Party Cookies: Cookiepocalypse is Coming

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Cookiepocalypse might not have made it past the first round of our Jargon Bracket, but it’s back in the spotlight. 

Google’s March 3 update on plans to ditch third-party cookies on Chrome by the end of 2022 didn’t provide any clarity around timing. But it did make one thing clear: Google will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products” after third-party cookies are gone for good. 

The company’s statement closes the door on speculation in the digital advertising world that life after third-party cookies could have looked relatively the same as it did before, with alternate identifiers to track at the user level.

WHAT’S GOOGLE’S RATIONALE FOR NOT SUPPORTING ALTERNATE IDENTIFIERS?

The latest announcement started with Pew Research Center stats highlighting users’ high levels of skepticism and fear of risk when it comes to data collection for advertising purposes. The numbers framed Google’s reason for getting rid of third-party cookies in the first place: Meet demands for data privacy and personal identity protection.

To Google’s credit, it also gave a nod to the fact that it’s not in the company’s long-term financial interest to integrate alternate identifiers into its products, as regulatory bodies both in the US and globally are moving toward legal protections for users and their data. Which doesn’t mean everyone else will be doing the same. Google acknowledged that other providers might still move forward with things like PII graphs based on people’s email addresses” for ad tracking purposes. 

SO WHAT’S GOOGLE’S ALTERNATIVE TO THIRD-PARTY COOKIES?

Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox is Google’s testing environment for alternative solutions to third-party cookies for audience targeting and ad measurement. According to one of Google Chrome’s engineers, the initiative proposes a set of privacy-preserving APIs to support business models that fund the open web in the absence of tracking mechanisms like third-party cookies.” 

Simply put, once cookies are gone, there will be a new way to make digital advertising as attractive as it is now. And it comes in three potential APIs: event conversion measurement, aggregate measurement and trust tokens. 

Event conversion would measure conversions without third-party cookies recording anonymously at the browser level. 

Aggregate measurement would help advertisers better understand campaign reach and unique impressions across the web without identifying individual users. 

And trust tokens are the proposed cookie-less solution for fraud prevention and verification for publishers and sites. 

While they’re still undergoing testing, and certainly nothing is set in stone, these API solutions and proposed targeting methods could be the tools marketers have at their disposal in a cookie-free 2022. It’ll be a learning curve, and we’ll likely see dips in campaign performance. But from the user’s perspective, this shift from providing marketers with as much data as possible to a more privacy-first web is ultimately a good thing. 

WHAT DO THE AD TARGETING OPTIONS LOOK LIKE IN GOOGLE’S PRIVACY SANDBOX?

Again, nothing is set in stone. But the most likely immediate option is what Google is calling FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts). It’s similar to third-party cookies in that it looks at behaviors and interests. But FLoC takes a privacy-first approach. Instead of targeting at the individual-user level, thousands of users are grouped into cohorts based on similar behavior sets. FLoC will be available for testing in origin trials at some point this month. 

A less likely option that’s been suggested by Google is FLEDGE (First Locally Executed Decision over Groups Experiment). The idea behind FLEDGE is that ad auction decisions would be made at the browser level instead of the ad server level, limiting the amount of user data in the ad auction ecosystem and decentralizing user data. There are a few drawbacks, though. FLEDGE gives more power to the browser, and Google Chrome has the lion’s share of the market. It also would likely require that all the major players in the ad tech space agree on a secure third-party server to ensure compliance with policies and principles. So it looks like FLEDGE will operate on a bring-your-own-server model while it’s in origin trials later this year.

GET READY FORFUTURE WITHOUT THIRD-PARTY COOKIES

While post-cookies 2022 is still pretty fuzzy, marketers should start preparing now. That includes testing Privacy Sandbox’s targeting methods to get an idea of how current cookie-based targeted campaigns perform against FLoC and FLEDGE. But you also need to start fleshing out your understanding of your own first-party data: website traffic, CRM, customer surveys, client feedback and any other information you collect yourself from the sources you control. 

You’ll want to rely on first-party data for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it’s reliable, inexpensive (or even free) and actionable. It directly relates to your customers and your business. It’s the foundation of strategic thinking and increased revenue. And if FLoC targets cohorts based on behaviors, now is the time to understand how your customers behave. 

Don’t wait until third-party cookies go away. You’ll have enough disruptions on your hands when they do. You owe it to yourself—and your business—to take the time now to understand your customers and your market. So you can face the future with a solid foundation under your feet.

Malorie doesn’t need third-party cookies to understand behavior—she already has a pretty good grasp on how people think. As Vice President of Media Services, sharing her knowledge with our clients is what she does best.

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