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What's going on with third-party cookies?

Picture of Jean-Christophe Gabriel

Jean-Christophe Gabriel

Partner Digital Strategist at Adjust

5 min read

It’s 4 pm and you might use a break. You perform a quick search for, say, sports shoes. Shortly after, any page you start browsing fills up with that “personal stuff” you were looking for. Courtesy of the third-party cookie technology. But the web as we knew it is about to change.

Third-party cookie: what's in a name.

A third-party cookie is a small amount of text placed on a website by someone other than the owner (hence the word third-party) and that collects user data. Think age, origin, gender, and behavior. As they help recognize users across different sites, they are used for personal advertising purposes1. Seeing sports shoes everywhere? You know “who” the real culprit is.

Why the death of third-party cookies?

Basically to build a more private web. So does Google’s announcement post explain the move. Transparency, control and choice over data usage have been enduring issues. The fact is that rejecting all tracking is not always an option. Plus, a lot of “dark design tricks”2 are obscuring free and informed consent over third-party cookies. From pre-ticked boxes to consent buttons only found on later pages, users can quicky get lost.

But let’s be clear, only third-party cookies will disappear. Native ones – those generated by a website to improve navigating experiences – will remain.

Who made the call (users aside)?

Big players of the ecosystem. Google will end before 2022 its support for third-party cookies on websites accessed via its Chrome browser. And if it seems like a revolution of its own, know that Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla have already banned them. There has been a lot going on with “data protection” on the legislative front these last years, starting with EU’s GDPR3 (General Data Protection Regulation). On May 4, 2020, guidelines on valid consent under GDPR were adopted, but as we said, enforcement remains tricky4.

The good and the bad of a cookie-free world.

The good? We should be entering an era where privacy is more than simple wishful thinking. The bad? For users, navigation won’t be as smooth as it once was. Forget about remaining logged-in through multiple sites via your social media accounts. For advertisers, understanding conversions, tracking ROI, optimizing or simply justifying ad spend might be much harder. And if revenues derived from providing personalized experiences to users crash, funding the open internet – and keeping content free – can be become a problem.

What now for advertisers? In search of alternative solutions.

So how can advertisers keep tracking users’ behaviors in this brave new world? The short answer is “they probably can’t” at the previous level of granularity. What alternatives to third-party cookies are we left with? Google has already brought forward a number of proposals under the “Privacy Sandbox” technologies umbrella5.

The acronym “Floc” may not ring a bell to you yet, but this is a tech term you will run into more than once in the future. Floc refers to a browser extension containing an API called “Federated Learning of Cohorts”. It is premised on the idea that clusters of people with similar interests6 can replace individual identifiers. To put it simply, Floc “hides individuals in the crowd”, but advertisers can still serve them relevant content. That means losing on signals like demographics, but not so much on behaviors.

And what about creating an audience for remarketing purposes (reaching prior visitors to a website), you might ask? Meet Fledge, or “First Locally-Executed Decision over Groups Experiment”. It expands on the so-called Turtledove method7, which makes ad auction and targeting decisions happen at the browser / device level, and serve ads based on Flocs rather than cookies, thereby also limiting the number of personal data extracted.

Beyond the tests and trials carried out by the internet giant, the debate is raging over sustainable ad solutions among ecosystem partners8. And two years short of third-party cookie deprecation, let’s hope that the push for a coordinated answer can square the circle of a more private, yet open digital world.

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