February 24, 2020
Earlier this year, Google announced their intent to “phase out” third-party cookies within the next two years, sparking conversation and uncertainty amongst the digital marketing sphere. With this, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at Cookie basics and how exactly these changes could effect marketing strategy going forward.
While it’s still early days we’ve noted that, from the looks of it, Cookies aren’t set to change that much. However, how browsers treat cookies by default has in fact been changing drastically over the last few years.
A cookie is a small datafile dropped onto your computer by a website you visit. This text file is there to store and transmit data to servers of websites, usually to save some form of preferences or track some form of activity. Cookies can associate bits of data to a specific user.
The following are a few very simple examples of what a cookie could do:
First party cookies are cookies stored on your hard drive that is created by the website you are visiting. First party cookies are usually used to store preferences, make shopping carts work and allow website usage data to be tracked.
Many Google Analytics cookies are first party cookies.
By default, these are allowed in pretty much every web browser. This is because a lot of a website’s functionality depends on them.
Yes, website owners use these to track how you move from page to page during a session and to link up sessions between visits, however functions such as default languages, automatically logged in states and adding multiple items to a check out basket may break if you disable first party cookies.
A lot of personalisation is done with first party cookies, remembering what you like on a site and returning that first for example can also be done with first party cookies.
So you can turn these off, but some websites and website features might stop working properly. If you are concerned about your privacy but don’t want to hinder most websites performance, there are options in most browsers to delete cookies as soon as you close the browser; in this way you cannot be tracked between sessions, but the websites you visit work as intended (apart from being able to remember anything between sessions).
Whether or not second party cookies exist is a contentious topic. It tends to come down to whether or not first party cookie data is passed on to a second party.
A third-party cookie is any cookie that has not been dropped by the domain that you are visiting. The website owner would usually have to embed a script or a widget to enable this to happen. These are mainly used for cross site tracking and re-targeting.
This is usually something that can be checked in your browser settings. There are also tools on the internet, such as this one that allow you to detect if third party cookies are allowed simply by visiting the site.
It is worth noting that a wide variety of ad blocking plugins and extensions also block third party cookies by default.
It depends. Some cookies only last as long as the session they were created in, when you leave the site or close your browser they are no more . Others can last up to two years, these are mainly used to distinguish users. Other common cookies have lifespans of 30 or 90 days. [Google]
It is worth noting, however, that your browser and its settings may limit these time durations.
Probably the biggest source of third-party cookies are services such as Google AdSense. When you visit a website hosting AdSense and view a display advert, an impression will be recorded, probably by a cookie dropped by a domain like doubleclick.net. When you visit a different website and view another display advert and click on it, for example, the two events will be able to be linked up (or they would have if your browser allowed the cookie to be dropped).
This process was originally designed so that the effectiveness of marketing tactics could be measured, however as privacy concerns have grown, more and more end users are worried about who is processing their data. This, combined with the advent of many large scale data scandals has led to legislation such as GDPR and CCPA in an effort to protect consumers and their privacy.
It isn’t just third party cookies that are suffering though. ITP on Safari, in its newest incarnations, soon limited even trusted first party GA cookies to 7 days and now 24 hours. With this, even a visitor who visits a site 3 times in a week may be registered as three separate users rather than a returning visitor, completely removing the original source of attribution if a conversion is made on the third visit. [Searchengineland.com]
So the writing seems to be on the wall: regulations and privacy concerns are slowly forcing personal data to be better and better protected, either by legislation or by the technologies that we use on a daily basis. Cookies were never massively reliable anyway, but the industry as a whole is about to see a seismic shift. Marketing works best when everyone in the cycle is benefitting from it, users get products they want safely and companies get to be marketed to the right potential customers. It seems that for a while the balance was too far away from user privacy and these changes will rather quickly bring us back closer to a balanced state.
If you want to discuss any of the above, or learn more about the Blueclaw approach to reliable digital marketing, get in touch!