You know what they say: If you give a mouse a third-party cookie, he’s going to want your shopping preferences, device specifications, search history, household income, age, gender, session length, browser version, screen size, and list of all the sites you visit for the next two years to go with it. Something like that.
With the recent news that third-party cookies are being phased out soon, you might be wondering how this will affect your business.
Or you might not have heard about it and are wondering what the hell a third-party cookie is.
In any case, if you’re still using third-party cookies to track your users, you’re going to have to find another way soon.
And if you don’t know if you’re using third-party cookies to track your users, keep reading.
What are Third-Party Cookies?
Cookies are basically little pieces of data that are stored on your computer or phone by the sites you visit.
First-party cookies do a great job of helping us stay logged in to our favorite sites and keeping track of our preferences.
Third-party cookies have been used for years to track people across the web. What happens is that cookies from other sites (the “third-party” part) are downloaded by your browser in the background when you visit certain websites.
These cookies can then be accessed by other websites, which is how advertisers can track you as you move from site to site, and show all the other people in your household ads for the birthday presents you looked at but didn’t buy for them. Basically.
But besides stalking and ruining birthday surprises, third-party cookies are used for things like online behavioral advertising and retargeting.
They’re called third-party because they’re not set by the website you’re actually visiting.
So, if you visit example.com, a third-party cookie could be set by:
- ads.facebook.com, or
Or, more likely, by all of the above.
Why is Google Getting Rid of Them Now?
Google actually announced their plan to phase out third-party cookies in Chrome in early 2020. I’m not sure why no one remembers this. Was anything else even going on at that time? Who can say.
The main reason Google is phasing out of third-party cookies in Chrome is that—no surprise—they can be used to invade people’s privacy. And that’s not as cool these days as it was a few years ago.
Websites, including ones you’ve never actually “visited,” can use them to track your every move online and build up a pretty detailed picture of who you are, what you like, and what you’re interested in. Then they can use that information to show you targeted ads.
Maybe the better question is…
Why Didn’t All the Browsers Get Rid of Them Sooner?
Well, the Internet’s basically funded by advertising, and targeted advertising is more effective (and thus more expensive) than clunky, un-targeted advertising. So, there’s a lot of money to be made by companies that track people online.
And, until recently, there wasn’t a lot of public outcry about it. Most people just assumed that’s how the Internet worked, and they were okay with it. And that worked out pretty good for the companies that were tracking people, because they could just keep on doing it and making money. Then in 2019, there was that whole Facebook data fiasco, and the general public started getting a lot more worried about their online privacy.
By February 2020, a national survey showed that 96% of adult U.S. residents felt more should be done to protect consumer privacy. (Again, not sure why no one remembers this—did Joe Exotic distract us all that much?)
When are These Third-Party Cookies Going Away?
Google’s plan is to phase out third-party cookies in Chrome by the end of 2024.
As of now, it’s not entirely clear how Google will replace third-party cookies, but they are working on a solution called Privacy Sandbox.
What is the Privacy Sandbox? No one really knows at the moment. But it definitely doesn’t sound ominous. So that’s good.
We do know that it’s a set of open standards that will allow advertisers to target ads without using third-party cookies or invading people’s privacy. Supposedly.
Its stated mission is to “Create a thriving web ecosystem that is respectful of users and private by default.”
The launch of the Privacy Sandbox was originally planned for mid-2023, but the timeline was pushed back; presumably along with the timelines for the launches of Google’s other projects, Cone of Silence, Purity of Essence, and Project Skynet.
In a nutshell, it seems that the plan is to replace third-party cookies in Chrome with a set of proprietary technological solutions that will ultimately achieve the same thing: targeted advertising. But do it in a way that’s more private. But, y’know, not actually that private. What could go wrong?
Wait, This is Only Going to Happen in Chrome?
Yes—This is only happening in Chrome. So why is it such a big deal? Why is everyone acting like third party cookies are going away everywhere?
Well, Chrome has a browser market share of 65.24% at the time of this writing.
The 2nd place browser? Safari with 19.06%.
Firefox… how far you’ve fallen. (I’m not even going to tell you how Opera ranks at this point.)
So, when Chrome goes cookie-less, a lot of people will be affected.
Like every 2 out of 3 people.
That’s a big chunk of traffic.
And we can expect the other browsers to ultimately follow suit. After all, who wants to use a browser that still allows advertisers to track them and collect their data in the background when the most popular browser by far has gotten rid of them?
So, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this will likely change the entire landscape of online advertising.
What Does This Mean for Your Business?
The prospect of a third-party-cookieless future is, understandably, a little worrying for companies that rely on targeted advertising to reach their customers.
If you can’t use the personal data that those cookies glean from tracking people online, how are you supposed to show them ads for the things they’re interested in?
And how can you plan for your next moves when it’s uncertain exactly what the Privacy Sandbox is or how it will work?
Let’s look at a couple of the things business owners may run into:
- Personalization Will Be More Difficult (Or at Least Different) – If you run a website that relies on personalization—say, you’re a luxury car dealer, and you want to show high-end cars to people who can afford them—you’re going to have a tough time without third-party cookies.
- Audience Targeting Will Probably Be Less Reliable – We don’t really know how Google’s going to replace third-party cookies, but it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to track people as effectively as they do now given that they’ll have to respect people’s privacy. So, your audience targeting may not be as laser-precise as it used to be.
If you’re in the business of stalking people online and selling their data to the highest bidder, you’re probably not too happy about this. But for the rest of us, it’s hard to say at the moment.
Google has a lot of power on the Internet. So, when they make a change like this, it can have a big impact.
The Privacy Sandbox is still in development, and it might be a while before it’s ready for prime time. In the meantime, here are some areas you can focus on to make sure your business is prepared:
- Diversify Your Traffic Sources – If you’re relying on a single traffic source (like Google Ads), you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. And if that traffic source goes away, or becomes less effective, you’re in trouble. So, make sure you’re diversifying your traffic sources, so you’re not too dependent on any one of them.
- Build a First-Party Data Strategy – A lot of the data that’s used for targeted advertising comes from third-party cookies. But you can also collect data yourself—through your website, email list, social media, etc. And that data is much more valuable because you own it and you can use it however you want. So, start thinking about how you can collect data yourself, so you’re not as reliant on third-party cookies.
- Focus on Increasing Organic Traffic through Search Engine Optimization – If you primarily rely on paid traffic from a single source, you’re at the mercy of the platform you’re using. But if you focus on organic traffic, you’re in control. Invest in SEO, so you rank higher in search results and get more traffic to your website.
- Focus More on Relationship and Influencer Marketing – At the end of the day, targeted advertising is a numbers game. You’re trying to reach as many people as possible in the hopes that a small percentage of them will convert. But if you focus on building relationships with your customers, you can increase loyalty and lifetime value.
- Dust Off Your Email Marketing Hat – Email marketing is one of the most effective ways to reach your customers, and it’s not going anywhere. In fact, it may become even more important as targeted advertising becomes more difficult. So, make sure you’re collecting email addresses, and sending regular emails to your list.
The death of third-party cookies is a big change, and it’s still unclear exactly how it will play out.
But by diversifying your traffic sources, building a first-party data strategy, and focusing on SEO, organic traffic, email marketing, and relationship marketing, you can make sure your business is prepared for whatever the future holds.
Though Google’s Privacy Sandbox is still in development and the official third-party phaseout has been pushed back to 2024, these tips will help you make sure your business is ready for the changes to come.
So get your last hurrahs in with third-party cookies while you can—but at the same time, start making some changes to your marketing strategy so you’re prepared for a third-party cookie-less future.