Does Google Analytics Use Cookies?

Google Analytics (GA) is the most popular web analytics package globally.

But does Google Analytics use cookies? And how will it be impacted by Google’s decision to remove third-party cookies from its Chrome browser?

In this blog we consider:

An update on what’s happening with the removal of cookies

In brief terms, here is a quick status update on what is happening:

  • Google has taken the decision to remove third party cookies from their Chrome browser for a range of reasons, from concerns around user privacy and security, to the impact of legislation like GDPR and CCPA
  • They aren’t first past the post on this with other big platform players like Apple (Safari) and Mozilla (Firefox) having decided to block third party cookies in their respective browsers much earlier than Google
  • However, the decision is significant in terms of the advertising sector due to the fact that Chrome had a market share of approximately 67% in 2022 (according to data from Statista). That is a huge chunk of the market that has driven cookie enabled targeting of ads such as display and re-targeting to date
  • Google has now pushed the timeline for the deprecation of third-party cookies back to Q3 2024. These are the cookies that GA relies on for attribution.

Some background on Google Analytics

Launched in 2005, Google Analytics is the most widely used web analytics tool in the market which has been largely driven by a freemium model. It is used to track website activity including page visits, length of visit and source of traffic.

It is a cookie-based analytics platform which, amongst other things, relies on cookies to:

  • Identify unique users
  • Remember how many times they visit and for how long
  • Record the source of the visit
  • Determine the start and end of a session

GA is effectively in its 4th iteration with the recent launch of GA4.

Some of the current issues with GA and GA4

So, Google Analytics is prevalent in the marketplace. But with the advent of legislation like GDPR, and also concerns around privacy, there are number of issues for GA as follows:

Concerns around the accuracy of attribution

Historically, the default attribution model in GA has been a Last-Click model, which is a gross over-simplification in attribution terms and really not fit for purpose in world of multi-device customer journeys that are impacted by a wide range of media.

For context, in a user journey where a user buying a coffee machine:

  • initially finds a guide to buying on your website through organic search
  • downloads a copy of the guide and clicks through 2 subsequent prospecting emails from your CRM
  • sees a display ad for your product
  • and finally clicks through a retargeting ad to buy

Incredibly, in the example above, 100% of the credit for the sale goes to the retargeting ad which is a clear distortion of what is really happening on the ground.

Concerns around data quality

Closely allied to the above are concerns around the quality of the data that is generated by GA.

GA relies on a cookie/pixel based tracking model. And cookies actually do a pretty poor job of tracking complex, cross-device user journeys across a range of devices – with up to 80% of the data generated being incorrectly attributed as a result.

As shown in the example below, where we used the AI and Machine learning techniques in our own attribution solution, Corvidae, to correctly attribute this 80% of data to provide a much more accurate picture of the impact of spend.

Potential illegality of Google Analytics

In addition to this, Google has faced a number of rulings in European countries that have deemed Google Analytics to be illegal in the EU.

The issue stems from concerns around GDPR compliance, due to the fact that GA data is visible to US enforcement agencies – which contravenes the privacy restrictions of the legislation.

Google’s response to the situation has been to announce that both GA/Universal and GA 360 will remain illegal (including announcing the sunsetting of Google Universal in June 2023) – and it is forcing the move to its new GA4 platform.

Google is committed to ensuring GA4 is compliant as part of this process.

How will the removal of cookies impact measurement in Google Analytics?

The simple answer to this is that there will be a significant impact as a result of the removal of cookies.

Which is why Google are currently exploring alternative solutions to third-party cookies – for both ad targeting and measurement – as part of their Privacy Sandbox Initiative.

On the targeting side of things they are proposing Google Topics API and Google Fledge API which try to replace the need for cookies – with in-browser targeting of users who are logged into their Google accounts.

Alongside is a new Chrome Attribution API which will provide event-level and aggregate level reports and is in origin trials.

The data for these reports is collected in the same way and the API is trying to offer on-device attribution.

It is early days in terms of industry consultation on this but there are a number of concerns about this we have including:

  • the fact that all event-level data that you receive from the attribution API is siloed by the individual browser ID. We know that single browser conversion paths are less than 20% of all such paths. And so, it’s only that 20% of data that we’re going to be getting meaningful data on.
  • the attribution model being used is Last Click. And we would suggest that the reason for that is because Google is well aware of the fact that the siloed measurement in browser (not even in device but in browser which is even more limited) means that trying to apply any level of attribution to that will just simply increase the amount of inaccuracy being presented by the data
  • also, viewability checks are not supported. Meaning that there is no capability for you to understand if an ad has, in fact been seen. Which has clear implications for ad fraud going undetected

How to futureproof your analytics

We know today that third-party cookies are profoundly inaccurate.

We also know that the proposed Chrome replacements are in fact even more inaccurate.

So, to properly futureproof your analytics for the cookieless future, there is a need to look past cookies at other measurement solutions. And it is possible to use sophisticated AI and Machine Learning techniques which effectively replace cookies.

These types of solutions are able to create conversion paths compliantly and anonymously exists.

In fact, it is the approach that our own attribution solution, Corvidae, takes and which enables you to find new areas of opportunity within your existing spend.

To learn more, download a copy of our eBook, Is Cookie-Free Attribution a Myth?, to discover:

  • The main reason cookies are flawed
  • How to fix your 80% broken data
  • Our unique patented technology – and find out how it completely replaces the cookie

Is Cookie-Free Attribution a Myth?