What is Cookieless Tracking? (And How Does It Work?)

Cookieless tracking

The clock is ticking down towards the end of third party cookies. And it is clear that marketers are going to have to prepare for a cookieless future and have a solution in place well ahead of the change.

But how does cookieless tracking really work – and what are some of the challenges around that?

Here we give it some consideration including looking at:

Why third-party cookies are going away

Up until now third-party cookies – and the plethora of data they are able to provide about web browsing habits and behaviour – have been a mainstay of most marketing strategies.

However, all of that is changing following Google’s announcement that they will deprecate third party cookies in their Chrome browser (which on their most recent timeline is scheduled for the end of 2024).

Google has taken its decision against a backdrop that includes:

  • Privacy worries – there has been a clamour from consumers and privacy activists alike who are demanding more transparency around how data is collected and used. In fact, the Pew Institute report that 81% of consumers think the potential issues of personal data collection now outweigh the benefits.
  • Security concerns – cookies present the potential for data breaches through, for example, possible hijacking of log-in credentials amongst other things
  • Legal changes – legislation including GDPR, the ePrivacy Directive and CCPA have targeted how brands and advertisers can gain consent via cookies and process data for marketing purposes
  • High profile investigations – like the one by the Irish Data Protection Commission (IDPC) into Google’s online advertising approach

It also worth highlighting that Google are late to the party here. With other browser provides like Apple (Safari) and Mozilla (Firefox) blocking third-party cookies a long time previously.

So, what is cookieless tracking?

As outlined above, traditionally a significant percentage of advertising strategies have relied heavily on data from third-party cookies for tracking and targeting. By following the footsteps of users on their journeys around the web.

Cookieless tracking is concerned with finding alternative approaches that use data from cookieless tracking techniques in its various different forms.

How cookieless tracking works

This is an expansive topic with a lot of nuance to it, but for our purposes here lets try and simplify things by splitting things up into authenticated and anonymous approaches to targeting and tracking.

Authenticated cookieless tracking and targeting

In this tracking model you are relying on users giving you explicit consent to use their data for targeting purposes.

It works on the basis of the user logging in, or authenticating in some way, and the user accepting terms and conditions associated with that.

Some practical examples of this include:

  • Authentication and use of first party data – this is likely to be part of a wider push to maximize the wealth of customer data and insight that is scattered around internal systems that range from event management systems to marketing automation tools and CDP platforms. The key thing is that it is about zeroing in on these ‘named’ or identified users who have effectively signed up to say they are happy to be targeted.

    By deploying privacy compliant tracking scripts etc on your website to collect visitor information and tying that together with how they engage with emails, buying history etc it is possible to profile and segment your audience into cohorts that enable you to get targeted about the way you talk to them.

    Front and centre here is the need to ensure full consent is in place and that you are fully compliant with GDPR and other relevant privacy (for example CCPA and CPA in the US).
  • The approach being taken by the Google Privacy Sandbox initiative – it is important to point out that, despite the fact that they are discontinuing the use of third-party cookies, Google will continue to track users in a post-cookie world. And leveraging user authentication is part of their approach on Google Topics – which is one of their replacement proposals for tracking and targeting going forward.

    Topics is a browser-based approach to tracking web-based behaviour where Chrome users are assigned a set of interests based on their browsing habits. These include high level topics such as ‘autos’, ‘dogs’ or ‘mens’ clothing’. Each week Google Topics associates five of these to a user including a wild-card which is designed to ensure the privacy of the individual. And advertisers are able to bid for and show targeted adverts to the user against a list of 350 interest groups or Topics.

    Alongside this is the Google Fledge API which Google is proposing as a re-targeting replacement solution. This works on the basis of adding Chrome users to different interest groups based on their browsing habits – something that happens on an individual browser basis. Users are then able to opt-in on the browser to specific interest groups and can be served relevant ads based on this.

    They key thing to note here is that the solution relies on the user being logged in to their Google account and opt-in on the browser itself.

Anonymous cookieless tracking and targeting

This second type of solution take cookieless approaches that are diametrically opposed to the authentication methods above in that they don’t attempt to track and identify the user at all.

Examples of this include:

  • Contextual advertising – with the death of third-party cookies contextual advertising could be one of the big winners. This approach relies on using non-personally identifiable data on where a user is viewing content to assess what their preferences might be. For example, if they are viewing a web page on gardening you can predict that they might be a good prospect for ads on gardening accessories or clothing.

    Contextual advertising can be really powerful in its own right, but we believe that the combination of context and data is what will really help brands make a quantum leap. So, using first party data to fully understand and profile your audience and then using that insight to target them more effectively on websites that align with their interests.
  • Aggregated data solutions – there are also a range of solutions that aim to bring together a combination of PII data (which is anonymized) and non-PII data into a single data store for profiling. These range from the creation of User Identity Graphs to solutions that rely on techniques like Digital Fingerprinting which raise very real concerns around privacy.

The pros and cons of cookieless tracking solutions

This is going to depend heavily on the solution – or mix of solutions – that you are using for targeting ‘post-cookies’ and it is something we have covered in some detail in our blog: Cookieless Solutions: The Pros and Cons of 6 Cookie Alternatives.

However, for the benefit of our discussion here, it is worth noting some of the pros and cons of the examples we have outlined above.

Take using the Google FLEDGE API in its current form as a cookieless tracking and targeting solution.

On the face of it, FLEDGE offers a privacy safe alternative to deliver targeted advertising based broadly on the type of behaviour.

However, the downside is the fact that it relies on Chrome users opting in to receive targeted advertising and being logged into their accounts. Which could be problematic if take-up in the Google user base mirrors the paltry opt-in rates when Apple introduce a similar approach in its iOS 14.5 update.

Similarly, while the use of first-party data and tracking can take privacy concerns out of the equation and the use of this type of data can give you really deep insight into customer behaviour, the reality is that it is an expensive and resource intensive undertaking when done properly.

And, when users leave your website you lose the ability to track their behaviour which means it provides a partial picture only when compared to the data set available from third party cookies previously.

And while contextual advertising has its place in the media mix many brands are clearly going to aspire to cookieless tracking solutions that give them a much richer view of the impact of their marketing efforts – right across the customer journey.

Which is why many are exploring non-cookie based alternatives that use AI and Machine learning techniques (like Corvidae).

Introducing Corvidae – a cookieless solution

Much of the work we have been doing with clients in recent years has been around improving the quality of their advertising data – and, by definition, the quality of their marketing attribution.

In fact, around 7 or 8 years ago it became clear to us that the type of raw analytics data generated by cookie-based solutions (like Google Analytics and Adobe) was poor.

In fact, we found that 80% of the data in these solutions was being incorrectly attributed due to the poor job cookies do of stitching together multi-device and multisession user journeys – which clearly had huge implications for attribution.

Our response was to develop Corvidae, our own attribution platform which effectively replaces the cookie with AI and Machine Learning to provide a true picture of attribution and enables you to:

  •  rebuild your marketing data from the ground up
  • swap broken cookies for more accurate AI-driven attribution
  • convert customers for the lowest possible spend

Want to learn more? Download a copy of our ebook: Is Cookie-Free Attribution a Myth?.

Is Cookie-Free Attribution a Myth?