What Google’s third-party cookie countdown REALLY means for marketers  

In terms of an ‘end-of-life’ scenario, the removal of third-party cookies from the Chrome browser certainly falls into the long and drawn-out category. But what does Google’s third-party cookie countdown really mean for marketers?

Since Google first announced the intention to remove third-party cookies digital marketers and the wider ad industry have been on a voyage of discovery. Trying to understand the implications of the decision, so that they can put in place plans for the change.  

But what is the current status of all of this? Here we aim to give a status update as we consider: 

For context on this, it is useful to provide a short history of some of the key dates surrounding the removal of cookies.  

  • Back in January 2020, Google announced their initial plan to deprecate the use of third-party cookies in their Chrome browser. This original plan set a timeline for the removal of all cookies as early as 2022 – and Google also announced the intention to consult with the industry on proposed changes via their Privacy Sandbox initiative
  • This is a timeline which has been subject to change with Google subsequently moving the goalposts in 2021 and then doing the same again in 2022.  
  • In September 2023 Google started the roll-out of its Privacy Sandbox on their Chrome browser which is designed to move tracking of user behaviour and interests from third-party cookies to the browser itself 
  • On Jan 4th 2024, Google launched Tracking Protection which is a feature that stops websites from accessing third-party cookies and is designed to limit the ability for cross-site tracking. At this point the change is effectively in trial and is restricted to only 1% of Chrome users who are randomly selected for the change. However, the plan is to roll this change out fully later in 2024.  

So, based on the above, we appear to be finally entering the endgame for third-party cookies, assuming there are no further delays to the schedule.   

But what does it mean for digital marketers who have been relying on third-party cookie-enabled advertising solutions for what now amounts to decades? 

A quick reminder – why third-party cookies are going away  

Third-party cookies are going away for several reasons including: 

  • Concerns around privacy – there is little doubt that increasing pressure from individuals and lobby groups around the privacy of personal data – and how it is used – is a key driving factor here. Research by the Pew Centre has uncovered that 81% of individuals believe the potential benefits of companies collecting personal data now outweigh the benefits it delivers. According to Tableau, 63% of internet users believe most companies aren’t transparent about how their data is used. 

    And the reality is that Google is playing catchup here with both Apple and Mozilla initially dealing with privacy concerns as far back as 2017 and 2018 respectively – something that Apple is really driving home with the iOS 14.5 update and its successors.

    This is a point that was succinctly laid out visually by Tamara Gruzbarg in Martech back in Jan 2022 but it is worth restating here. Not least because we can now effectively score out the 2023 deadline for cookies and replace it with 2024!
  • Security worries – cookies also present security risks that range from the potential for data breaches to possible hijacking of log-in credentials.
  • Legal changes – a raft of legislation that ranges from the ePrivacy Directive and GDPR to the CCPA have impacted the environment that companies like Googe operate in
  • Pressure from regulators – Google also hasn’t had its problems seeking with lawmakers across the globe and the investigation by the Irish Data Protection Commission (IDPC  into its online advertising approach – and the ongoing probe by the CMA into whether it might have abused a dominant position through its conduct in ad tech (including the Privacy Sandbox changes) – are two examples only of what is a longer list of instances.

What the change REALLY means for marketers

So that is the context. But what does the change mean for digital marketers on the ground?

We think there are several key implications as follows:  

The world many marketers know IS going away – and they are worried 

It is clear that most marketers fairly well understand the severity of the impact of the end of third-party cookies, and they are worried. In fact, our research points to the fact 97% of marketers are concerned about the loss of cookies having a material impact on the ability to serve ads effectively and measure their impact.

This is understandable.

According to Statcounter Chrome has a 64.4% share of the browser market. The simple fact of the matter is that cookies power the way that many marketers plan, target and measure digital marketing activity including:

  • Retargeting: where cookies are used to track web-based behaviour and deliver targeted ads based on pages viewed etc
  • Personalised targeting of ads: using browsing and profile information collected by cookies to serve specific ads
  • Cross-site tracking: where cookies can track user touchpoints after they leave a website including on social media networks like Facebook

As cookies go away, huge chunks of this capability will be swept away with them. Approaches like programmatic, which rely heavily on the profiling and targeting data generated by third-party cookies, will be particularly impacted.

The jury is still out on Google’s replacement solutions

It is important to point out that the end of third-party cookies doesn’t signal Google’s intention to stop tracking users altogether.

For the past 3 years, on and off, they have been publishing details for proposed replacement solutions for cookies as part of their Privacy Sandbox initiative. These solutions are aimed at processing sensitive personal information at a device level and profiling and measuring ad performance anonymously – rather than using identity-revealing metrics.

However, the solutions have received a cautious welcome from marketers with concerns ranging from lingering privacy worries to issues around the narrowed nature of targeting within the solutions.

Take for example the FLoC proposal from Google which was designed to deliver an increased level of privacy in targeted advertising – by holding data at an individual browser level and targeting users in cohorts based on their browsing interests. Unfortunately, FloC was shelved for having the potential to increase the privacy concerns it was meant to solve – due to the potential for pairing it with more invasive forms of tracking like fingerprinting.

As things stand there are two solutions still in play:

  • Topics API – which is for prospecting.
  • Protected Audience API (formerly known as FLEDGE) – which is for retargeting

These solutions continue to be dogged by concerns over signup levels (the opt-in nature of the solutions has resulted in signups as low as 2%) and worries over the lack of effectiveness and granularity of the solutions versus previous cookie-enabled targeting and measurement.

Outside of the solutions proposed by Google, there are a raft of options from developing in-house platforms to the use of identity graph-based and Unified ID frameworks. But many of these approaches continue to be dogged by ongoing concerns around privacy and the sheer complexity of delivering them at scale. 

Finding a cookieless attribution solution is now essential

In many ways, the focus on finding a replacement for cookies in all of this is obscuring a much more important point for marketers – and that is the fact that cookies did a pretty poor job of tracking and measuring complex multi-device journeys anyway!

Take the example of the customer journey below where the user switches devices part way through their journey.

Using a cookie-based tool, the view of the journey is broken, with some of the most valuable interactions in the middle and upper part of the funnel being disconnected from the conversion. This inadvertently leads marketers to optimise what is a high-cost and high CPA environment at the bottom end of the funnel. 

Whereas using an AI-driven, cookieless attribution solution like our own Corvidae platform the whole customer journey is available to you.

It is this type of cookieless attribution insight that enabled one of our clients to uncover the fact that GA4 was overvaluing search revenue by £296k and affiliates by £330k – and adjust their strategy accordingly.

Leveraging the value of first-party data is key

One of the benefits (and side effects of third-party cookies) is that they generate huge amounts of behavioural and profile data that marketers have tried to manage in their quest to deliver the right ad, to the right person at the right time.

Channels like programmatic, in particular, have been data heavy and there has been a whole industry grow-up around the need to manage that data – including placing a requirement on marketers to establish and maintain a fairly costly AdTech stack to support it.

As third-party cookies die, so does the data they provide. And the focus for marketers is turning firmly to leveraging the value of first-party data that is spread across CDP platforms, CRM and MarTech systems.

The reality is first-party data is preferable. It is your data. It is unique. And managed properly it can give you a depth of understanding of your clients that can enable you to attract more of them. And married up with advertising opportunities like Contextual advertising – and cookieless attribution[BC1]  – it can be a privacy-first game-changer.

Contextual advertising is one of the big winners as cookies die

We trailed it above but one of the big shifts for marketers in response to cookie changes is the move to using Contextual advertising. In fact, Statista predicts that it will grow annually between 2022 and 2030.

Contextual isn’t new, it has been around for years, but – as the ability to track using third-party cookies disappears – it makes more sense. Essentially it strips away the complexity of detailed and costly profiling and targeting that is associated with media like programmatic. Relying instead on placing adverts where you know your customers will be and appealing to them creatively based on the content of those pages.

If you overlay the use of first-party data for deep profiling of your audience and a whitelist policy that ensures your adverts only appear where you want them to appear you have a strong proposition to replace the use of behavioural targeting.

So, campaign-level attribution for contextual ad placements, based on a whitelist of sites profiled on your first-party data becomes the gold standard to aim for.

What your advertising stack might look like post-cookies

We have covered a lot of ground here, and marketers are at an inflexion point as they plan for a world without cookies.  

But we wanted to close with some thoughts about what your tech stack might look like post-cookies.

If we accept that, as third-party cookies are switched off, the need to manage huge swatches of behavioural data goes away – then at a core level you really only require:

  • A platform that enables you to capture and profile first-party data and inform your Contextual advertising choices
  • The technical ability to manage and serve contextual ads and whitelist where they are shown
  • A cookieless and GDPR-compliant attribution platform that delivers unified attribution and enables you to track the effectiveness of your marketing efforts at a channel and individual creative level

With no need for the costly ‘middleware’ that has been built up to manage third-party cookie data. Because that data simply won’t exist.

How Will The Removal of Cookies Impact Marketing?