Understanding cookies and the future of web tracking.

6 Minutes

Does it sometimes feel like the products that you were thinking about yesterday seem to follow you around the internet through ads for the rest of your week? Or that flight and hotel package you scrolled through on a dreamy whim seems to always pop up whenever you’re trying to book your next work trip? It’s not magic or scary, it’s cookies. 

But unlike those delicious treats we enjoy with a glass of milk and can’t stop eating, internet cookies are small bits of data that websites store on your device to track your online activity. In theory, they’re trying to help make your web experience better – whether you’re shopping, researching, or trying to plan your next vacay. 

There are some changes you should know about though, so let’s delve deeper into the world of internet cookies, what they are, and what sort of upcoming changes mean for the future of websites and digital marketing.

What’s in the jar: first-party vs. third-party cookies.

First, imagine your mom made you your very own cookie jar for your personal cookie stash. It even has your name on it. That’s a first-party cookie.

These cookies are created and stored directly by websites you visit. They’re used for a variety of things – remembering your login information, keeping track of products you’ve put into a shopping cart, or storing your preferences on a specific website. Another way of thinking about them – they’re the sticky notes your website leaves on your device to remember all these things in order to enhance your user experience.

Now imagine your mom brought home an assorted box of cookies from all your favourite bakeries and cafes. These are third-party cookies. They’re put onto your device by websites other than the one you’re currently visiting. They’re typically used for online advertising. How it works is: when you’re browsing a specific site that reflects your interests, a third-party advertising company might place a cookie on your device to track that interest. That way, they can access that cookie later and serve you ads that fit your interests when you’re browsing your preferred news site, cultural blog, or any site that allows advertising on their pages. 

A crumbling system: why third-party cookies are getting tossed out like unsold day-olds.

Third-party cookies have been the backbone of online advertising for years. But as users become more savvy and more suspicious, concerns about their privacy have led to a major shake-up in the digital space. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about all the data collected through third-party cookies and the potential for misuse.

Plus, the rise of ad blockers and stricter privacy regulations have really made it harder for third-party cookies to be as effective.

Third-Party Privacy Timeline

April 2016: EU passes the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) statute, limiting a lot of tracking in European countries.

September 2017: Safari develops Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which starts opening up the first channels for their platform to prevent third-party cookies.

January 2018: The California Consumer Privacy Act is enacted. CCPA and cookie consent begin to gain traction.

September 2019: Firefox starts blocking third party cookies

January 2020: Google joins Safari and Firefox in announcing they will start to phase out third-party cookies, and offers Google Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) as a potential replacement.

June 2020: Apple releases iOS 14 upgrades, which include App Tracking Transparency, which forces apps to obtain consent before collecting user data rather than doing it automatically.

Spring 2021: iOS 14.5 (the update with user tracking changes) is released, limiting a lot of advertisers. 

January 2022: Google kills FLoC and replaces it with Topics, where your browser learns about your interests as you move around the web, categorizing them in 300 topics. It’ll keep data for the last three weeks.

October 2023: Google starts prepping developers for the depreciation of third-party cookies with the announcement of the Privacy Sandbox.

Google Chrome and the Privacy Sandbox.

Google’s answer to phasing out third-party cookies entirely while prioritizing user privacy and still allowing effective online advertising is the new Privacy Sandbox.

“What the heck is that?” you ask? Google Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox is a series of proposals by Google that aim to find new ways to track online activity for targeted advertising without compromising their user privacy. The idea is essentially creating a space where advertisers can build targeted campaigns to reach users as they browse without accessing personal data directly. 

These new APIs want to give web browsers a new role: acting locally on the user’s behalf to secure identifying information on their device as they browse the web, instead of working with restricted tools and protections. 

“Our goal with the Privacy Sandbox is to reduce cross-site tracking while still enabling the functionality that keeps online content and services freely accessible by everyone.” 

Google’s Cookie Countdown

What does this all mean for websites and digital marketing?

The elimination of third-party cookies undoubtedly presents challenges for website owners and digital marketers. But it also presents an opportunity for advertisers and digital marketers to innovate. 

Here’s some ways to go with the flow as things inevitably change:

  • Focus on first-party data: Building strong relationships with your users and collecting first-party data has been a push that’s been coming the last few years. It’s now more crucial than ever. You want to try to get your visiting users to opt-in to data collection or personalizing website content based on past browsing behaviour. Usually this involves incentives. Think discount coupon pop-ups on your favourite ecommerce site or free gifts with sign ups à la New Yorker. 
  • Contextual advertising: This is kind of seeing the forest instead of the trees. Essentially it means placing ads based on the content of a webpage rather than the user’s browsing history. This can still be a highly relevant way to reach your target audiences. 
  • Focus on building trust: Transparency and user trust will also be critical in this next digital era. Brands and sites need to communicate clearly how user data is collected and used by them in order to convince users to give up their data.
  • The rise of other privacy-focused solutions: New technologies and platforms that prioritize user privacy while allowing targeted advertising will probably emerge as people find new solutions to the loss of third-party cookies.

The future is (still) delicious.

While the days of third-party cookies tracking your every move online are numbered, new solutions are emerging. This shift presents both challenges and opportunities for website owners and digital marketers alike. By focusing on user privacy, building trust, and finding innovative solutions, the future of online advertising can still be a success story, even without the traditional cookie crumbs to follow users across the web.