cookie crumbs on a white plate
PHOTO: Knoell8504

From typewriters to manual transmissions in cars, the time comes when certain tools are retired. But with Google’s announcement that it would eliminate third-party cookies from its Chrome browser, marketers grew more suspicious that browser cookies would soon join the list of retired technologies.

With the announcement, Google encouraged third-party advertisers to migrate to Privacy Sandbox, a set of open privacy and security standards. Google introduced Privacy Sandbox in August, but its Chrome announcement is the first application based on the initiative.

Cookies: A Convenience and a Vulnerability

Cookies have been a staple on websites for years, a tool to help users recall their information on trusted sites. Cookies help people keep a product in an online shopping cart or prefill a website form with registration details. Without cookies, consumers would have to take several repetitive steps, from reentering logins to saving product selections, which would diminish their online experience.  

Cookies are sent between a browser loading a website and the server hosting the website or app being accessed. First party and second party cookies are those established by the browser and hosting server. The cookies impacted by the Google announcement are third party cookies — ones established by firms that do not control browser access to the site or app, but that partner with the hosting site. Advertisers associated with major platforms like Google or Amazon fall into this category.

The move away from cookies represents a need to better protect people using websites and web apps from bad behavior. People have grown accustomed to treating website content, be it text or a video, the same as if they were watching TV or reading a magazine. But browsers, like any other software, can be attacked out of view of the users. Cookies have occasionally been manipulated, with people believing their data is being sent to a trusted site, when in reality the data is being secretly phished through a compromised cookie.

Related Article: Are Your Cookie Consent Banners Hurting or Helping?

Marketers Question the Reliability of Cookies

That approach was at the heart of a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Epic, accusing the third party advertising firm of conducting history sniffing campaigns in 2011. History sniffing is a technique that circumvents cookie blocking when a visitor views a webpage. Epic used history sniffing to capture browsing history of visitors to its sites, mainly with health and insurance content under its control. The visitor browsing data was labeled according to the page metrics, with visitors subsequently receiving targeted ad messages based on the page content. The result was consumers were seeing ads from medical and financial firms associated with Epic clients without having given clear permission and in spite of having ad blockers activated. The issue was settled in 2013.

Such abusive instances also raise marketer concern about cookies as an accurate measurement tool. How trusted are cookie-based analytic data from vendors? Marketers have used tag managers to set cookies through HTML, and verification tools have emerged to help ensure the right cookies are associated with a site.

Still, marketers are questioning cookie usage, feeling that overall cookie data has become inaccurate as alternatives to website search has emerged. The movement to rethink cookie usage has grown over the years, ranging from Apple’s 2017 decision to delete third-party cookies in its Safari browser to consumers increasingly using ad blockers to weed out intrusive digital ads. Thus many marketers feel cookies cannot tell the complete story of the customer journey.

Related Article: Browser Cookies and Teenage Pregnancy: A Short Data Privacy Primer

Google Says Goodbye to Third-Party Cookies Within 2 Years

The Google change over will take place over two years, allowing marketers time to make adjustments in their analytics tags. Analytic solutions, such as Google Analytics, rely on first party cookies, so there is some relief regarding main tag installation. But marketers should begin discussions on how measurement tags with preferred third party advertisers should be transitioned. Some personalization features of digital ad tags rely on browser cookies installed in the tag manager, so a review of digital ad campaigns associated with a personalized campaign is a must.

Getting an early start on adjustments can keep measurement strategies intact, even while a traditional tool like the cookie begins its march into tech retirement.