Is Google Killing The 3rd Party Cookie All It Seems?

For many years, the web browser wars were focused primarily on speed. Who could load a webpage the fastest whilst using minimal resources and draining as little battery as possible? Fast forward to 2020 and the war has changed lanes. Browsers are pushing privacy in the battlefield and in a change of tact, Google has announced that it would be phasing out third-party cookie support in its Chrome browser by 2022.

Google has a bad reputation for privacy despite making gains in the area in recent years, but is this sudden change of heart all it seems to be? It’s unlikely, let me explain.

What Is A Third-Party Cookie?

Simply, a third-party cookie is a small piece of code added to your web browser, often by advertisers or an ad network.

You visit a website, they add their cookie, and then they track you as you navigate across the internet and serve what they believe are relevant adverts for you. It isn’t the only way that advertisers track your behaviour, but it certainly is the most common, and most invasive.

How Will It Impact User Privacy?

Google has very much angled this as “fundamentally enhanced privacy” for millions of users.

Often, News websites are the worst offenders of third party tracking cookies. Loading Mail Online with an adblocker enabled blocked 53 different cookies from placing themselves on my browser and a vast majority were third-party advertising cookies.

If you consider that all of these advertising companies now have the ability to track me across the web, it’s a huge invasion of privacy, and people so rarely know what is going on behind the scenes.

It wasn’t so long ago that Google was shouting that third-party cookies were fundamental to the web and it wouldn’t function in the same way without them. It’s only since other browsers including Firefox and Safari started blocking third-party cookies by default, that Google has changed its tune.

In the UK, the browser monopoly is different to that Globally because Apple devices are more popular than they are in other parts of the world. So where Google has around 66% of the global browser market, in the UK it’s actually just under 50%. Safari follows them with around 32%. Still, 50% is considerable, so it’s fair to say that once Google rolls out an update killing third-party cookies, we can expect user privacy to significantly benefit.

What Does This Mean For Marketers?

Advertising as we know it currently especially in the display and remarketing campaigns will change as we know it. I’m of the opinion that the super granular tracking available nowadays has almost killed creativity in online advertising, and honestly we’re better than that.

Big adtech companies who have built empires around cookie reliant audience databases saw crashes on the stock market soon after Google’s announcement, so the industry is running scared about what this means in the long run.

It’s also likely that advertising information might become limited to the device only and not broadcast to third parties without knowledge. If that data is stored with you, and accessible for advertising, but not put into the wild, it would be beneficial for users and advertisers.

We’re seeing some bigger publishers switch up the way advertising is displayed on their websites. Vox Media have launched a product called Forte and this advertising platform is built into their websites as first-party cookies, and advertisers can able to cherry-pick users behaved on tracker behaviour and intent to advertise to. The difference here is, the data is with the publisher and not the advertiser, or a third party network.

It’s very early days, and Google has said it is looking into viable alternatives that are useful for both advertisers for reaching the right audience, and users to protect privacy, and here is where it isn’t what it seems.

Is This Move The Privacy Guarding Feature It Seems?

No. This is a clever move from Google which could allow them to further monopolise advertising across the web.

The difference between Google and other advertisers is that Google already has a tonne of information coming from first-party cookies installed on over 55% of all websites, and if you count apps, it’s even more. Analytics.

Google doesn’t give you the best website analytics tool, a cracking web browser, the best search engine, a continually updated android operating system, for free. You pay with data. Remember the golden rule, 99% of the time, if it’s free, you become the product.

Google could play this two ways: 

  1. Google creates an alternative to the cookie we know now. It keeps user information anonymous but allows advertisers to advertise to an ID of some sort, something that identifies a user but without the huge amount of personal data being given now.
  2. Google could monopolise online advertising, along with huge names like Facebook and Amazon, by using its first-party data as a selling point for using its advertising platforms. These platforms have a wealth of user data, and if Google kills the third-party cookie without a viable alternative, they quickly become the only places where highly targeted advertising becomes available so you can expect budgets to shift over quickly away from other networks.

The other side of this is anti-trust and whether this could be seen as the plan. Google has come under a lot of scrutinies over how it uses data to monopolise search and the web overall, and if it pushes to a place where it can do the same with advertising, it will certainly raise some eyebrows.

My view is that Google already has a plan for what’s next and they’ll keep that guarded for as long as possible. They wouldn’t announce this change without a solid plan on how it can continue being the huge money-making machine that it is.

For now, as marketers, we do what we always do, we get clever, get our strategies realigned, we adapt, we overcome, and we get fantastic results for our clients regardless of change because that is what we got into this industry to do.



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