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That’s the way the cookies crumble: A guide to the cookieless future

Marketers have been awaiting this announcement for some time. In 2024, the cookie is crumbling. That’s according to Google, anyway. Google themselves released the following statement: 

“To facilitate testing, Chrome has restricted third-party cookies for 1% of users from January 4th, 2024. Chrome plans to ramp up third-party cookie restrictions to 100% of users from Q3 2024, subject to addressing any remaining competition concerns of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority.”

That means Chrome will stop using third party cookies.

If you’re a business owner wondering what this means for your digital marketing, take a deep breath and grab some crumbs – we’re here to navigate the future with you with an actually simple-to-understand explanation. 

 

First, what are these “third party cookies” everyone’s talking about?

Imagine you’re walking around Primark and you’re looking at some jumpers. Then, a member of staff walks up to you and says “hey, I know you were looking at black skirts yesterday. This jumper would go great with one of those!” It’s a bit creepy, yeah, but also kind of useful. Right? This is essentially how cookies work. Cookies are small pieces of data stored on a user’s browser by websites they visit. These cookies act like digital breadcrumbs, remembering things like the pages someone viewed, items they added to their cart, or even their location. Third party cookies are primarily used for two things:

  • Tracking: They track your activity across different websites to build a profile of your interests and browsing habits.
  • Advertising: This information is then used to show you targeted ads based on your online behaviour.

 

Different types of cookies

Not all cookies are the same. While third party cookies are the ones being depreciated, there are other types of cookies such as first party cookies, session cookies and persistent cookies. It’s important to understand the difference between these types of cookies. Here’s a handy little table explaining those differences: 

 

Cookie type Description Example
First-party cookies Set by the website you’re currently visiting. Remembering items in your cart on an online store
Third-party cookies Set by a website other than the one you’re visiting. Pixel tracking from Facebook ads on a news website
Session cookies Temporary cookies deleted when you close your browser. Similar to first-party cookies but they expire after your session is all! Keeping track of your login status on a website

 

First party cookies are your friend

In contrast to their third-party counterparts, first-party cookies are little data packets stored on your browser by the same website you’re currently visiting. They won’t be used in a cross-site way.

Here’s a breakdown of what makes a cookie “first-party”:

  • Domain: These cookies are set by the same domain as the website you’re on. In simpler terms, the website’s address and the cookie’s address match.
  • Purpose: First-party cookies are used for a variety of purposes, such as:
    • Keeping you logged in: They remember your login information so you don’t have to enter it every time you visit.
    • Saving your shopping cart: They keep track of the items you’ve added to your cart during your online shopping spree.
    • Personalising your experience: They can tailor the website’s content and features to your preferences, like remembering your preferred language or location.
    • Website analytics: They help website owners understand how users interact with their site, which helps them improve the user experience.

Overall, first-party cookies are generally considered less invasive than third-party cookies because they are only used by the website you’re visiting and don’t track you across different websites. However, it’s still important to be aware of how websites use cookies and manage your cookie settings accordingly.

 

Why are third party cookies going away?

Concerns about user privacy have grown in recent years, with third-party cookies being flagged as a major culprit. Many users feel uncomfortable with their online activity being tracked and used for targeted advertising. As a result, many browsers are phasing out third-party cookies or limiting their functionality.

Privacy concerns and awareness in users has led Google Chrome to aim to gradually phase out third-party cookies by the end of 2024. Although Google has been making such a fuss about this move, browsers like Firefox has already been blocking cross-site tracking cookies as a default for years. 

 

The impact on existing tools

  • Meta pixel: This is a third-party cookie and will be impacted by the deprecation. Consider alternative solutions like first-party data collection and contextual targeting.
  • TikTok pixel: Similar to Meta Pixel, TikTok Pixel is a third-party cookie and will require exploring alternative tracking methods.
  • Google conversion tracking: This tool primarily relies on first-party cookies and should be less affected by the changes. However, consider diversifying your data sources for a more complete picture. We recommend importing events/conversions from GA4 for now.

 

Will my Facebook Pixel still work the same after third party cookies are depreciated by Google Chrome?

No, your Facebook Pixel will not function as effectively as it currently does when third-party cookies are removed from Google Chrome. This change is scheduled for the later half of 2024, though Chrome has already begun a limited rollout for testing purposes.

The Pixel relies on third-party cookies. It tracks visitors across different websites to build a profile of their interests and browsing habits. This information is then used to target them with Facebook ads.

Meta (Facebook/Instagram) is aware of the change, however. They have been developing alternative solutions and encouraging marketers to adopt first-party data strategies and privacy-focused technologies. One such thing that users can put in place on Meta is Conversions API. Conversions API offers a solution by directly transmitting conversion data from your website to Facebook servers, bypassing the need for third-party cookies altogether. Think of it like establishing a dedicated, secure communication channel between your website and Facebook.

How it works:

  1. Direct data connection: When a conversion occurs on your website (e.g. a purchase), your website server sends real-time data directly to Facebook’s servers using a secure API (Application Programming Interface).
  2. Privacy-focused transfer: Only relevant conversion information is sent, not identifiable user data. This protects user privacy while providing valuable insights for advertisers.
  3. Accurate and reliable tracking: Conversions API avoids browser cookie limitations, leading to more accurate and reliable tracking of ad performance even in a cookieless environment!

 

GA4 & cookie usage

While third-party cookies are being phased out, GA4 uses a combination of first-party cookies and other methods to track user behaviour. It primarily relies on the following:

  • Client-side JavaScript: Code directly embedded in your website collects data like page views, user actions, and device characteristics.
  • Google tag: This code creates first-party cookies to uniquely identify users and associate them with sessions.
  • Server-side data collection: Google analyses data aggregated on their servers, enhancing privacy by minimising individual user identifiable information.

GA4 is designed to function even with the limitations of third-party cookies. While it still uses some cookies, it prioritises privacy and offers alternative methods for data collection and analysis.

 

So, if cookies are gone, how will I reach my customers?

The end of third-party cookies might sound like the end of the world, but it’s actually an opportunity for innovation and a shift towards more ethical and privacy-focused marketing practices. Here are some key trends to watch:

  • First-party data: Instead of relying on third-party cookies, businesses will need to prioritise collecting and analysing their own first-party data. This includes information directly gathered from website visitors, such as email addresses, purchase history and website interactions. By understanding your own customer base better, you can create personalised experiences and targeted marketing campaigns without compromising privacy.
  • Privacy-preserving ecosystems: New technologies are emerging that allow for personalised advertising without intrusive cross-site tracking. These ecosystems, like Google’s Privacy Sandbox, create controlled environments where websites can share relevant data in a secure and privacy-conscious way. Google claims that the Privacy Sandbox’s “aims to create technologies that both protect people’s privacy online and give companies and developers tools to build thriving digital businesses. The Privacy Sandbox reduces cross-site and cross-app tracking while helping to keep online content and services free for all.”
  • Contextual targeting: Instead of targeting individuals based on their online footprint, advertisers will focus on the context of the content they’re presenting. Imagine ads for hiking boots appearing next to an article about mountain trails, or local restaurant recommendations popping up after reading a travel blog. This may mean a shift towards page or site targeting rather than user targeting when it comes to networks like Google Display Network. 
  • Customer control: The future belongs to brands that prioritise user trust and transparency. Giving customers control over their data and offering opt-in options for personalised experiences will be crucial in building loyalty and engagement.

 

What do I do now?

The cookie crumble doesn’t have to be your business’s downfall when it comes to digital marketing. Here are some actionable steps to take:

  • Audit your cookie usage: Understand which cookies you rely on and what purpose they serve. Can any be replaced with first-party data or alternative solutions?
  • Explore new tools: Familiarise yourself with privacy-preserving platforms and APIs that offer alternative targeting and measurement solutions.
  • Invest in first-party data: Build robust strategies for collecting and analysing your own website data to gain valuable customer insights.
  • Focus on content and value: Create high-quality content and compelling experiences that resonate with your target audience, building trust and organic engagement.
  • Stay informed: Keep up with the latest developments in the digital marketing landscape and adapt your strategies as needed.

The end of third-party cookies is not the end of digital marketing, but rather a necessary evolution towards a more respectful and sustainable future. By embracing these changes and proactively embracing new privacy-focused technologies, you can ensure your business continues to thrive in the cookieless era. By adapting your strategies and embracing new technologies, you can ensure your business continues to thrive in the ever-evolving digital landscape. 

And, that’s it! In the words of Bruce Almighty:

 

thats the way the cookie crumbles

 

 

Additional Resources:

Meghan Semple

Meghan Semple

I'm Digital 24's Performance Marketing Director. My bread and butter's in advertising on channels like Facebook and Google as well as others like TikTok, Pinterest and LinkedIn... However, I'm quite a data-driven person and love chatting all-things tracking, analytics and even some SEO!