What Chrome Without Third-Party Cookies Means for Publishers

by

Rachel Rockwell

February 24, 2020

If you’ve ever been followed around the internet by an ad for a product you looked at once, Google wants to help make your web experience a little less unsettling. It hopes to eliminate all support for third-party cookies in its Chrome browser by 2022, citing the ultimate goal of a more private and secure web for users.

Ok Google, but what about the publishers, for whom programmatic advertising has been so lucrative? Well, no need to worry just yet.

The company plans to maintain support for publishers and even recently announced its Privacy Sandbox, an alternative to third-party cookies. This initiative is still in its very early stages, so there’s not much to run with yet, but let’s dive into what we can expect from the information Google has shared.

What are cookies, and how do they work?

Unfortunately, I’m not talking about the chocolate chip or Girl Scout kinds. I’m referring to the tech sort, which are little bits of data that web browsers store to your computer. There are only two varieties of this cookie: first and third party.

First-party cookies are created directly by a website while you’re there and are only accessible by that website. They’re important for enhancing the user experience. When Amazon remembers your account log-in information and the products you browsed for last time, this is because of first party cookies.

Here’s a pop-up from our website notifying you that our cookies will be gathering data to improve your user experience.

Third-party cookies are created by outside groups while you’re on a specific website. They capture things like your browsing behavior, the type of device used to browse and your location, and then serve you some eerily specific display ads once you move to another website. This is called re-targeting, and it’s pretty popular in the digital advertising world.

HowStuffWorks.com presented me with this ad for Tata Harper products merely moments after I perused the Tata Harper website.

While the gradual shift to digital was expected to negatively impact the publishing industry’s cushy print ad revenue, it actually led to an avenue for selling digital ad space, which brands and advertisers pay to occupy via a third-party cookie.

What is Google proposing as an alternative?

The Privacy Sandbox. Blocking third-party cookies has major implications for advertisers, as it will impact conversion measurement and targeting. Google knows this, and it’s why the company came up with the idea for a Privacy Sandbox, which is a set of standards that aim to sustain an ad-supported web in a “healthy” way. Google’s word, not mine.

As I said earlier, there are no concrete details about the sandbox yet, but the company has outlined how it attempts to combat the loss of conversion tracking and targeting capabilities through internal application programming interfaces (APIs).

Per Digiday, Google will implement a series of APIs to:

  • Capture Chrome users’ data and confirm they’re human
  • Restrict the amount of user data publishers and advertisers can obtain from the API
  • Share with advertisers whether a user saw an ad, clicked the ad, made a purchase or simply landed on the product page
  • Track user browsing habits and any interests groups/segments a user may belong to (for targeting purposes)

Ultimately, Chrome browsers will become the third-party cookies advertisers must glean their vital analytics from. Seems fair enough, until you remember Google is a huge advertiser, too.

Now, we’ve got ethical questions to consider, like will Google have the same level of access to user data as other advertisers? Or will it allow itself to dig in deeper than everyone else? Unfortunately, the answer to this remains to be seen.

What can publishers expect?

The publishing relationship with third-party cookies is different than that of advertisers. Advertisers use cookies to create targeted content and drive sales. Publishers rely on third-party cookies to generate revenue by filling their digital ad space with those advertisers' content. Will the Privacy Sandbox be as seemingly beneficial for publishers?

Google says yes, but it’s safe for publishers to consider a back-up plan. Luckily, that back-up plan already exists in the form of first-party cookies. For now, Google doesn’t have plans to do away with these in Chrome.

If you currently require an email address or username to access your content, you’re off to a great start. If not, it’s time to begin requiring this. Email addresses or usernames handle the user identification and tracking for you, making ad targeting that much easier. The downside to this, Paul Bannister of Cafe Media argues, is that traffic from non-logged-in users who cannot be tracked becomes useless, and thus, the value of ad space inventory will decrease.

In addition to implementing user-tracking measures, you’ll also need to reevaluate the data your cookies collect and up the ante.

Consider adding something like contextual signals to your cookies, as these can be gold for advertisers. If I search for and read an article from The Strategist listing the best winter boots, first-party cookies on The Strategist’s site can gather that I’m interested in shoes, particularly boots, and either live in or plan to visit a cold climate. With this context in mind, it can then present me with ads from boot brands and other relevant products.

By gathering specific data points, you'll be able to provide users with ads that directly align with their interests, increasing the likelihood of conversions. Advertisers will flock to you.

Wrapping up

Don’t fear for the future. Google plans to implement its Privacy Sandbox and do away with third-party cookies over a two-year period, and that’s only once it’s found a solution that fairly suits advertisers and publishers. With the ongoing exploitation of our data privacy, changes ensuring greater levels of security were bound to happen. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, but one thing that won’t change is the publishing industry’s ability to adapt.