Cookies, Cookie Deprecation and Consumer Privacy Regulation Explained

For marketers, knowing which advertising and marketing campaigns are performing best is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Thankfully, technological advances over the past couple of decades – the internet, Google, Amazon, a myriad of digital tools – have helped digital and traditional marketers improve tracking performance of their campaigns. 

But technology continues to rapidly evolve, and changes to the traditional and digital marketing landscapes occur daily. Being aware of recent and pending changes gives marketers a leg up so they can future proof their marketing and be prepared for, and even ahead of, what’s coming.

Cookie Deprecation Defined

“The cookies are going away! The cookies are going away!” Before panic sets in, let’s define what a cookie is: It is a tiny piece of code that tracks a consumer’s browser behavior. Every single website, with very few exceptions, uses a cookie in some shape or form. While some believe it’s creepy to track users, cookies can be very helpful so users are served up a better experience next time they visit a site.

When a consumer returns to a website, say Amazon or Eddie Bauer, where they previously purchased a product, the cookie stores that login info and recognizes the consumer’s preferences so they are given options that meet their wants and needs. A female consumer does not want to be served up men’s sporting goods ads when she is returning to buy more throw pillows. 

Google and Facebook dominate the cookie landscape, as they are the two largest networks bringing in the most ad dollars from advertisers wanting to reach consumers. The cookies are the key, as they contain the data on users. Again, while the “tracking” part of this all sounds a bit creepy, the other side of the double-edge sword is creating an experience that is helpful to users, not intrusive.

Amazon is now the third largest digital ad network. TikTok is creeping up and don’t forget Microsoft. All of these companies are using cookies to track consumer behavior, learn about their interests and ultimately help advertisers target users with more relevant messages.

First-party vs. Third-party Cookies

A first-party cookie is a cookie that comes from the web server that a user is visiting. If a user were to go to Amazon and sign in to, the cookie that is coming directly from Amazon’s web servers is a first-party cookie. A third-party cookie is coming from a different web server. 

Google Analytics (GA), for instance, is in fact a third-party tracking tool. When a user reads a blog or browses an e-commerce store, an analytics script is triggered for that site. The marketer is using a third party (like GA) to collect data on their website visitors. That is a third-party cookie.

When “cookie deprecation” is talked about – and it is often, with Google’s continual delay of the death of the cookie and web browsers such as DuckDuckGo offering up its anti-tracking solution – it is third-party cookies that are squarely in the sites of regulators.

First-party cookies are a bit more insulated because it’s the first-party cookies that help users log back into their bank account. While some more security-minded users may prefer to have to remember and retype in their password each time, most users prefer to have the website remember who they are, complete with auto-filling their username and password.

Most consumers prefer Amazon remembering their order history so they can buy more of their favorite lotion or razor refills versus having to go find those products again and hoping they are ordering the right stuff.

Ad Blockers and Incognito Mode

Ad blockers and incognito browser windows are basically a method for the consumer to hide their information, not be tracked by third-party cookies and not reveal who they are when they visit other websites.

Ad blockers are going to prevent ads from being shown or prevent a user’s data from being collected as they browse the internet. Incognito mode simply just hides the user’s identity across the board – everywhere that they visit. For example, if a user has a normal browser tab and they are logged into Amazon, and then they open an incognito window and went to, they will notice that they are no longer logged in. Amazon has no idea who the user is. 

There are vendors out there who earn their living helping consumers protect their identity, namely NordVPN and Mozilla Firefox. These tools and the incognito window are great options for consumers who don’t want to share their identities or the websites they are visiting with advertisers. 

Apple Operating System Updates – In the Name of Privacy 

Apple is, well, upsetting the apple cart, so to speak. Apple continues to make updates to its operating system in an effort to bring the privacy power to the people.

Email is target one. Marketers used to be able to track when someone opened an email with their iPhone, including seeing what they clicked on and viewed once they opened it. Now, Apple has enabled the ability for “hiding email opens.” There has long been an assumption that every email gets opened. That’s incorrect. But seeing in fact which emails are opened used to be a valuable tool for marketers and advertisers.

In addition to hiding emails, Apple has made it easier for users to “opt out” of being tracked each time they install a new app on their iPhone. Research shows most people indeed opt out, which means they are breaking that information chain that advertisers previously relied upon. 

Facebook took a huge hit with this move by Apple. When users would leave their Facebook page to visit other websites or jump on other applications, Facebook could track that journey and feed that data into their models so consumers could be better targeted. This is where the “creepy” part of tracking comes in.

Apple already uses face ID and fingerprinting for helping users securely access their phones and apps. Facebook and Snapchat can no longer rely on “cross-domain tracking” to learn more about their users. Online advertising on these platforms has suffered to the tune of billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Apple is in the driver’s seat, as it controls one of the most dominant app ecosystems and popular browsers (Safari). Facebook leadership (CEO Mark Zuckerberg) is not happy with Apple leadership (CEO Tim Cook) and vice versa, and their spat has spilled into mainstream media.

Google’s Never-ending Delay of the Cookie’s Death

As mentioned earlier and jumped on by media and marketing industry professionals each time Google makes an announcement, the company continues to push back the death of the cookie.

Questions to ponder: Why the delay? Why would Google kill cookies in their Chrome browser? Why would Google hurt themselves and their own ability to track users, especially when the advertisers that are paying for Google ads, Google display, YouTube ads and more are getting better data today than they would be getting in the future if cookies were gone?

Google is between a rock and a hard place. They want to do right by consumers, the folks using their browser, but that ad revenue is really hard to resist. Either way, the writing is on the wall and cookie deprecation is coming.

But don’t feel bad for Google. Third-party cookies may be going away, but Google’s suite of first-party tools that provide them with even better consumer data are alive and well. The combination of everything that Google does is really what powers their ability to track and learn everything there is to know about users, and then use that data to help their advertisers reach those consumers with the most relevant messages. This is something that Facebook, Microsoft and TikTok simply do not have.

Just What Does Google Have?

Google, put simply, has an incredible unmatched ecosystem that is powering a lot of the internet, including:

  • Google Search.
  • Google Analytics. It is the number one third-party tracking tool used today. Any marketer that has a blog or a website, they are going to put Google Analytics on that site and give Google authorization to track and learn about their visitors.
  • Chrome. This is the world’s most popular browser and has been for years.
  • Gmail. This is the world’s most popular email provider for both businesses, enterprise and consumers.
  • YouTube. It is the second-most popular search engine in the world.
  • Google Play. Second only to the Google homepage, Google has the Google Play store, as well as the Android operating system, as well as Google Firebase, which is essentially Google analytics for mobile apps. So even third-party app developers or those that use iOS can still install Firebase to extract and pull out the data and Google, which provides that product, is privy to that data as well.
  • Google Cloud. This product is a top three cloud hosting provider. So even those that don’t use its mobile apps, web apps or software; anyone hosting in the cloud on a Google Cloud server, is in one way, shape or form able to track the performance and data that is coming out of that hosting account.
  • Google Nest. Yep, Google can use these home security and comfort tools to listen to voices, see doorbell camera video and use that data to learn as much as possible about users.

In a nutshell, Google is not bothered by Apple’s moves and is in a great spot to continue to collect data and serve highly relevant ads to everybody in its ecosystem. Will the regulators get to Google some day – they keep trying – who knows.

New Technologies and Digital Players

There are a host of new technologies and information providers who are already helping advertisers reach end users. ZoomInfo, basically the digital yellow pages for businesses, helps business-to-business advertisers, targeting customers with accurate corporate information (and not based on cookies).

LinkedIn is a great way to reach a particular job role or person(s) at a company. Twitter, although without the reach of Facebook, is still very good at reaching people based on their interests and what and who they engage with online. 

LiveRamp is a data goldmine and helps advertisers and marketers match and validate that data to their own customer data. If a marketer has a phone number of a potential customer, but not an email, LiveRamp may have that needed info and can link it together, anonymously. Marketers salivate over this. LiveRamp is happy to provide the needed data for a fee.

AppsFlyer exists only to install their technology into mobile apps so it can track user behavior and provide that data to advertisers and tech partners who need it. The Trade Desk uses cookies and other tech to serve up digital ads and remarketing of ads programmatically 

The Regulators are Trying to Help

Governments around the world are taking consumer privacy very seriously and are attempting to better regulate the internet, especially when it comes to advertising. Europe has GDPR, and several states in the U.S. have enacted legislation similar to California’s CCPA. The goal is protection of consumer identity. It’s an uphill battle.

Comcast, Sony, Disney, Paramount, and Fox want nothing more than to reach consumers with advertising, as that is what advertisers want. It’s big business. Yes, even though these are traditional (non-digital) media providers, they too can track consumers. An advertiser can see what consumers are watching and when because they know the viewer was exposed to their ad.

Other ways consumers can be tracked is by following the IP addresses from which they are accessing the internet. This digital journey can be super valuable.

The bottom line here is that it is becoming, and will become, more important for marketers to rely on first-party data. Adjust KPIs for the new landscape. When the marketing industry changes, there’s going to have an increasing reliance on first party data and marketers creating their own ecosystems.

Marketers who do not track their customers and instead rely on a third-party information sources like Google Analytics to tell them exactly what’s happening on their website and who converted and who logged in, they are going to be losing out on some of the best information possible. Marketers want and need that first-party data coming from their own first-party ecosystem.

If you prefer an audio presentation on this topic, please check out this episode of the Attribution Marketing Podcast.

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