That's the way the cookie crumbles

Data Management
Paid Search & PPC

Google is stripping out its use of third-party cookies to appease the growing concerns of the wider public. This much we’ve known for some time. But now that the time has come. It’s actually happening but no one really knows what happens next.

What comes after? Will there be life after third-party cookies? 


Setting the scene 

In recent years, the wider public has become increasingly concerned about the way their personal data is captured and used online. So this move is societally driven.

But, because Google Chrome holds the lion’s share of search and ad revenue and because other browsers have been blocking third-party cookies for a while, it’s created a rather complicated set of factors.

For decades digital marketers and advertisers have been reliant on third-party cookies to create engagement and conversions and effectively prove their worth. They have built a business model, and a very successful and financially lucrative one at that, around the language of third-party cookies.

Google has also reaped these rewards, for a very long time. 

They’ve created a mutually benefical ecosystem and a lot of people have become wealthy and renowned off the back of this… Google especially.

But now it’s all changing. 

Some have called Google out for the length of time it has taken to get this far. Which is understandable. 

But it’s also understandable that Google are taking their time. 

This is a massive leap for everyone involved.


What’s actually going to change

Will things be as chaotic as our imaginations can predict? Are they ever? 

We have a marvellous ability to catastrophise almost any situation. Missed the tube, I’m going to get fired! Left the hob on left the hob on for 5 minutes, the kitchen might catch fire 

No more third-party cookies… get out the bottled water and the tinned food because the world is ending! 

In truth, it’s probably not going to be nearly as bad as our imaginations would have us believe. What isn’t helping is the lack of clear information about what the alternatives will be.

A misstep from Google could have massive ramifications for Google. But in reality, the biggest hits would be felt by end users. 

Many businesses and brands have built their platforms and fortunes on Google’s third-party cookies and data.  They are going to have to adapt to new ways of targeting their core audiences for themselves and their clients.


What are the alternatives to the third-party cookie?

There is uncertainty around Google’s proposed proprietary alternatives – the Privacy Sandbox API’s – is fuelling a lot of the discource here. 

Testing on these products has been delayed for a long time, which hasn’t helped matters. 

Google needs to get its proprietary alternatives to third-party cookies right. 

But right now, there is no clear guidance from them about how they’ll actually work or how they’ll fit into UK GDRP – which is also set for a change this year. 

This is leading to a lot of alternative methods and tactics being mooted. 

Device fingerprinting, OS level tracking and even hardware tracking are being discussed as alternatives to replace third-party cookie tracking.

But are these any better than what we already have?

There are concerns about these tactics as outright replacements. Because of risks that they could become ethically opaque and open to misuse. Which is one of the key drivers behind the move away from third party cookies. 

Should this happen, we may find ourselves in a situation where one morally ambiguous solution to data tracking and audience segmentation is being replaced by another.


A shift in mindset & approach

The general tone of the conversation is that we need to shift to more of a focus on ethical first-party data. Practically, this could be site data taken directly from website users on owned sites and apps. 

Another alternative being discussed is contextual targeting; which analyses the content of any given page visited, without divulging private user data.

But this alternative presents its own set of unique issues. 

The big problem with contextual targeting is that sites would require more text and content to extract any meaningful data or signals. It just can’t offer the same level of granularity, particularly around intent.

The other issue is that models built on contextual targeting would need to be reliant on sophisticated natural language processing algorithms.  We then enter the equally murky waters of unified AI legislation.


The shift in search: will this shift alter SEO?

There has been a lot of noise online that the removal of third-party cookies will have a negative impact on organic search. 

Some are saying it’ll hit organic search hard, and some aren’t. But Google has stated that it does not use Cookie data for rankings.

While there are some cases, where third-party cookie data could be used as a signal for engagement or site popularity, these are indirect ranking factors.

SEO fundamentals ought to remain intact, from an organic perspective. What is likely to change here, is that paid search becomes much harder.

There’s a risk that paid search could become much more muddied. Which presents a big opportunity for brands and businesses to put a focus on strong-owned content to raise their standings within organic search.


In summary

If your business has been built around third-party data, things are going to change for you. 

But, until Google fully confirms how its alternatives will work, we’ll remain in limbo. Because this isn’t a change of tech, for tech’s sake.

This is a change, a long time in the making, it has been fuelled by growing public distaste towards the darker arts of third-party data.

So whatever comes next, ethically speaking, has to be better. 

Arguably, the most likely thing to happen is that everyone has to learn to adapt to a new way of life when it comes to targeted advertising and marketing.

Perhaps we lose the capability to hyper-target online users. The nuance of third-party cookies peels back and the nets of marketing and advertising will need to widen.

Things will broaden out and become more competitive. More focus will go into organic results and positions. The battle for eyeballs and engagement will be fought over a brand’s ability to entice and engage audiences in these early stages.

The top of the funnel will get a whole lot noisier.