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Media Adtech Data & Privacy

Marketers & publishers brace for impact as 1% of third-party Chrome cookies vanish

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By Kendra Barnett | Senior Reporter

January 4, 2024 | 8 min read

Third-party cookies on Chrome are finally – finally! – being deprecated. In response, advertising industry players are testing privacy-safe alternatives – but they remain skeptical that the ecosystem can adapt at speed.

Cookies crumbling into flames against Google Chrome search background

Third-party cookies are finally crumbling on Chrome / Kendra Barnett

Google’s cookie cull is finally upon us.

Today, the tech giant will eliminate third-party cookies – the bit of technology that enables user-level cross-web tracking – for 1% of all Chrome users, or about 30 million people. The company plans to deprecate all third-party cookies on its browser by the end of the year.

As part of the effort, Google today is starting to test its Tracking Protection framework, which is designed to impede cross-site user tracking by automatically restricting website access to third-party cookies.

The program is part of Google’s larger Privacy Sandbox, an initiative dedicated to developing technology that balances user safety and privacy with the business demands of publishers and advertisers on the open web.

Among Privacy Sandbox’s programs are a variety of new APIs, including the Topics API, an alternative to third-party cookies that assigns a small number of specific interests or topics, such as ‘Fitness’ or ‘Travel & Transportation,’ to individual users, allowing advertisers to target messages based on these categories rather than more granular behavioral data. Topics offers greater privacy protection compared with its forerunner, Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), by restricting fingerprinting. With Topics, users can only be categorized into a limited number of categories, inhibiting the ability to single out individual users associated with a specific topic.

While marketers and advertisers – who have for years relied on third-party cookies to glean valuable insights into their audiences and target their messages accordingly – were previously at a loss for how to handle the disruption, new data suggests most are now ready for the change: more than 88% of US marketers feel prepared for this first wave of deprecation beginning today, according to research published today by ad network PrimeAudience.

The research also found that 56% of US marketers are testing alternative solutions to prepare for the cookieless future. Such approaches may involve a range of strategies, including an enhanced first-party data strategy, contextual targeting and privacy-preserving universal ID solutions such as those being developed by The Trade Desk, Liveramp and others.

Testament to this testing in action, Adlook, a cookieless demand-side provider, sees Google’s first phase of cookie deprecation as an invitation to “assess the viability of a cookieless environment,” according to Mateusz Jedrocha, vice-president of branding solutions at the company. “This phase allows us to perform essential tests and begin redefining our benchmarks and delivery metrics for branding campaigns in a world without third-party cookies,” he says. Adlook is working closely with clients, using custom-built transitionary frameworks to help wean them off third-party cookies.

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Meanwhile, execs at global media agency Havas Media Network are focused on empowering clients to implement robust first-party data strategies. “Though the third-party cookie’s days are numbered, marketers can not only adapt but thrive in this new environment by implementing a holistic data strategy,” says Jamie Seltzer, global executive vice-president of media experience analytics and Havas’s customer data arm CSA.

Another key tactic, in Seltzer’s view, will be the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning tools, which could help marketers develop predictive models about audience behavior and measure campaign success more precisely.

In any case, Seltzer advises that marketers prepare for the coming months. “While 1% of Chrome’s user base is not an insignificant number, it [won’t reveal] the true impact of the third-party cookie’s demise. It is increasingly important for brands to find other ways to test in cookieless environments to prepare not only their targetingstrategies and activation but also their measurement approaches.”

While Google’s decision to remove third-party cookies for 1% of Chrome users is sure to make a wave in the digital ad ecosystem, some industry players are skeptical that the impact will be significant enough to inspire meaningful change at this stage.

For example, Alexandra Theriault, chief growth officer at data solutions firm Lotame, points out that while universal ID solutions – user-level identifiers that rely on contextual information, predictive models, and other technology to preserve user privacy – offer a potential alternative to third-party cookies adoption by marketers remains relatively low. “Despite the fact that universal IDs have been adopted by tens of thousands of publishers globally ... the demand from agencies and brands to leverage these alternative solutions is meager,” she says.

Even Safari’s and Firefox’s wholesale rejection of third-party cookies has yet to catalyze broader adoption of universal IDs among marketers. “Google adding 1% of its piece of the pie isn’t going to drive the intended reaction necessary to prepare the industry for the end of the year,” says Theriault.

The lack of urgency felt across the ad ecosystem could hint at slowdowns in the full deprecation of third-party cookies on the web. “My bet is that Google will back off from the full depreciation of cookies,” says Jeremy Haft, chief revenue officer at Digital Remedy, a performance marketing agency.

Google has already pushed back its cookie eradication multiple times. The company originally aimed to sunset all third-party cookies from Chrome in early 2022 – a plan that’s been postponed twice.

In its previous decisions to delay, Google cited the need for more time to test and assess cookie alternatives within the advertising-publishing ecosystem.

Haft predicts that if Google’s new Tracking Protection tests prove successful, however, the ad ecosystem could be forever changed. “For starters, advertisers will have limited ability to target their most sought-after audiences as their options to identify and segment those audiences will become limited. Measurement and attribution models will break due to data being more difficult to action by channel, partner and media type.”

Other experts express similarly skeptical views. Lotame’s Theriault believes that Google’s Privacy Sandbox solutions represent “watered-down targeting capabilities that are a far cry from the precision agencies and brands are accustomed to.”

She predicts that the end of cookies spells a disappointing change for all stakeholders. “The result will be worse performing campaigns, a hit to most publishers’ yield and less relevant ads for consumers.”

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