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Are we heading towards a cookieless world?

by Krishanthe Keerthikumar

August 2, 2019

Ah, cookies. With all the big browsers cracking down on cookie tracking, cookies have become the talk of the industry in recent months. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, in April Apple's Safari recently released its 5th ITP iteration with 2.2 followed by Google’s announcement in May that Chrome would also be making some significant changes. Let’s break the updates down...

Intelligent Tracking Prevention

Intelligent Tracking Prevention, or ITP, was first added to Safari in June 2017 to protect users’ online privacy through the curtailing of the company’s tracking capabilities and the use of cookies. Since 2017, we have seen the release of four successive iterations. To highlight the most significant changes that have been implemented in 2.x iterations, we have to focus, in particular, on a workaround that has been adopted to continue tracking and measuring activity through the use of 1st party cookies functioning as third-party cookies. Following the implementation of ITP 2.2, these workarounds, cross-site tracking and link decoration have been limited significantly by the introduction of a 24-hour cookie expiration period applied to any cookies that violate the above terms. This also means that fingerprinting, which uses innocuous user signals such as Chrome extensions to infer a users’ identification, will soon be a redundant method of identification.


Google announced its highly-anticipated privacy measure revamp at its flagship Developer I/O conference in May. Though we will have to wait for the finer details at launch, we can still infer a number of implications from this planned update. Firstly, Chrome users will be able to block or clear third-party cookies in a far more transparent and intuitive way, giving them more control over how they are being tracked. In addition, new insights into how advertisers leverage specific data signals and data points to personalise advertising will become readily available to users, likely in the form of a browser extension. Chrome also plan on preventing cross-site cookies from working across domains without obtaining explicit consent from the user.

The implications of this impact are clearly denoted by Chromes dominant browser market share, who are boasting just shy of two thirds globally.

Roles and responsibility

A lot of uncertainty continues to exist around active viable solutions in a post-cookie world. One thing that must be addressed and appraised beforehand is the question around who the responsibility lies with to step up and offer alternative measurement and attribution solutions for the world’s biggest brands. It may be that it sits with third-party ad-tech providers to invest in research and innovation for third-party tracking tools; or with exchanges to work together to consolidate an addressable means of user identification across publishers; or, perhaps, with agencies to work on internal modelling and attribution solutions to ensure their clients maintain end-to-end analytics. Alternatively, it may be the case that browsers have to work alongside advertisers, agencies, exchanges and trading desks to introduce a viable alternative to cookies that both protects the privacy of their users whilst ensuring the advanced measurement accuracy that the top agencies and brands strive for. Only time will tell.

What is the potential impact on advertisers?

From an optimist’s perspective, this revamp can be seen as a revelation or even a revolution for the open internet outside of the walled gardens. Many see it as not only inevitable, but also necessary, for the paid media industry to develop. From a more micro-perspective however, there will certainly be some significant immediate consequences.

1. Third-party audience segments will reduce in size

With users potentially deleting third-party cookies more frequently, third-party audience sizes will likely decrease considerably. Campaigns which are currently heavily reliant on third-party data may find their ability to scale limited.

The silver lining, however, is that those users who do sit in these (now smaller) third-party audiences are likely to be much more valuable - If users begin to delete cookies at a higher frequency, then audiences will be predominantly populated with users who have very recently demonstrated clear signs of intent.

2. A diversification of prospecting strategies

With the use of data becoming more challenging, digital marketers will need to consider a wider variety of targeting strategies. Strategies including contextual targeting (based on the context of the content a user is browsing) and category/domain targeting (based on either the category a site falls into, or a specific whitelist of chosen sites) targeting will be increasingly meaningful.

3. Remarketing is likely to also feel the impact

A decrease in the number of new users driven to site through third-party audience targeting may mean that remarketing pools lose some of the benefits of this prospecting strategy, with fewer new users now dropping into the top of the sales funnel. Diversifying the targeting mix, to ensure prospecting spend remains stable, will go a long way towards preventing this from having a significant impact.

We may also experience a negative impact on remarketing pool sizes themselves, depending on the clarity of information provided to users. It’s possible that an increase in user awareness around cookies, that comes from the launch of these changes, may cause users who wouldn’t normally delete cookies to delete all cookies (including first-party) due to a lack of understanding around the uses of each cookie-type.

4. A renewed trust in the advertising industry?

As with any big topic we choose to try and demystify in this industry, there are those who view the news through rose-tinted glasses. Some hope that this change may go some way to restoring the people's trust in the ad industry, following a 2018 Ipsos poll on trust in professions in Britain, which found ad executives to be the least trusted - ranking them lower than politicians and government ministers.

What happens in a cookieless world?

Digital marketers are waiting patiently on an official response from Google, so whilst we wait, let’s take a look at the list of predictions Croud has pulled together for what a cookieless world would mean for marketers.

1. Contextual targeting

Targeting based on keywords, and the content a user is consuming online, removes the need for cookie-based targeting. Croud utilise features through DV360’s own keyword targeting, and Oracle’s tool, Grapeshot, to build custom keyword lists to reach users engaged with site content relevant to their advertisers.

The result of reaching users via contextual targeting, who in that moment are showing interest and intent with material related to your brand, is engaged traffic to your site for use in remarketing tactics, without the need for cookies.

2. Lessons from cookieless worlds

Apps are cookieless environments; they don’t communicate with other apps and so tracking and targeting take a different route. For apps, we rely on device IDs that can uniquely identify users. This overcomes the need to drop pixels on a user, and tracking and remarketing become much more effective.

3. The rise of the login

The concept of Addressable People-Based marketing is an extremely interesting, and potentially viable, solution. The idea is to replicate walled gardens within publishers by matching deterministic login details (by hashing emails) to allow for fully addressable targeting. This results in near-perfect targeting precision, cross-device frequency capping, minimal wastage, and full attribution credit. Where the issues arise, of course, are regarding cross-site tracking and scalability. Both exchanges and publishers will need to work together with agencies and trading desks to make this work by creating a means of matching these IDs across multiple sites.

4. A Universal solution is found

There’s no cure for the cookieless world (yet) but no doubt there’s headway being made on the medicine. Could the opportunity lie in a Universal ID (that is not cookie-based)? A ‘Consumer Taxonomy’ that defines audience profiles? Our guess is that it’s not long before a solution appears.

5. How bad will it really be?

Two months following fresh GDPR implementations, it was recorded that 90% of users were consenting to website requests. We don’t know how obvious Chrome’s cookie consent setting will be, but our guess is that the impact will be far less severe than the initial panic has suggested. Giving users a choice to opt-in, or out, is vital in the digital world for both privacy and performance and this could offer the opportunity for advertisers and agencies alike to further develop strategies for their most relevant audiences.


cookie-less targeting