Google’s Third-Party Cookie Policy is Changing

The time has finally come for Google to give in to its users – over the next few months, we’re going to start seeing an increase in the amount of control we have over the kinds of cookies that can follow us around the web. This announcement from the giant internet overlord has sent out waves of shock across the industry, but it’s not unwelcome. Essentially, their goal is to provide the users with greater control over which kinds of cookies can implant themselves into our browsers.

While this change is beneficial from a consumer point of view, a dagger hides in the shadows for advertisers: now that users can decide whether they want their information to be used for advertising purposes, what is going to happen to dynamic advertisement?

Let’s break down Google’s announcement, including the benefits and possible ramifications for the digital marketing industry.

What is a third-party cookie?

Let’s start by defining the distinction between a third-party cookie and a first-party cookie. A first-party cookie comes directly from the website that you are currently looking at, and it implants itself in your browser in order to do helpful things like remembering your login details. You are able to give it permission by checking the “Remember Me” box when you log in, which makes it a very transparent process.

On the other hand, third-party cookies are implanted in your browser and follow you around the Internet, no matter which website you visit. The purpose of these is not malicious – they gather data in order to personalise advertisements to your interests. However, there’s been a distinct lack of transparency regarding which websites use the cookies and a deficiency in the amount of control provided to the user.

Advertising information available to the masses

Up until now, there has been some kind of wall between the typical user and the companies that advertise to them. Advertisements pop up left and right, and beyond the company showing them to us, we are left in the dark as to which other companies are involved in the display of the ad or which websites use third-party cookies. All this is about to change.

Google’s first step in the war on cookie anonymity is to release a browser extension that does several things:

  • Breaks down the wall. By using the extension, users are able to get a grasp on all of the companies involved in displaying an ad to them, including intermediary and ad technology companies that handle the creative.
  • “Why Am I Seeing This Ad”. This button has been present on all of Google’s ads for a while now, and it will remain as part of the Chrome extension so that users can glean which characteristics and factors contributed to them seeing the ad.
  • Gives advertisers initiative. Advertising companies can also utilise the API capabilities being released with the extension to display this information pre-emptively, opening up that dialogue between themselves and the customer.

Changing Cookie Controls

The extension is only Google’s first step towards better cookie controls. It’s meant to supplement the user experience by providing previously unavailable information. To supplement this, Google is also providing the user explicit control to their cookies, allowing informed users to make the decision of whether they want advertisements personalised to them based on gathered data.

Why is this important? Well, until recently, the only way a user could clear their browser of implanted cookies was to get rid of all of them. This is what Google has termed a “blunt approach”, and it’s not entirely practical as it also terminates other information such as remembered log-in details. A feature that allowed users (and website developers) to switch off third-party cookies while leaving first-party ones enabled didn’t exist. Now, that’s exactly what can be done.

Both the builders and visitors of websites can rescind their permission to allow third-party cookies. Google has also announced plans to eventually limit cross-site tracking cookies to HTTPS connections only, in the interest of adding more protection for users’ privacy.

Protection from fingerprinting

Fingerprinting is a work-around to third-party cookie controls, in which advertisers and other interested parties identify their customers based on the information their browser sends to a website upon connection. This includes things like the user’s operating system (such as Windows or Mac), their timezone, the language they speak, and even small things like their screen resolution. This is all done entirely without the user’s permission.

In the past, when a blunt approach to cookies was used, companies were known to go underground and use methods like browser fingerprinting. They use the points of data to amalgamate into an image of their customer, and subsequently track that unique image across websites – like a cookie, but using subversive methods.

Google recognises that, following their changes to third-party cookie policy, there will be an uptick in user tracking efforts that don’t support transparency or the user’s choice to divulge information.

When a user opts out of third-party tracking, that choice is not an invitation for companies to work around this preference using methods like fingerprinting.”

Prabhakar Raghavan, SVP Google Ads and Commerce

Google has been fairly vague as to the explicit actions they will take to prevent browser fingerprinting being used to track users. However, they have made it clear that they will be implementing restrictions to uproot opaque tracking attempts across the board, citing privacy concerns for their users.

What does this mean for customised advertising?

There’s going to have to be some changes around here. What can you, as an advertiser or company, do to reach users who are interested in your content? Dynamic advertising may be on its way out, but it isn’t the only thing out there.

Contextual advertising is back

If you’re developing a website or creating advertisement content, the best thing you can do is to create quality, relevant content, and that is true now more than ever. Instead of tracking users around the web with third-party cookies and displaying ads based solely on their behaviours, advertisers must now display ad content on websites that contextually match them.

For example, imagine an electrician who skateboards as a hobby. Before these changes, he may have been looking on a skateboard website and seen advertisements for electrical apprenticeships. Now, he’ll only see content related to skateboarding on that website.

Advertisers need to adapt, and web developers need to focus on their content writing skills.

People-Based Marketing and Targeting

Brands need to focus on identifying their customers based on the information they already have from customer databases, as well as relying on contextual cues, to effectively advertise. Automating the data they’ve gathered to generate relevant creative is crucial to coming out on top of the oncoming changes.

Dallas Rabot

Dallas has over a decade of local and overseas experience in digital marketing & web development. He previously co-founded a web & mobile app development company and holds multiple industry-leading SEO certifications.

Dallas is interested in the intersection between digital media & business. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Auckland - a Film, TV & Media Studies major, and a Diploma in Business from Auckland University of Technology.

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