The online marketing world is on the brink of a substantial transformation. Third-party cookies, long-standing pillars of conversion tracking and ad personalization, are nearing obsolescence. This shift raises important questions: what are the implications of this change? How will it impact digital marketing campaigns? How can businesses adapt and continue to reach their target audience?Table of Contents:
- The end of Third-Party Cookies: Limitations and Deadlines
- Scenarios without Third-Party Cookies
- First-Party Cookies and Server-Side Tracking
- The Limits of This Approach
- Solutions for Businesses
The End of Third-Party Cookies: Limitations and Deadlines
User behavior tracking via third-party cookies has been a common practice in digital marketing for many years. However, major web browsers are now limiting or entirely removing third-party cookies to enhance user privacy.
Google Chrome, the most popular browser, plans to block third-party cookies by Q3 2024. Similarly, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Microsoft Edge have already implemented policies to limit the use of third-party cookies.
Google Chrome: The Privacy Sandbox Timeline for the Web. Last update: June 2023
This shift means businesses have a limited time to find viable alternatives for conversion tracking and ad personalization. Understanding these restrictions and the urgency of adapting to this change is crucial.
Scenarios without Third-Party Cookies
With the phasing out of third-party cookies, businesses face new challenges in a cookieless environment. One of the main challenges is ADS personalization.
Without third-party cookies, it becomes more difficult to gather detailed information on user interests and behaviors, limiting the ability to deliver highly targeted ads. Additionally, there's a challenge in accurately attributing conversions (leads, purchases, etc.) to the marketing campaigns that generated them.
A robust measurement system is essential for an effective digital marketing strategy.
Imagine a user who lands on your campaign's landing page, views the offer, but returns to make a purchase or contact your company only days later. Currently, this conversion might not be attributed to your campaign if the user employs Safari or Brave Browser. Without third-party cookies, the chances of attributing that outcome would be entirely nullified.
For instance, when using Safari, Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) limits the lifespan of all third-party cookies to 7 days, and just 24 hours if the URL contains UTM parameters, click IDs, or if the referrer domain is recognized as a “known tracker.” These parameters usually indicate that the user has clicked on an ad, crucial for measuring ad campaigns.
In practice, if the browser detects an advertiser's involvement, it further limits the cookie's duration. In this case, 24 hours is insufficient to accurately attribute results to campaigns, considering many companies use platforms like Meta, which measure conversions up to 7 days after an ad click.
In summary, with the disappearance of third-party cookies, digital advertising campaigns will feel the impact through:
- Loss of conversions
- Loss of personalization / less optimized audiences
- Loss of result attribution
As media buyers, we can already observe an impact on these three areas, proving that change is underway!
Businesses will necessarily have to adopt new solutions to monitor the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns and better understand user interactions with their websites.
First-Party Cookies and Server-Side Tracking
A potential solution for conversion tracking without third-party cookies is the use of first-party cookies and server-side tracking with Google Tag Manager.
Let's start with some basic premises:
- What are cookies? Cookies are small text files saved on the user’s device, used to store information about them.
- First-party cookies are stored by your main domain (e.g., andemili.com) or subdomains (e.g., blog.andemili.com) and retain information like logins, preferences, or the shopping cart in the case of eCommerce.
- Third-party cookies, on the other hand, are set by other domains (e.g., facebook.com, twitter.com) on your domain. They are used to obtain information about user behavior across multiple websites. This characteristic has earned them a "bad" reputation, as these files often collect behavioral surplus that goes beyond what is simply useful for tracking and improving an ad campaign.
With server-side tracking, you can set up a proprietary cookie, eliminating the need to use third-party cookies for campaign tracking and bypassing most of the current limitations* for these.
*ATTENZIONE: Here we're discussing limitations imposed by web browsers. "Bypassing" third-party cookie limitations doesn't mean ignoring user preferences set in the cookie banner! It's crucial to always respect the user’s choice (e.g., if the user refuses marketing cookies, regardless of whether you set them first or third-party, you must ensure they are not created).
First-party cookies are set from the URL of your cloud server, registered with your website's main domain. Facebook, Google Analytics, or any other platform using server integration will be able to set proprietary cookies from your domain name.
With server-side tracking, companies can move part of the tracking process from the client side (web, GTM) to the server side (GTM server-side), enabling the effective use of first-party cookies and without violating user preferences and privacy policies.
This approach immediately reduces dependency on third-party cookies and offers the added benefit of greater control over user data management, as that data passes through your server before being sent to platforms (e.g., Facebook Ads, Google Analytics, TikTok Ads, etc.).
The limits of this approach
Unfortunately, not everything that glitters is gold! Relying solely on first-party cookie tracking is not a sufficient solution.
Systems like Apple's ITP on the Safari browser can detect if the IP address setting the cookie differs from your website's domain IP address. When Safari notices this, it limits the cookie's lifespan to 7 days, even for first-party cookies.
Translation: Even though server-side tracking makes my Facebook cookie appear as a first-party cookie, Safari understands this and still limits its duration (to 7 days or 24 hours in the case of URL decoration).
The good news is that we can circumvent this problem by setting up a "master cookie" that complies with all of ITP's rules and is created as a proprietary cookie. From here, we can continue tracking, respecting the user's choice in the cookie banner. At AND EMILI, we use this solution.
Solutions for Businesses
Market share of major web browsers. Source: SimilarWeb. Data updated to May 2023.
To adapt to the era without third-party cookies, businesses must explore different approaches. One such approach is server-side tracking, which we've briefly explored in the article. This solution allows for more accurate conversion tracking and better ad personalization, despite the limitations from the removal of third-party cookies (and in some cases, even first-party cookies).
It's important to timely check with your web analytics service provider the status of your tracking systems. Evaluating and choosing reliable partners to support the inevitable transition to a third-party cookie-free environment will be critical for the success of your digital marketing projects.
Major digital advertising platforms have been increasingly promoting the concept of server-side tracking:
- Meta (formerly Facebook) offers Conversion API (i.e., Facebook server-side tracking) in combination with their Meta Pixel;
- TikTok has developed their version of Conversion API, TikTok Events API;
- Google Ads allows the import of Google Analytics 4 conversions, which can be easily set up with Google Tag Manager server-side.
Using these technologies, it's already possible to see an immediate impact on the number of reported conversions.
Investing in effective solutions for the future cookieless era will not only allow your company to limit the loss of valuable data and enhance user privacy but will also put your digital advertising campaign providers in a position to generate better results.
For campaigns to work, it's essential to see which ads, copies are performing better and which audience is converting.
If this information is missing, optimization choices are left to chance or to the advertising platform's machine learning algorithms.
However, even when blindly trusting algorithms, we can't ignore that they need signals telling them what's working and when.
Without these signals, even the algorithm operates "blindly," basing its predictions on less relevant data, risking the downfall of campaign results.
A robust measurement system is the foundation of an effective digital marketing strategy.
The elimination of third-party cookies marks a significant turning point for digital marketing. It is essential for businesses to embrace this change and adapt to a third-party cookie-free environment.
Server-side tracking emerges as an effective initial solution to revolutionize conversion tracking and ad personalization.
Implementing server-side tracking is a step towards making your business "future-proof" in the digital marketing area!
If you've read this far, leave a comment and share your views. Have doubts about the cookieless future and server-side tracking or want to clarify some aspects in person? Contact us!
This page has been translated using automated translation tools and artificial intelligence technologies. We strive to ensure that the content is accessible in multiple languages, but please be aware that the translation may not be perfect. If you have any doubts or need clarifications, please feel free to contact us.