What are browsers actually doing about 3rd party cookies?

We’ve recently released a blog post discussing how the eventual phasing out of third-party cookies could have a sizable impact upon the industry. You asked for more information, so within this piece, we’ve gone into more detail about the changes each browser is making.

What’s the backstory?

Firstly, if you’ve not read our general over of third-party cookies, and what that could mean for the industry, we’d definitely suggest you go read that article first! If you don’t fancy it, we’ll try and summarise that entire article into a couple of lines for you:

Cookies are small text files which store information about a user’s browsing behaviour.

There are first and third-party cookies. First party cookies are created by the website you’re on, and are well-loved by all. Third-party cookies are the ones that follow you around, and are used to remember your wider online behaviour – they’re used a lot in online advertising.

With the advent of GDPR and user privacy becoming a renewed discussion point, browsers are beginning to get tougher with third-party cookies, with most looking to phase them out.

Some functionality that digital marketers have relied upon for a while is at risk, as it relies upon third-party cookies.

Phew! Not bad, eh? Now you’re all up to speed.

We should say, this is not an exhaustive overview of how each browser manages all of their cookies – that’s another essay in its own right. Here, we’re just looking at the recent changes made which relate to third-party cookies. We’ll look at each of the three major browsers, in turn, looking at the changes they have either already brought in, or are in the process of doing, and then look at what the resulting impact might be upon digital marketing or your business.

Safari

Apple has been working away on something called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) for quite some time now, and it’s been released in a number of different versions. Personally, we think Apple is a bit more comfortable being tough on third-party cookies, as they’re less reliant upon the revenue generated through retargeting advertising like Google are.

Safari, by default, now blocks third-party cookies, which you could argue is the strongest position taken by any of the larger browsers (only Mozilla have been tougher, more on this later).

What does this mean for digital marketers? Well, the main issue is that analytics cookies will now only last for one week on Safari. Previously, they used to last for years.

This means that frequency capping (the ability to limit how many times a user sees an ad) is gone. Users will see the same ads more often, as advertisers will only be able to cap the limit within that 7-day window. After that, users could see the same ad time and time again.

Remarketing is also naturally affected, as you can only effectively retarget to a user within a 7-day window. If you’re selling a product which has a much longer research phase, such as a mortgage, car, etc. then this is going to be a huge issue.

Attribution is also massively impacted. Previously, we’d be able to see a full user journey, from the first touchpoint, through to the very last, and attribute credit to each channel that played a role in driving the conversion. Now, however, this is basically limited to 7 days. This means that if your user first arrived via a Facebook Ad, but then converted 14 days later from an organic search session, SEO would get 100% of the credit.

ITP has been covered widely by the media, and there are some fantastic articles on it here, here, and here.

Mozilla Firefox

Ah, Firefox! Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of this one, it’s most popular amongst developers and other tech-savvy youngsters. It’s a non-profit though, with a strong commitment to delivering a fast, secure, safe online experience for its users. As a result, it’s taken a pretty strong position against third-party cookies.

From June 2019, Firefox began blocking third-party cookies (and trackers) by default. Yup. Now technically users can adjust this setting, but we think very few actually do.

Arguably, you could say Firefox has delivered the best solution here for its users (most of whom do care about privacy). The default setting for Firefox now stops most types of tracking for advertising purposes. As a result, the impacts of this are very similar to Safari, so we won’t repeat ourselves too much!

Google Chrome

Easily the most popular web browser on the planet, it’s the recent Google news that has caused the largest impact. On January 14th, 2020, Chrome announced that they would be shutting off support for third-party cookies by 2022. The intention is that by this date, we’ll no longer be as reliant upon them, and they will be effectively phased out.

In many ways, it feels like Google was the last to the party here. The other browsers had already implemented sweeping changes, and Chrome is really the last to do anything about this. Call us sceptical, but we think this may be because Google makes a huge amount of its revenue from functionality which is driven by third-party cookies, but we could be wrong.

This is good in one regard though, as it gives us a very clear expiration date for third-party cookies. We now know that by 2022, third-party cookies as we know them will be done and dusted. By this date, either technology will have innovated and found new ways to deliver their service, or they’ll be shutting up shop.

Why do we care?

Well, as we covered in our other blog, there is some core functionality which is a part of the everybody web experience which is supported by third-party cookies. For example:

Behavioural targeting – the ability to target ads to a user based upon their wider shopping or research behaviour.

Retargeting / remarketing – the ability to target ads to a user based upon the previous websites they’ve visited.

Frequency capping – the ability to restrict the number of times a user sees an ad, if you don’t want to overwhelm them.

Attribution – the ability to see where a user first found your website, and credit any resulting sales/enquiries to that channel.

Beyond this, there are even some surprising functionalities that rely on third-party cookies. If you have live chat on your website, that might utilise them. Social share buttons? They could too. This may not be true at the time you’re reading this, but even the tracking codes from HubSpot and Facebook do/used to utilise them too.

The decision from most of the browsers to phase these out then could have quite an impact upon digital advertising, and the wider web. We mentioned this in our other posts, but we think it’s really unlikely that all of the functionality currently supported by third-party cookies will die out. For example, you would think there’s no way Facebook will let its advertising platform suffer due to its use of third-party cookies, and we wouldn’t be surprised if they release a first-party cookie replacement.

Whilst it’s easy to be pessimistic in such a landscape, we’re excited to see what the future will bring. It’s at times like this that we see the greatest innovation in digital advertising, and with murmurings that Google is already working away on a “Privacy Sandbox” that will allow advertisers to continue on in a post-third-party-cookie world, we’re confident that the larger advertising platforms will have been working on solutions for this for some time.

Do you want more cookies?

Catch up on our previous blogs in the cookie series.

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Written by David Berry

Head of Performance & Analytics