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Last week Google began testing its new Tracking Protection feature in the Chrome browser which aims to replace third-party cookies with a more privacy-centric approach. Starting 4th Jan 2024, Google began restricting third-party cookies by default to 1% of its users globally – an estimated 32 million of its 3.22 billion user base.

Tracking Protection is a crucial step in Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative that aims to both protect people’s privacy and provide companies with the tools to succeed online.

The move is long anticipated within the advertising industry as this change has been discussed and delayed a few times over the last couple of years. This is a pivotal step in moving towards a more privacy-focused approach and should be a signal to advertisers who have yet to take action to protect themselves as the industry evolves.

While only 1% of users will be affected right now, Google expects to be ramping this up to all Chrome users from Q3 2024. The current timeline is therefore that third-party cookies will be fully deprecated from the browser by year’s end. However, the full rollout is subject to Google addressing any remaining concerns from the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority.

This follows Safari and Firefox, both browsers have already blocked third-party cookies by default. But Chrome has a significant market share meaning that once the roll-out is complete that will be the death of third-party cookies.

To support Tracking Protection and the Privacy Sandbox, Google has developed a range of APIs looking to provide a privacy-focused alternative to the current status quo. Some examples of these tools are:

  • Topics API – an alternative that assigns a small number of interests or topics to individual users. This allows advertisers to target based on categories rather than more granular user behaviour data.
  • Protected Audience API – a technology to serve remarketing and custom audience use cases without cross-site tracking. The Protected Audience API uses interest groups allowing publishers to display ads that are relevant to readers of their website.
  • Attribution Reporting API – enabling advertisers and Ad Tech providers to measure conversions in a more privacy-preserving way without third-party cookies.

However, the challenge in removing third-party cookies from the browser is that they have been a fundamental part of the web for decades. They are a key component in cross-site tracking and as such can be used to track website activities, but sites have also used them in other use cases to support online experiences such as helping users sign in, fraud protection, and displaying relevant advertising.

Marketers in the programmatic space are likely to feel this deprecation the most as traditionally third-party cookies have enabled ad platforms to learn about user interests through tracking behaviour across websites.

With cookie-less advertising, new privacy-friendly techniques will be required with a stronger emphasis on a first-party data strategy, contextual advertising, and statistical data modelling.

Outside of Google, Meta has enhanced its server-side capabilities with the Conversion API allowing advertisers to measure in a first-party context while ad tech providers are building cookie-less identity solutions such as LiveRamp’s RampID.

As such the Privacy Sandbox initiative and its tools are not the only solution marketers should look towards. Instead, it is important for marketers to consider a holistic data strategy to help power their advertising moving forward.

Actions that marketers can take will vary on the business model and current first and second-party data available, but here are some steps most advertisers can take:

  • Invest in first-party data acquisition and develop online experiences that customers feel signing up for. This will help you capture vital first-party data that can be used for advertising later.
  • Audit and configure Google Analytics 4 correctly to enable cross-channel measurement and access Google’s Data-Driven Attribution model.
  • Implement server-side solutions such as Meta Conversion API if you are investing in Meta’s platforms. Server-side capabilities allow you to measure in a first-party context, and browser-based blockers can be bypassed by the move away from client-side tracking.
  • Consider options for data management such as a Customer Data Platform (CDP) if the scale of your data justifies the investment. This allows you to collect data from various sources such as websites, email marketing, and e-commerce before enriching a single customer view. This view helps to generate reports and create customer segments to activate audiences across platforms.

Preparation for the cookie-less future has been slow but this should signal a change in urgency as Google will continue its roadmap for deprecation in 2024. Adapting to this change will be crucial for businesses to navigate the new digital ecosystem once third-party cookies are gone.