8 March 2021

Google will soon block 3rd party cookies: What you need to know

If you’re a digital advertiser, or if digital ads are a key part of your brand strategy, you’ve likely already heard about Google’s plan to block third-party cookies from Chrome.

Set to come into effect in 2022, the move will have a big impact on the way users’ browsing histories are tracked — and thereby on how advertisers can target them going forward.

What are third-party cookies?

Without getting too technical, third-party cookies are small snippets of code that record our browsing activities and serve us ads based on these activities.

As the name suggests, the data they capture is sent to a different domain from the one you’re currently visiting — unlike first-party cookies, which send that data to the owner of the domain you’re browsing at the time.

Third-party cookies are the reason that when you view a pair of shoes in an online store, that same pair of shoes follows you around the internet for the next two weeks, popping up in ads wherever you go.

While third-party cookies are great for advertisers, they’re a nightmare from a privacy perspective, because they give away too much information about individual users.

In a world that’s ever-more focused on privacy, they’ve become increasingly unpalatable.

Is Google the first to block third-party cookies?

Far from it.

Chrome is comfortably the world’s favourite web browser, meaning the decision to remove third-party cookies from it will have a huge impact, but Google isn’t the first to make this move.

Apple, the second-most popular browser, limited cookie tracking back in 2017, while Mozilla’s Firefox followed suit in 2019.

What does this mean for advertisers?

Unsurprisingly, Google already has a replacement for third-party cookies lined up.

Known as Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC, it’s a privacy-focused solution that works by grouping together large numbers of people by shared interests.

Significantly, user information is processed within the device, rather than being broadcast to the widest expanses of the internet.

Effectively, FLoC works the same as the Netflix algorithm. If you and another person both like sci-fi movies, and have watched the same four films, you’ll be grouped together and recommended similar content in the future.

According to Google, advertisers can expect FLoC to deliver at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent, compared to running ads based on third-party cookies. However, some experts have disputed this.

What should advertisers do next?

First off, it’s worth noting this isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds.

Third-party cookies were already becoming less effective, thanks to ad blocking on Firefox and Safari, so many advertisers have already started phasing them out.

Some of those advertisers have increased their usage of first-party data. If a user is logged into a news website, for example, that site can still collect data about their behaviours and preferences, which allows for accurate ad targeting.

Others have adopted older strategies like contextual advertising, whereby users are targeted on sites that rank for similar keywords to those in your ad.

Or you could simply switch to FLoC. It might be less effective than third-party cookies, but everyone’s in the same boat.

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