Third party cookies are currently the ubiquitous and best available technology for cross-site user identification within browsers, necessary to enable marketing functions such as attribution, behavioral targeting and frequency capping. This same technology, however, allows user profiles to be easily collected and shared between companies, a practice which has recently come under heavy public scrutiny from privacy advocate groups.
What it Means Moving Forward
For the last couple of years, Safari and Firefox have progressively limited the default functionality of third party cookies in an effort to curb this practice, and now Google’s web browser, Chrome, is following suit. Back in August ’19, Google kicked off ‘Project Sandbox’ – an initiative to explore alternatives within Chrome to balance privacy while maintaining support for key advertising functions. This made it clear third-party cookies were on life support in the world’s most popular browser. Crucially, for advertisers, Google likely wouldn’t remove them without a viable replacement, but their announcement simply formalized that intent (to remove third-party cookies) and applied a generous timeframe to it (within 2 years).
The announcement did not provide much detail for what those alternatives might be moving forward. Fortunately, Google has been open throughout the whole process, documenting and soliciting feedback on the technical details for a range of potential solutions in a public blog. From that blog, we can infer that the eventual solution will take the form of a ‘Chrome API’ which advertising platforms can query for aggregated metrics such as a campaign’s reach, frequency and conversion rate, but that won’t return any details for individual users (similar to what is available for Facebook today).
As of Right Now, it’s More Wait and See
Beyond that, the proposals are best described as ‘conversation starters’ rather than anything employable when it comes to media plan decision making. While the API won’t expose all the unfettered functionality that is possible to achieve today using third party cookies, it means that many of the benefits of digital advertisement in the open web are likely to be preserved. We’ll need to wait and see how these proposals evolve before making any reasonable assessment of potential impact.
Note that when this does come into effect, it will only affect media served in browsers. Video, display and audio media served in-app, as well as connected TV use different methods of user identification.