June 27, 2022

Cookie(less) future


Google has announced that they will remove third-party cookies in 2023. 

Let’s see what this implies for all those who have ever visited a website or have one of their own, for everyone in the advertising business or those who wish to advertise using online channels, for all those… Come to think of it, in order to explain what it means for the entire online world, first we have to clarify different types of cookies. 

Actually, it might be ok to say what cookies, in fact, are. Wikipedia states the following (and it is widely known that “wikipedia is the best thing ever; anyone in the world can write anything about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information” => click :D): 

“Cookies are small blocks of data created by a web server while a user is browsing a website and placed on the user’s computer or other device by the user’s web browser. Cookies are placed on the device used to access a website, and more than one cookie may be placed on a user’s device during a session. 

Cookies serve useful and sometimes essential functions on the web. They enable web servers to store stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) on the user’s device or to track the user’s browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited in the past). They can also be used to save for subsequent use information that the user previously entered into form fields, such as names, addresses, passwords, and payment card numbers.”

There are first-party, second-party and third-party cookies. This article focuses on the first-party and third-party cookies, and many experts would say that second-party cookies don’t even exist. 

  • First-party cookies were created by a web page you visited. The web page is given in the address bar.
  • Third-party cookies were created by other web locations. These web locations own a part of the content displayed on the website you visited, e.g. ads or photos. 

Nowadays cookies play an important role in the context of online marketing, since they are used by the majority of analytics programs for collection of visitor data, for example Google Analytics is one of the most famous tools for such purposes (primarily because it is free of charge, and can be extremely powerful in the right hands). Google Analytics mostly uses first-party cookies, even though it may not seem logical, since it is actually the third party in the context of website visits (Google Analytics 4 is trying to follow the GDPR guidelines by default, while Google Analytics 3 requires additional configuration). However, cookies stored to our computer are, in fact, created by the web domain we visit, which is why they are classified as first-party cookies. Third-party cookies are frequently used for remarketing (retargeting) advertising, i.e. advertising targets are based on preferences. For example, when you visit a website to buy pet food, and afterwards an ad pops up for that page on a news site, that happens precisely due to third-party cookies. 

So we are back to the initial sentence: Google has announced that they will remove third-party cookies in 2023.

When it comes to advertising and the “removal” of third-party cookies, search campaigns shouldn’t face major “issues” while targeting, since everything is “keyword”-based. A “problem” arises when there is an attempt to direct a certain audience to specific campaigns. YouTube and Display campaigns might be hit the most, since they usually target a specific audience. 

This issue prompted Google to create Enhanced Conversions. 

“Enhanced conversions are a feature that can improve the accuracy of conversion measurement. It supplements the existing conversion tags by sending hashed first-party conversion data from your website to Google in a privacy-safe way. The feature uses a secure one-way hashing algorithm called SHA256 on your first-party user data, such as email addresses, before sending to Google. The hashed data is matched with Google accounts, which were signed-in to, in order to attribute campaign conversions to engagement with ads, such as clicks and views. 

With enhanced conversions on your website, you directly collect user data such as an email address, name, home address and/or phone number. The data can be captured in your conversion tracking tags, hashed, sent to Google in its hashed form and then used to match users to Google accounts, which they were signed-in to when they engaged with one of your ads.

The data is then used to improve reporting on online conversions which enhance ad engagement. For the purpose of hashing user data, the algorithm SHA256 is used, which represents the standard in the field of one-way data hashing.”

As for tracking via Google Analytics, KG Media recommends implementation of Google Analytics 4 (GA 4). GA4 completely operates on the basis of first-party cookies, but its design will allow it to work without them in the future.  

In the words of Google: 

“Because the technology landscape continues to evolve, the new Analytics is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers. It uses a flexible approach to measurement, and in the future, will include modelling to fill in the gaps where the data may be incomplete. This means that you can rely on Google Analytics to help you measure your marketing results and meet customer needs now as you navigate the recovery and as you face uncertainty in the future.”

Which principle will allow GA4 to recognise that a returning user to the website – with GA4 installed – is using different devices, if cookies aren’t used? 

First of all, let’s clarify the relevant terminology: 

  • Client ID – tracks users via cookies and device IDs – therefore, cross-device is impossible;
  • User ID – tracks users signed-in a website and an app, so cross-device is possible in case users sign in to their Google user account beforehand; 
  • Google Signals – tracks users via log-in to their Google account. 

Well then, User ID, Client ID and Google Signals worked separately in Google Analytics 3. Each had its own “reports”. They are now connected within Google Analytics 4. 

Let’s visualize it: 

  • Google Analytics 3
  • Google Analytics 4

With such a system, advertisers can build their audience (a list) with visits to both the website and the app. The list is automatically synchronised across all platforms. For example, if a user visits a website and enters the list, then converts (completes a purchase) via an app, the system recognises it and removes the user from the remarketing list. The same applies to YouTube views and actions which will also be synchronised across all platforms. 

GA4 is fuelled by a much smarter artificial intelligence (AI), so it suggests in the interface which marketing “decisions” should be fixed in order to improve ROI. Google claims to have the ability to recognise users more prone to buy/convert and, in doing so, is creating a “smart audience”. 

Therefore, it is important to immediately start using the latest Google tools and services operating on an AI basis, such as Google Analytics 4 and Enhanced Conversions. 

News, explanations, tips and tricks provided by CEE Digital Alliance member, KG Media.

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