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  • Writer's pictureTom Church

Are you ready for the Great Cookie wipeout at the end of 2024? Babel Interactive explores what this means for businesses and how you can prepare - it might not be as bad as you fear!


We live in an age of sugar excess! From those God-awful energy drinks (why does anyone actually drink these things?), to supermarket shelves stacked with the golden spot of ‘eye-level’ chocolates, sugar is too omnipresent in our global food chain.


With the beneficiaries being Big Food, Harvard University, and my dentist, it might seem like I’m once more on a ranting and raging warpath! But this is not even about sugar. But it is about cookies - of the digital kind.


(Incidentally, if you don’t know, this is required reading: apparently in 1967 the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group, paid three Harvard scientists to whitewash the role of sugar in heart disease, shifting the blame to fat in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine! It could well be an abuse of science that, and with 1 in 5 deaths being linked to an unhealthy diet, has likely contributed to the premature deaths of millions over the previous 50 years. Furthermore, one of the authors went on to become the head of nutrition at the US Department of Agriculture, drafting dietary guidelines. I mean, what could possibility go wrong hey?)


Phew! I wipe my moistened brow and draw breath to continue . . .


I am, of course, referring to cookies. Those little snippets of data that get stored on our computers when we visit certain sites and to enable sites to remember information that we might have added. But how did they come about?


Cookies: An origin story:



Way back in ancient history, before the pyramids, the antediluvian flood and possibly before one or two dinosaurs chased after Raquel Welch in One Millions Years BC, came the early 1990s. Some of us were still alive even back then, with opposable thumb and finger, and we lived to see the introduction of the Internet to society. They were, indeed, heady times.


Anyhow, back then, the HTTP Protocol was designed to be ‘stateless.’ This is a term used to describe how information from a browser (actioned by such as you or I when we type a request into a search engine or browse a product on a shopping site), to a server (the computer hosting the site), is treated independently and, most importantly, WITH NO MEMORY of previous interactions.


This prevented sites from designing personalised experiences, as they wouldn’t have information gained from previous visits to serve you with user defined content.


Step forward a handful of years to 1994, and an engineer at Netscape (remember them?), Lou Montulli (a name that should be known to anyone in the history of the Internet frankly), adapted the cookie concept for use in web communications. Its first use in public was on the Netscape browser, enabling the business to see if visitors to the site had been there before. After Montulli had his patent granted, cookies were integrated into Internet Explorer, and the rest is . . . almost history!


But it wasn’t a problem-free start: back in those early days the online world was, like dinosaurs chasing Raquel Welch, all a bit wild and crazy fun. Cookies had been enabled by default, and for some years users weren’t notified of their presence. By 1996 however, the cat was out of the bag: the FT reported on them, and by 1997 came the RFC2109, which standardised cookies and their use by browsers and servers, with privacy concerns the main driver of these new guidelines.


Since then, there have been updates to the legislation, and there were genuine fears of a ‘Man-in-the-middle attack’ from cookie heists, as well as other security fears (mainly around non-HTTPS sites), and now, come the end of 2024, it seems that time might be being called on the cookie itself.


What is a third-party cookie, and why are there concerns?


Bluntly, third-party components have the ability to collect data across various websites through their cookies. This process allows the original third-party domain to accumulate information from numerous sources, which can have several beneficial applications. For instance, a corporation might use this feature to maintain user login status across its various sites on different domains, or to gather analytics to enhance user experiences and interfaces. Advertising technology firms might analyse this data to deduce user preferences, aiming to deliver more targeted advertising.


Nonetheless, the utilisation of third-party cookies can sometimes extend into more questionable territory. At their most intrusive, these cookies can track users across the internet, compiling comprehensive profiles that might include sensitive details such as gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and political leanings. This accumulated data can lead to the creation of overly personalised and potentially invasive online experiences and might be sold to other entities. This is not where we, as digital marketing specialists, want to be known for.


And unlike the ancient days of the 1990s, we are now in what is being called a ‘Privacy-First World’ with regard to the Internet and our use of it. This sounds slightly absurd, with our reliance on smartphones and voice-activated devices listening out for our command words, but transparency is on the rise amongst the public’s demands.


I might also be in a minority here, or perhaps it is my marketing knowledge, but to me this is an issue that the market has already solved: you can use browsers like Safari, Duck Duck Go and Brave that block third-party cookies by default - and even Google allows you to block third-party cookies on Chrome if you wish to (and Chrome as a browser has a 64% market share). If you want this, the solution is already there! But having said that, the move by the main Internet ‘go-to’ as Google is, should be seen as symbolic of a wider public requirement for privacy and control over one’s own data - and who are we to argue with that?


Google is ending third-party cookies for all Chrome users in 2024. Is the apocalypse upon us digital marketeers?


At the start of 2024, Google has started to remove third-party cookies from 1% of Chrome users. By autumn 2024, Chrome will have restrictions on 100% of third-party cookies.


This won’t be the apocalypse of the digital marketing industry that some have feared, but it will be a reshaping, and one that will bring opportunities and problems for us to roll up our sleeves and get stuck into.


What can the digital marketing industry do when third-party cookies expire?


The importance of first-party cookies:


Firstly, we as marketeers need to accept what should have been our first benchmark anyhow: that of first-party cookies. These are generated from those who visit the platforms we might own: such as a website or app. Their obvious use is in shopping carts, where they manage the contents in our baskets, track our onsite behaviour, and recall our login credentials. In some cases in my career, I have been suspect that many digital marketeers tend to default to third-party data due to the greater volume of it over first-party data, and this can lead to a slightly warped view of your primary customers needs. Quantity or quality - that, indeed, is the question!


The rise of Google Tag Manager (GTM) and Server-Side Tagging:


Some sceptical people might complain that whilst Google is looking to remove third-party cookies, their other product, Google Tag Manager, is well positioned to take advantage of these new restrictions. GTM is a tag management system that allows you to set up and manage tags and trackers throughout your site without having to modify the code each and every time, all from a single dashboard.


GTM does not use third-party cookies as a default, and it is GDPR compliant, and it allows you to implement ‘server-side tagging.’


Server-side tagging emerges as an effective solution for organisations seeking to distance themselves from third-party cookies, offering superior data management, enhanced privacy protections, and superior data integrity. This method is particularly advantageous for entities handling sensitive personal information, allowing them to refine and secure data before it reaches external parties.


Additionally, marketing departments striving to enhance their grasp on the customer journey—from initial interest through to purchase—will find server-side tagging invaluable. This strategy not only sharpens data gathering and sharing practices but also facilitates more accurate analyses and strategic decisions, ultimately elevating both conversion rates and advertising ROI.


Furthermore, this approach significantly benefits website users by bolstering the privacy and security of their data. By efficiently managing users' consent preferences, it ensures that data practices align closely with their permissions, fostering greater trust between users and websites.


With server-side tagging in GTM, you move measurement and advertising tags off your website and into a secure server container. This shift not only helps protect your customers' privacy by limiting access to their information but also enhances your site's performance by reducing the number of third-party tags loaded directly on the site. Instead, these tags are processed on the server, streamlining site performance and improving page load times.


Is Zero-Party Data an alternative?


Zero-Party Data is information that customers intentionally and pro-actively share with you. It can be in the form of quizzes, questionnaires, emails, interactive experiences, and employs rewards and incentives. So whilst it can provide information on your customer habits, it can be expensive to gather in comparable volume to third-party cookies. On the other hand, opening a dialogue with existing clients can lead to far greater insight that can lead to the refinement of new offerings and promotions that resonate all the more.


So whilst the withdrawal of third-party cookie data toward the end of this year in the world’s most popular browser will create issues for us in the digital marketing industry, it is not the time for ‘wailing and much gnashing of teeth!’ (That comes when you are setting up GA4 for the first time, believe you me!)



Sources:


Harvard Sugar Industry Study:


According to the Global Burden of Disease, published in the Lancet


Prepare for third-party cookie restrictions: https://developers.google.com/privacy-sandbox/3pcd


Google Developers notes on GTM and Server-Side Tagging: https://developers.google.com/tag-platform/tag-manager/server-side

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