Google delays death of cookie until 2023 after pushback from brands
The third-party cookie, a linchpin of the ad industry used to serve targeted ads, just received a stay of execution. Google says it will continue supporting third-party cookies until the end of 2023, citing mounting industry opposition and the feedback it received when testing possible replacements. The delay leaves brands restless and uncertain. While the move relieves immediate pressure on advertisers trying to find or build a suitable replacement, it leaves the industry in an uncomfortable limbo as those replacements—including Google’s own post-cookie solution—struggle for traction.
In a blog post, Google attributes the delay to pressure from the industry that replacements weren’t yet ready–including solutions born from its own so-called Privacy Sandbox. “We need to move at a responsible pace, allowing sufficient time for public discussion on the right solutions and for publishers and the advertising industry to migrate their services,” wrote Vinay Goel, director, privacy engineering, Chrome. “This is important to avoid jeopardizing the business models of many web publishers which support freely available content.”
The delay is set to annoy brands looking for clear answers and commitments. “Personally, I think it would be best for the industry if we advance [past the cookie],” says Jonathan Halvorson, VP of consumer experience for Mondeléz. “The current environment isn’t really ideal for the consumer or advertisers. Innovation is needed.” An industry executive echoed that sentiment, saying that keeping cookies alive means the industry can’t move forward.
Third-party cookies are small browser files that help track a user’s activity across the internet, allowing advertisers to build a profile that can then be used to serve targeted ads. The technology’s reach and ubiquity makes it controversial to privacy advocates and legislators. While other browsers like Apple’s Safari and Mozilla Firefox already block all third-party cookies, Google previously said it would support cookies only until the end of 2021.
Google has been pushing its own homegrown solutions to fill the gap for advertisers looking to serve targeted ads to digital audiences. Earlier this year, Google launched Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC, a solution in which the web browser categorizes a user into a large group, and that group identifier is used to target advertisements. But FLoC is running into three major headwinds surrounding legislation, privacy concerns, and industry support.
Google is not testing FLoC in Europe because of concerns that it does not comply with Europe’s privacy laws, the GDPR. This makes FLoC useless to advertisers that want to reach a huge chunk of online users in Europe. Meanwhile, FLoC is also facing new concerns about privacy and adoption, says Lucas Long, privacy specialist at InfoTrust, an online measurement company. For example, FLoC data can be used to “fingerprint” a user, where a profile is constructed by pulling together disparate data online. And FLoC is also facing subtle opposition from large companies like Amazon, which Digiday recently reported is blocking FLoC from gathering user data on its websites.
In the blog post, Google says it is addressing some of these concerns. “We received substantial feedback from the web community during the origin trial for the first version of FLoC. We plan to conclude this origin trial in the coming weeks and incorporate input, before advancing to further ecosystem testing."
Google also committed to being more transparent about the replacements its developing, and says it will phase out third-party cookies over a three month period starting in mid-2023 and ending with Chrome blocking cookies in late 2023. Google also acknowledged privacy concerns, saying it is taking steps to fight fingerprinting.
The delay might still be welcomed by some in the industry. Last week, Procter & Gamble’s Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard called on Google and others to allow more time for testing FLoC and other workarounds before ending the current system, during a speech at the Association of National Advertisers Media Conference. In the interview, Pritchard praised Google for helping get the industry ready by announcing more than a year in advance that it wouldn’t replace identifying cookies in Chrome with any other personal identifier, and being transparent about its early steps toward a successor system to target audiences. The moves allow time for testing the replacements.
But Pritchard also expressed impatience about getting tests underway for FLoC, as well as similar solutions Facebook is working on to provide “more relevant and personalized ad experiences on their platform, without needing to rely on app-to-app data transfer” that has been eliminated by Apple. He also said The Trade Desk’s consent-based Universal ID 2.0 is an interesting solution that needs testing.
“It’s still early days, and so far we have not tested any of these potential solutions to see how they might work, nor to identify what adjustments to media planning and buying will be needed,” Pritchard said.
“The deprecation of cookies and elimination of app-to-app data transfer is a monumental disruption to consumer advertising and content experience and to the media industry,” he said. While P&G is willing to make needed changes, Pritchard said it needs time to test new solutions “before we change a system that has been built over decades.”
Rolling out changes without adequate testing, he said, means risking unintended consequences -- such as the ad fraud, lack of measurement transparency, data leaks and brand-safety issues that have plagued digital media for years.
But while Google’s delay buys ad tech—and Google itself—more time to find a replacement for the third-party cookie, it compounds already widespread uncertainty. “The industry is rudderless in that regard,” says Nii Ahene, chief strategy officer at Tinuiti, an online ad performance and marketing agency. No clear replacement for the cookie is emerging because the advertising industry is wary that relying on any one solution concentrates power in the hands of one company. “To move web standards forward, we need consensus across the board,” says Ahene.
Contributing: Jack Neff