Beginning today, publishers using the Chrome browser will have to adjust the code on third-party cookies to reveal how they work and track users across the web—or Google will delete them.
Third-party cookies—bits of text placed by websites on the hard drives of visitors—allow marketers to track the browsing history and behavior of consumers, and have long been the basis of programmatic advertising, marketing and ad targeting. Lately seen by many as an invasion of privacy, third-party cookies have also been used to build behavioral profiles on web users—a practice that came under fire in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
The change requires website owners to employ "SameSite," a backend protocol allowing cookies to be designated for various uses. Publishers must also make sure their websites are secure. Failure to do so means Google will delete those cookies. While Chrome won’t automatically block cookies, the code change will limit their use to more secure HTTPS connections, a step Google is taking to safeguard consumer safety. Identifying and segregating third-party cookies is also seen as a portal to more substantial updates, such as allowing users to more easily turn them on and off.
Google knows not everyone will be ready, which is why it said it expects a “modest amount of breakage” to websites with today’s rollout. Agency 360i, for instance, wanted to make sure it could continue buying media across its top publishers, so the agency took the preventive measure of asking them whether they were in compliance prior to today's deadline.
“We have been in active communication with publishers and ad tech partners to confirm they’re making updates to the SameSite labeling of their cookies, to ensure there will be no disruption in the media we’re activating on behalf of our clients,” says Kolin Kleveno, senior VP and head of programmatic at 360i. “Over time, we’re continuing to work with clients and the marketplace on changes surrounding the demise of cookies."
Ultimately, Google plans to eliminate third-party cookies entirely by 2022, which is causing digital marketers to rethink the way they sell to consumers.
The changes to Google's Chrome browser—which has 69 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of desktop and mobile browser market share—will affect anyone with a website, including brands, agencies and traditional news publishers.
“Every single company in the Lumascape is powered by cookies,” says Michael Connolly, CEO of Sonobi, a company that exclusively works with publishers to sell digital ads. “Whether you are doing very well, or not doing very well, it doesn’t matter. This is an equal opportunity threat.”
Publisher, brand and agency impact
But the larger issue is the potential impact on advertisers, as it will ultimately restrict targeting and optimizing conversion, says Lance Porigow, chief marketing officer at digital agency The Shipyard.
“As advertisers are increasingly bringing programmatic advertising and customer data platforms—such as CDPs or DMPs—in-house to own and control the data, they will need to adapt to find new ways to fill the void left by the loss of the cookie,” says Porigow. “Since the browser sees everything you’re doing online, that is the best place to intercept data, regulate privacy, and give users control over their own data.”
The change to Google Chrome's third-party cookie protocol will have a domino effect on the rest of the industry, says Porigow.
"Other major browsers have stated similar intentions, but this is one of the first big moves," Porigow says. "Cookies are currently the foundation for much of the programmatic ad tech space and the way that most advertisers and publishers are tracking user behavior, targeting, conversion measurement, cross-device usage and more. SameSite does not eliminate cookies altogether just yet, but it is sending up a big flare to start making changes or become obsolete."
Overall, however, Google is protecting the consumer with both SameSite and its decision to phase out third-party cookies by 2022, says Justin Silberman, VP of product at video ad tech company DailyMotion.
“The market has taken third-party cookies to an extreme,” says Silberman. “There are companies that drop hundreds of pixels on websites and they do that to collect audiences. But the reality is in the future, that stuff just isn’t going to be a business anymore.
“User data is going to be much more one-to-one relationships, and that’s how it really should be in the long term," Silberman says. "The problem is there’s going to be a lot of friction to achieve that, and the hope is the friction doesn’t outweigh the value the consumer would get from the content they are trying to consume.”