Third Party Cookies Are Going Stale, What Comes next?

For as long as things have been sold, the advertising industry has existed to help sell them. While the industry has changed over the past few thousand years, the latest game-changer is always on the horizon.

So what new game-changer has been looming?

Announced in the ever-distant month of March 2020, Google unveiled their ‘Privacy Sandbox’; an opt-in program for the latest version of their Chrome browser that includes beta features focussed on improving user privacy on the web.

Along with this, Google said it was aiming to completely block third-party cookies by 2022. This news met with a mixed reception. Online privacy advocates rejoiced, while marketers and digital advertisers booed and hissed. Third-party cookies are an incredibly useful tool in digital advertising, mainly used to track users between websites and display more relevant ads between websites.

The broader implications of this massive overhaul to the online advertising space were unknown. Much noise was made about such a large shake-up having unforeseeable consequences across the web, and the strain this would place on advertising strategists.

Not to fear though! Just as much as Google is creating this new problem for advertisers, they are also providing the solution! They call it FLoC, Federated Learning of Cohorts. Which in essence serves to group semi-”anonymised” internet users based on their search history for ad service and retargeting. 

Months came and went after this announcement, more noise was raised and it seems to have done some good. Google realised that completely disabling third-party cookies before the world was ready would have deeper implications not only in the digital advertising industry, but also for web accessibility, charities, eCommerce and much more.

In response, this June Google released an updated timeline for their FLoC initiative. This timeline broadcasts Google’s intention to have every user of the Chrome browser migrate to their FLoC based advertising categorisation by Q3 2023.

Google in the past has considered browser based blocking to be an inelegant solution to user privacy on the web, but here they are about to do it themselves. A helpful side effect is that it allows them to consolidate even more user data and power and influence in the advertising industry.

Also noteworthy is the fact that a blanket blocking of cookies has already been implemented by both Firefox and Safari since 2013. Firefox and other privacy focused browsers like Brave, despite being built with the same Chromium browsing engine that power Chrome and Edge have said they will not implement FLoC targeting.

But does it really matter when Chrome represents 64% of all browsers used online? Probably not that much.

When third-party cookies are blocked, all that remains is Google, and third-party data effectively becomes first-party. Google Ad Manager has recently unlocked first party data which will allow advertisers and agencies to better target consumers. But still, the future remains uncertain for how any agency outside of the Google umbrella will be able to adapt to the cookie-free future.

As far as what comes next?

No-one is really sure. We may see a resurgence of older techniques, like contextual targeting or the previously mentioned first-party explorer from Google. The darker side of this issue is as the relatively benign third-party cookies start to go stale, we may see the rise of more insidious methods of user tracking like browser fingerprinting become more commonplace.

But in large part, the move is a performative gesture aimed at giving consumers the false idea that their privacy will be better protected on the web. In reality, the same information is out there being tracked and stored, it’ll all just be owned by Google now.