Keeping Up with Browsers’ Ever-Changing Cookie Tracking Policies

Whatever way we look at it, consumer trust is at an all-time low and privacy regulations like the European Union’s GDPR, and the California Consumer Privacy Act (going into effect in 2020) aren’t going to go away. Either is the anti-tracking browser was we’re fighting. This shouldn’t be a surprise—the writing has been on the walls for years, with every major browser instituting methods and technology to restrict tracking.

Apple Safari:

Apple first introduced Intelligent Tracking Protection (ITP) in 2017 to restrict companies’ abilities to monitor people’s browsing behavior. Initially, Apple aimed at the third-party cookies that ad platforms and ad tech vendors placed on sites they didn’t own, allowing them to track people across the various sites that carried their cookies.  

In March 2019, Apple updated to ITP 2.1, preventing ad platforms and ad tech vendors from using a first-party event to establish a persistent cookie that can be read in a third-party context. ITP 2.2 is expected to be released later this year, placing even greater constraints on first-party cookies.

Google Chrome:

Beginning in February 2019, Google closed a loophole that companies were using to detect if a user was visiting a website in Chrome’s Incognito mode. The loophole allowed websites to block visitors from accessing the site’s content, forcing them to switch out of Incognito mode if they want to view the page. 

A month later, Google made it easier for users to opt-out of data collection via third-party cookies in Chrome while maintaining cookie data that stores log-ins, shipping addresses, etc. Chrome is also making it harder to do browser fingerprinting by requiring companies to demonstrate that they have a legitimate need to collect such parameters.

Mozilla Firefox:

Mozilla’s Firefox privacy controls first focused on blocking trackers that slowed down page loads in addition to stripping cookies and blocking storage access from third-party tracking content via lists of tracking domains from Disconnect

Starting in June 2019, new users who install Firefox for the first time will have Enhanced Tracking Protection turned on by default as part of the ‘Standard’ setting in the browser.  Existing users can turn on the feature within their Content Blocking settings. Otherwise, Enhanced Tracking Protection will be enabled by default in the coming months without having to take any action. 

Alongside Disconnect, Mozilla has also compiled lists of domains that serve fingerprinting and cryptomining scripts. The feature is now in beta and is expected to be enabled by default for all Firefox users in a future release.

Internet Explorer & Edge:

Tracking Protection was first made available in Internet Explorer 9 in March of 2011 to help users stay in control of their data. When enabled by users, Tracking Protection Lists will block third-party content, including cookies, from any site that is listed. Users can choose whether they want to accept, block, or be prompted for first-party and third-party cookies.

Now that Microsoft has publicly released its new Chromium-based browser, Edge, the company is actively telling people to abandon Internet Explorer as there are no plans for major updates going forward. The new Edge browser features a Privacy Dashboard where only users with Windows 10 can choose from three privacy settings — unrestricted, balanced and strict. The level of privacy chosen by the user determines how third-parties will be able to track them across the web. If a user chooses to change their privacy setting, the browser will update automatically.

So what does all of this mean?

At the end of the day, the shift to transparency and control for consumers has plenty of implications for all parties. For advertisers, however, the hardest punch could be the state and concept of a unified customer ID—an age-old way to get a holistic view into each customer’s behavior across the web. Luckily, there are steps and workarounds available to lessen the impact.

  • Work with your vendors and analytics experts to determine cookie blocking’s impact on marketing efforts, specifically looking for overinflation of return on ad spend (ROAS).
  • Develop or strengthen your first-party data strategy by leveraging first-party cookies in combination with ID matching through an identity resolution platform and/or a device graph for smarter and more comprehensive data activation. If using an identity resolution platform or device graph, be sure to understand their approach, their ratio of deterministic versus probabilistic data and how much they rely on cookies. 
  • With authentication cookies being unaffected, enabling a logged-in experience is even more valuable to track beyond shorter tracking windows and increase the amount of first-party data at your disposal. To drive registrations, be sure to provide a clear benefit to consumers such as access to exclusive content or an offer/promotional discount.
  • Prioritize Private Marketplaces and ad partners that have well-established and stable first-party relationships with consumers. From there, you can leverage those relationships for custom targeting and measurement solutions within the walls of their owned-and-operated (O&O) properties.
  • Modeling the behavior of users that can still be tracked via browsers and/or using historical data sets from before a browser’s privacy change can help with directional estimates on the number of conversions that occurred but were not attributed to paid media.
  • Revisit your reporting structure if your performance data currently resides in separate reports by channel, platform, and/or third-party data source. Having a holistic view of performance in a singular report will make high-level optimizations easier and quicker to implement, especially if any modeled conversion data is being incorporated.

In a time when advertisers are forced to traverse the thin line between effective targeting and the rights and privacy of consumers, success will rely on finding an alternative to third-party cookies. Although the true impact of this shift will remain unclear for the foreseeable future, advertisers who are ill-prepared will not only sacrifice their advertising and business. For any advertiser who doesn’t think the tides are turning, turn around and look again. As long as privacy remains a top concern for consumers, the ground underneath advertisers’ feet will continue to shift. 

The hurdles may seem steep right now, but long term, efforts to protect consumers’ privacy and enable transparency into data practices is a step in the right direction to rebuilding consumer trust and creating more meaningful consumer experiences. For any advertiser, that can be an idea they can get behind.

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