User Data and Third Party Cookies: Looking Ahead

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One of the most powerful tools that digital media buyers have at our disposal since the onset of internet advertising has been the ability to serve ads to targeted online audiences.

The foundation for this targeted ad delivery is the cookie, a tiny snippet of code that is housed within a web server like Chrome or Safari and collects data about you as you browse around the web. There are two kinds of cookies, first-party and third-party. 

First-party cookies track and store information on the websites you visit and save data about your web behavior. First party cookies were originally intended to make your web surfing more convenient. Like when you go to sign into an app or website you’ve been to before and find your username and password have already been entered into the fields. Many users don’t mind first-party cookies as they definitely help to speed things up. 

Separate from first-party cookies are third-party cookies that many consider to be more nefarious. Third-party cookies are more powerful, and they have the ability to collect information across multiple websites, see your purchases, remember the content you consume and basically follow you and serve ads to you wherever you go. Third-party cookies rely on pixels (another type of code in the form of an image) that acts as an intermediary between the web server and ad servers looking to drop ads in front of target audiences. 

In 2016, EU and UK governments adopted a policy called GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation. GDPR requires websites to make their cookie policies overtly clear to site visitors. To this day, the U.S. doesn’t mandate a cookie notification standard. This has left it up to private companies to establish their own policies on privacy and data sharing. Many companies in the United States have since adopted European GDPR standards, for good reason. 

Enter Apple, Google and Facebook, the three titans of data and the top ad delivery platforms in the world. It’s been clear for some time that changes were coming in relation to how these mega companies will gather and share user data. Here on the digital media buying side of the fence, we’ve been keeping a close eye on how potential shifting data privacy policies will affect our ability to target online audiences. 

It goes without saying that data provided by third-party cookies is very useful to digital advertisers offering demographic, behavioral, geographic and contextual information to sell products and services more effectively online. The media tactic called retargeting or remarketing allows us to serve ads to users who have visited a website already but may not have completed the call to action during their session. Thanks to those illustrious third-party cookies that tell the ad server that a user has visited a particular site, we are able to re-serve a retargeting banner ad which then drives users back to the client’s website. When the user gets back to the website, the hope is they’ll complete the call-to-action while they are there, whether it’s a form fill, phone call or other type of lead generation or inquiry activity.

In 2020 Google committed to “sunset” its use of third-party cookies over the next two years which basically meant its Chrome browser eventually would no longer share data about user website activity with ad servers. Google introduced and starting testing its Privacy Sandbox, an approach to data collection designed to eliminate personally identifiable information in favor of “web crowds” with generalized but similar interests. More recently, Google moved its own goal posts, extending the launch date of Privacy Sandbox into 2023. 

In April 2021 Apple made it easier for mobile app users who had upgraded to iOS 14.5 to choose whether or not they wanted their data to be shared by third-party cookies. Apple’s presentation of such mobile app consent decrees infuriated data-sharing sites such as Facebook. Despite these new limitations imposed by Apple, Facebook still holds the title as one of the most prolific and lucrative advertising platforms in the world. 

While we can’t predict the outcome of all these changes, we can say for sure that the methods available for targeting audiences on web and mobile platforms are going to evolve in the months and years to come. Data sharing isn’t disappearing, but it’s most likely going to be less individualized and more collective in the future.

Want to discuss how to get started with a media campaign? Interested in learning more about SEO? Let’s talk! 

Anne Richardson

​Anne Richardson is the owner and media director of Richardson Media Group, an agency specializing in media planning and buying, advertising campaign management and SEO.

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Anne outside the door of the Richardson Media Group office.

In addition to her role as owner and media director here at RMG, Anne authors the majority of our blog posts and hosts our BSuite podcast. Favorite topics for both platforms include the entrepreneurial journey, sustainability + social responsibility, media planning, media buying, and forming productive agency partnerships.