2024: Google Ending Third-party Cookies – What Marketers Need to Know

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There’s been an awful lot of cookie-talk lately. In 2020, search engine behemoth Google announced that it would slowly end third-party cookies and, in doing so, change how digital marketing functions. As the deadline neared, Google announced in March 2021 that the move to a cookie-less world could wait another year – or two.

Google killing third-party cookies in 2024 has ushered in a new era in digital marketing, but it’s been a long road to get here and Google wasn’t the first search engine to make the move.

Google Bans Third-party Cookies (Years Behind Competitors)

This resource focuses on Google, the current mover and shaker. However, browsers and other technologies without third-party cookies (or that allow users to opt out of tracking) already exist and have for some time. The Google cookie deprecation timeline has been a long, slow march, with Google consistently behind its industry competitors.

  • Firefox started blocking third-party cookies by default in 2019.
  • In March 2020, Apple began blocking all third-party cookies and probably took more than a little pride in beating Google to the punch.
  • Based on several Google posts, we expect that all third-party cookies will (finally) be gone by the end of 2024, making the world’s largest search engine and ad publisher last to the privacy party.

Why Is Google Stopping Third-Party Cookies?

Much of Google’s intent was outlined in the initial 2020 statement. The company is focused on meeting users’ demand for increased privacy and transparency in how their data is collected, packaged and sold to advertisers.

Privacy has been a hot topic in tech for years, but the reckoning didn’t hit balance sheets until recently. Companies like Facebook have been successfully sued for privacy violations, while Apple is leaning into security as perhaps the most important feature that differentiates it from competitors.

Google settled a $5 billion privacy and antitrust case in the final days of 2023. It’s the largest privacy-related settlement in history and arrives as digital advertising spend has slowed since the heady days of the pandemic.

Who Will Be Affected by the Change?

The answer is: all Chrome users and pretty much all businesses who do digital marketing! Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari have already stopped collecting third-party cookie data, with Apple beating Google to the punch by three years. 

At last count, about 2.65 billion people were using Chrome worldwide, including 53.1% of North American internet users and 78.9% of users in South America. Marketing with third-party cookies is already changing how marketers collect, analyze and act on data, making accurate reporting more important than ever.

How Exactly Will This Work?

Google announced a phased process to turn off user cookies over several months. In January 2024, Google confirmed roughly 30 million users were transitioned, with all Chrome users cookie-free by Q3 2024 – right before the all-important holiday shopping season kicks off.

Google and Third-party Cookies: What’s the Big Deal?

It’s not too dramatic to say these third-party cookies are the basis of online advertising infrastructure and that many companies – especially ecommerce brands – have built large portions of their marketing strategy on them. Removing third-party cookies will limit the amount of data companies like Google can gather about browsing habits, information it sells or uses to serve highly relevant ads to the right people at the right time.

For marketers, this all translates to more difficult ad targeting processes and accurately tracking cross-channel conversion.

Does Google Analytics Use Third-party Cookies?

The ubiquitous gtag.js tag used by Google Analytics (recently renamed the Google Tag) collects first-party data. Google does do some baking, however. Google Ads is the largest digital advertising platform in the world, and that business has already felt the pinch of a post-cookie world. Early research shows Ads struggles to serve personalized ads effectively; non-cookie users yield 52% less revenue – and that’s data from Google Ads Manager.  

Here are some other changes (both ugly and hopeful) that you can expect:

  • Third-party advertisers will have a hard time. One study by the Competition and Market Authority in the United Kingdom found that short-term revenue from online publishers could see a 70% decrease in ad revenue.
  • Ecommerce businesses will feel the burn, too. If most of your revenue comes through ecommerce, third-party cookies are a vital part of finding high-quality new customers and using remarketing to bring back past users. Ecommerce channel ad spend has been increasing for years, but the pandemic accelerated spend by nearly 50% in 2020. If these ads aren’t as effective in a post-cookie world, brands may invest their marketing budgets differently.
  • Content will need to be consistently awesome to fill the funnel. No more creeping on an individual’s browser activity to get in front of them. Businesses must use SEO and content marketing to attract users at various sales funnel stages and nurture them from there!
  • First-party data will become your best friend. Marketers can still rely on first-party data from attribution and ABM software, from tech giants, and their own fancy custom event tracking. (More about this below.)

Alternatives to Third-Party Cookies

The internet isn’t going anywhere, and Google cookies going away won’t stop marketers from developing data-driven strategies to meet business objectives. Brands can still derive plenty of information about users and run effective campaigns.

Here’s how:

Double down on First-party Cookies

First-party cookies will be more important than ever. Setting up event tracking for campaigns allows you to leverage anonymized data from your domains and evaluate user behavior.

It’s worth noting that the two biggest first-party data collection companies in the world are – surprise, surprise – Google and Facebook. When your audience uses these products (think Gmail, ads, Google Maps, etc.), the technology hands over prodigious amounts of data based on what content was consumed, that person’s friends and contacts, and their browsing habits. Facebook has tracking tools on eight million websites worldwide, while more than a billion people use Google products per month.

Besides relying on existing tools to apply first-party data to your marketing, you can also set up tracking to collect deeper data on your own. Remember, the sooner you prepare for phasing out third-party cookies, the sooner you’ll have accurate comparative data based on first-party data.

Build a First-Party Data Strategy. First-party data comes directly and exclusively from your users’ interactions with your web properties. While the methods of applying this to a specific business case can be quite complex, there are three key steps to get on the right track:

  1. Identify users and confirm consent. If your users are no longer anonymous, it’s much easier to piece together their journey. Prompt to sign in or sign up as soon as possible. Bolster identification by allowing SSOs, enhancing the user experience for users that connect their social accounts, and utilizing progressive profiling to get more information where appropriate. Also, use this opportunity to confirm consent with your Data Collection and Privacy Policies.
  2. Capture user actions as data points and custom metrics. Every click, tap and text input on your site is a chance to collect valuable insights. Identify (and create) opportunities to correlate information about a user (and their choices) to other factors. Create opportunities for users to express their preferences – give them more choices, prompts and ways to provide you with feedback and volunteer information (without being creepy). If you’re hip with Google Analytics 4, this should sound familiar to you – these “events” are exactly what GA4 was designed for!
  3. Analyze, categorize and correlate. Now that we have two data sets, one based on Cohorts and one based on our real users, we can infer connections between the two. Data analysis is both an art and a science, but there are a few things anyone should be able to manage:
    a. Analyze the data. Take a gander at your GA4 analytics, experiment with the new reports, and bask in the glory of your data! Does anything surprise you? Your actionable trends tend to live in areas that seem “off” in analytics data. If you’re really tech savvy (or have support from an agency), use your new custom metrics in Google Big Query to dive even deeper, create unique reports in Google LookerStudio and more.
    b. Categorize your users into groups that matter for your business. Were certain users served specific campaigns? Did certain users come from different channels? How about demographic or geographical segments? Retention, conversion, engagement, share of voice? The possibilities are endless, but don’t go overboard or you’ll have trouble filtering the signal from the noise.
    c. Correlate those groups with Cohorts. Make inferences about cohort groups based on your new first-party user categories. This will allow you to offer some degree of personalization at the top of the funnel, even before interacting with the user!

Let your users “Choose their own adventure.” Your users have intention – let them present you with that intent as soon as possible. Give them clear, navigational choices that will set them on a personalized path to conversion. Often called “Experiential Design,” this UX philosophy places priority on making the user’s path more engaging from the start. Gamifying or “Choose your own adventure”-ifying the experience and user identification process works much better than old-school transactional methods of gathering information (e.g.: “Want a coupon? Give us that email address!”).

Make Great Internet

The real key to thriving won’t change! Just make accessible, exciting, useful and stunning content. If you’re already focused on content marketing, keep improving. In the cookieless world, businesses must rely on search behavior as a proxy for market demand. Draw in new users with excellent content that performs well in search engines and speaks to every stage of the buyer’s mindset. If you don’t have one already, we suggest a robust content calendar that covers multiple content marketing channels.  

Change the focus of your KPIs. As we move forward, quality metrics like session duration, pages per session and % of return/new users might become more important for analyzing a successful campaign. Many of these KPIs should focus on your specific marketing goals. If you’re focused strictly on revenue, find ways to connect data points you trust to that goal. For example, revenue is more affected by average cart total than sessions.

Another important focus should be the customer journey. Use event tracking, specific annotations in Google Analytics and Google 4, and measure wins and losses by how efficiently users move through the sales process. Using automated and comprehensive A/B testing should also help to confirm or conflict with your established theories about relevant KPIs. If a marketing effort, be it SEO or paid or social, works or fails, learn why so it can be replicated/avoided.

Data Privacy Is a Selling Point for Brands

As a societal issue, privacy is a fundamental shift that matters to your customers. According to Deloitte, 83% of consumers say they’re aware of recent breaches of personal data stored with retailers. 59% said a single data breach would negatively impact their likelihood of buying products from that company. That may not be surprising, but it’s not indicative of an audience that mistrust brands.

Viewing privacy as a hurdle is wrong; it’s an opportunity to build a lasting relationship with customers by valuing their concerns and protecting their data.

Buckle Up

We’re about to embark on a brave new digital world, but it’s a world that will look strikingly similar to the one we’re already scrolling through. By investing in great content, brilliant graphic design and always prioritizing the user experience, brands from any industry can thrive without third-party cookies.

At Oneupweb, we love this stuff. If you’d like to learn more about data privacy, third-party cookies and the pressing tech and marketing topics of the day, let’s chat. Get in touch or call (231) 922-9977 to get started.

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