Conversations about consumers’ data privacy reached a pinnacle in the last few years, and major technology companies responded by setting plans to stop the use of third-party cookies.

What do we mean when we say the end of third-party cookies? We wish it meant canceling a gathering of three people eating cookies. What it really means is that a number of tech companies announced their intentions to stop tracking website visitors’ browsing and online purchasing behavior through third-party cookies.

Cookies are files housed on your computer that contain identifying data about you/your device as you connect to a network and surf the web. Data stored in the cookie is created by the website’s server when you connect.

Where did the cookies go?

Savvy marketers aren’t scratching their heads a la Cookie Monster after gobbling all his treats. We’ve known the days of third-party cookies tracking were limited since early 2020 when Google announced plans to block third-party cookies from Chrome in mid-2023. In fact, Safari and Firefox stopped allowing third-party tracking more than a year ago. Earlier in 2021, Apple’s iOS 14.5 update added a prompt for users to grant permission before apps can track their online activity.

The move is tech companies’ response to consumers’ growing demand to understand how these same companies have used their data in the past. Consumers’ data has been collected for decades with little to no transparency about the process until events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal made the conversation about data privacy a household discussion. Now, 63 percent of respondents in a Consumers International and Internet Society survey say they find data collection “creepy.”

What really are third-party cookies?

Why do we care about these cookies we can’t even eat? Cookies allow marketers to better place relevant advertisements in front of site visitors. Many would argue they also facilitate a better user experience, placing more relevant ads in front of users to help them find what they want and more easily navigate to sites they’ve previously visited.

First-party cookies

First-party tracking — when the server for the website you visited saves your information, for instance — facilitates a better user experience. For example, an individual may navigate to an online clothing shop. The business can access the user’s data through first-party cookies tracking. The site can auto-generate a visitor’s username and remember items they added to a shopping cart.

Third-party cookies

These cookies are created by website domains other than the one the user visited directly. The third-party, often marketers, receive insight as to how an individual moves across several sites on the web. Let’s say the clothing site searcher later browsed beach vacation rentals. Third-party cookies tracking could, with the help of sophisticated algorithms, tailor upcoming digital display ads for that individual to feature swimsuits and beach attire.

Without third-party cookies tracking, internet users will still be served digital display ads. The downside is that those ads will be much less relevant than before, making the search for that perfect product more arduous.

What does this mean?

While consumers may be excited about increased data transparency and privacy, the end of third-party cookies could ultimately mean a worse browsing experience and a deluge of irrelevant ads. We know relevant content builds engagement.

And some are concerned that data transparency will still be lacking. Our web developers foresee companies like Google assigning online users to groups. Individuals’ privacy requests will be honored, but they’ll be grouped into a category of like-minded consumers whose data still will be recorded and repurposed.

“Group activity will still be tracked, but each individuals’ action won’t be recorded,” predicted Yancy de Lathouder, vice president of technology. “That’s kind of Google splitting hairs.”

One thing is for certain: now is not the time to step away from digital display and social advertising. Pivot to tactics that were proven effective long before third-party cookies tracking was available, and sharpen your approach to targeting relevant audiences while respecting consumers’ data privacy preferences.

“One thing marketers need to remember: we’re all in the same boat. Now is the time to reassess your marketing efforts to make them as effective as possible. We’re already preparing for the next steps.”

“One thing marketers need to remember: we’re all in the same boat,” Travis Ziemke, media director, assured. “Now is the time to reassess your marketing efforts to make them as effective as possible. We’re already preparing for the next steps.”

Learn more about how we’ll do that in our second installment.