Breaking Down the Cookie Crumble: How Google’s ‘Cookiepocalypse’ Will Reshape Online Advertising

Since they were invented by Netscape Communications’ Lou Montulli way back in 1994, third-party cookies have formed a core part of the wider web browsing experience. In the three decades they have been around, businesses have depended on them to offer an unobtrusive yet versatile means of tracking user behaviour.

However, the era of the third-party cookie is now coming to a long-awaited end. Since 2010, Google has occasionally hinted that they would eventually deprecate third-party cookies on their popular Chrome browser. Not much was made of these statements until January 12, 2020, when Google officially announced that third-party cookies would be disappearing from Chrome. Given that Chrome is the most dominant browser for both desktop and mobile users, the announcement instantly set online advertisers on edge.

The so-called “Cookiepocalypse” would take some time to ramp up, but four years on, it’s finally arrived. In January 2024, Google started rolling out a feature called “Tracking Protection” to 1% of Chrome users to validate their approach before phasing out third-party cookies entirely in the second half of the year.

If the significance of the Cookiepocalypse hasn’t set in, just yet, it helps to take a refresher on what cookies are and how they affect our collective browsing experience:

 

What Is a Cookie?

Web cookies are small data parcels stored on a user’s device, usually placed there by websites the user visits. Cookies can serve a range of benign purposes, such as remembering login credentials and personalising user experiences. However, they are generally disliked because of their use in tracking browsing habits. Though tracking via cookies can be used to offer a better experience, all too often they’re used for malicious reasons, leading to their unpopularity with many users.

Different Types of Cookies

Contrary to what the buzz online is saying, Google is not planning to deprecate all cookies. First-party cookies that are set by the websites themselves to enable functions like autocomplete will be spared from the coming changes. The cookies that Google does plan to eliminate are third-party cookies, which  are set by domains other than the one the user is visiting.

Third-party cookies are the ones most commonly utilised for tracking and advertising purposes. As such, they are considered privacy threats by many users and a growing number of governments.

What Is This Cookiepocalypse Update?

The “Cookiepocalypse Update” refers to Google’s resolution to end support for third-party cookies on Chrome. Google’s decision makes a significant impact and warrants a name like “Cookiepocalypse” due to Chrome’s sheer dominance of the global browser market share (over 65.74% as of February 2024, according to data collated by Statista). Competing browsers such as Safari 18.1%), Edge (4.98%), and Firefox (3.13%) have been limiting third-party cookies for several years now, but due to their significantly smaller market shares, their lack of cookie support has barely warranted mentions in the press.

Timeline of the Update

Google officially announced that it would eventually stop supporting third-party cookies in early 2020. Remarkably, in March 2021, David Temkin, Director of Product Management, Ads Privacy, and Trust at Google announced that no alternative methods would be used to replace cookies in Google’s offerings.

“(W)e’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products,” he wrote.

Given that more than 65% of the world’s internet users use Chrome, an instantaneous update would have been catastrophic for the global data economy, particularly as the online landscape was still shifting due to COVID-19. As such, Google has continually delayed the rollout of the Cookiepocalype.

Finally, after years of setbacks and delays, the Cookiepocalypse started in January 2024, though for only a fraction of Chrome users. Currently, it seems that Google is going for a phased approach that will allow advertisers and site publishers time to pivot. While the plan is to disable third-party cookies for all Chrome users by Q3 2024, more delays are still possible, in large part due to the high stakes involved in the update.

How It Affects Advertising

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Cookiepocalypse for online advertising. Over the past three decades, a data economy worth billions of dollars has been built around third-party cookies, with many businesses utterly reliant on these small bits of data to drive sales. While third-party cookies will still be around in some form, Google’s decision will effectively end cookie-based advertising as we’ve understood it.

Though Google did say that they “will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals”, what this probably means is that they have already devised an effective way to track entire demographics, rather than single users. This would still allow Google to serve targeted ads, though they may seem less specific than the ones served by cookies. It should also be said that it’s unlikely that Google will ever give up on ads altogether, given that they are central to its business.

Online advertisers themselves may have to brace for a much different online landscape. After all, even if a user falls within a target demographic, they are not likely to share all the interests of the other users they are lumped with. With that in mind, businesses will need to lean more on data collected through their own channels and experiment with ads based on wider contexts, such as what Google is currently doing on YouTube.

Wayforward Plan for a Cookie-less Future

In a cookie-less future, advertisers will have to look at alternatives to cookies that can provide similar levels of customer intel. Artificial intelligence is one promising area, as it can already be used to enable more accurate contextual targeting. Partnerships with social media companies may also provide advertisers a way to get more accurate data on users, provided the users themselves have cleared it. Device-identifier data could also provide advertisers with yet another accurate touchpoint for user information if this avenue is not subjected to regulatory restrictions.

Conclusion and Takeaways

Should it finally roll out to all Google Chrome users, the Cookiepocalypse will doubtlessly bring a whole host of changes in online advertising, especially in search engine marketing. When it eventually arrives, there’s bound to be some growing pains and heaps of uncertainty.

What we can be sure of is advertisers’ collective ability to innovate. There’s no doubt that, if third-party cookies were to disappear tomorrow, some very smart people would find ways to legally gather data that’s about as accurate as what cookies provided. Until the Cookiepocalypse does come, however, we can only speculate what the next winning formula for user tracking will be.

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