Cookies have been a standard user tracking technology for more than two decades already, but their decline is more than certain at this stage. As the topic of privacy is on the rise and more browsers enable easy or default third-party cookies blocking, both marketers and publishers need to review their data and targeting strategy. It also means there is a room for new tracking solutions to come up.
What is exactly going on?
Browsers do not like third-party cookies anymore. The first one to implement a smart blocking mechanism was Apple, who added Intelligence Tracking Prevention (ITP) to their Safari in 2017. The next move was made by Mozilla, which armed its Firefox with Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) earlier this year. Both these features work by default, ie. block cookies automatically unless a user decides otherwise.
Still, the final hit that will make third-party cookies dead is coming from Google. The new tool already enabled in Chrome Canary, and soon to be available in standard version of Chrome, is going to make users have a better control over tracking, which means they will be more likely not to accept it. As Chrome is the biggest global browser and everything is happening in the light of GDPR, CCPA and focus on privacy, we can be pretty sure cookies as we know them will belong to the past in the coming months.
The question that waits to be answered is: what it means to publishers?
As user tracking based on cookies will soon be impossible or at least inefficient, so will be behavioural targeting built upon user profiles. The first thing that has been widely discussed in the press is the big comeback of contextual targeting. In general, we agree that at least temporarily getting back to good old targeting based on the content a user currently reads is very likely to be the solution of first resort. The keyword parsing technologies are already on the market, so is the experience as it was a primary method for many years in the past.
The potential positive aspects of this move is that it might be worth putting more emphasis on the quality of the content and the relevance of the advertising again. Given that, publishers might be more likely to push ads through a better quality assurance process, so you can be sure that when you read an article about a new car, you will only see automotive ads, and not creatives unrelated to the article.
No third-party data does not necessarily mean no data at all. At least some publishers may still monetize first-party data they already have, especially if they offer some sort of newsletter or other subscription service, eg. unique content for those who log in. We can expect them to leverage even more data regarding demographics and other dimensions obtained for e-mails, create packages and then offer them advertisers.
Another hypothesis says that we will experience the rise of paywalls, so publishers can compensate potential declines in advertising revenues and enhance their first-party data pools. Still, such move would come at a risk of losing users, so it is likely we will see any quick decisions here.
Fingerprints and IPs
Apparently one of the most promising alternatives to cookies is also going to take a hit from Google. According to their statement, they are going to prevent user tracking based on fingerprints, ie. various techniques blending multiple types of data related to the browser, OS etc. Although at the current stage digital fingerprints do not reach the same precision as cookies, Google claims they are not transparent, hence they will protect users from them.
To sum up
As currently there is no reasonable alternative, the decline of third-party cookies due to blocking will probably mean a step backwards when it comes to behavioural advertising. On the other hand, the likely comeback to contextual targeting and more emphasis on the brand awareness instead of direct response will probably have a positive influence on those publishers who focus on quality content.