Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
The history of cookies
In the last few years, most Internet users will have noticed a significant increase in the number of adverts they see, or noticed features, such as personalised recommendations or previously viewed items when they revisit websites. Cookies are tiny data files, which the sites you visit store on your computer or device. In recent years, cookies have earned a bad reputation, but there are advantages. In some cases, cookies can enhance the user experience and simplify and speed up buying processes. They can also make life easier by saving preferences when browsing, for example, selecting a language or currency.
Cookies came to the fore in the 1990s when computer programmer, Lou Montulli, developed the first cookie for his Netscape browser. The first purpose of the cookie was to determine whether the user had visited the site before. They then developed and evolved to enable websites to store user preferences.
The cookie in its original form posed little threat to web users, but concerns grew about the potential impact of following and monitoring user interactions and journeys, sparking debate about privacy and security.
For many years, third-party cookies have been hugely beneficial for marketers and advertisers who used data to target customers, remarket products and improve the quality and focus of leads. Now, the future looks uncertain due to new privacy regulations, enhanced user controls, ad blockers and changes to browsers, including Google Chrome.
What is the problem with Cookies?
Cookie usage is increasingly unpopular, but what are the problems with cookies and why are regulations changing? Here are some of the main issues:
- Privacy: another major concern for Internet users is a lack of privacy. Cookies monitor movement, recording online activity as people browse different sites. Some people may not be aware that their every move is being tracked. The issue of privacy is particularly pertinent when discussing third-party cookies, as the information the cookies gather can be passed to a third party.
- Browser use: the more you use the Internet, the more files your computer will store from cookie-enabled sites. If you don’t delete cookies, they can take up space on the hard drive and start to slow the computer down.
- User experience: there are clear benefits to user experience through using cookies, but this is not always the case. Most users do not want to be bombarded by ads while they are trying to browse sites, read articles or enjoy social media.
What’s been happening?
In the last two years, there has been a huge amount of interest in cookies due to announcements from major tech companies, including Google. In 2020, Google revealed plans to phase out third-party cookies on Chrome in 2022 (this has now been delayed until 2023). This was a move that followed similar revelations from Mozilla and Apple. Apple introduced an anti-tracking tool for use with the Safari browser and Mozilla’s Firefox browser also installed an anti-tracking feature to block third-party cookies. Microsoft Edge has also enabled cookie blocking on its Edge browser. These measures came about in response to growing concerns over user privacy and new regulations, which were designed to protect consumers.
The removal of third-party cookies from browsers has prompted discussion about the future, particularly among advertisers and marketers who benefited from being able to collect and analyse data via cookies. The end of cookie usage means that marketers and businesses that previously relied on data to advertise products and services are exploring new opportunities, solutions and methods. In response to Google’s plans to put a stop to third-party cookies, a survey published on HubSpot (source) revealed:
- 41% of marketers said their biggest challenge would be finding ways to track the right data
- 44% of marketers feared they will have to increase spending on marketing
- 23% of marketers are looking to increase spending on email marketing software
Important notes on Google’s phase-out
Google’s cookie phase-out is headline news. It’s important to note that there are key issues to be aware of as Google looks to ban some cookies. These include:
- Google is not banning all cookies: the phase-out will not impact the use of first-party cookies.
- Many marketing experts predicted a clampdown on cookie usage long before Google’s announcement due to new regulations and privacy laws, such as GDPR.
- Google will continue to track online activity through new technology and tools.
- The end of third-party cookies is likely to encourage creativity among marketers and innovative entrepreneurs.
What does the future hold?
This is the burning question for marketers, advertisers, business owners and consumers alike. The end looks to be nigh for third-party cookies, so what will happen next? As one door closes, more will open. Here are some solutions and ideas that are likely to play a role in how the Internet and marketers will adapt:
- Prioritising first-party cookies: first-party cookies are stored directly by the website the user visits. They play a key role in providing information that improves and personalises the customer experience. Browsers are not banning first-party cookies and marketers and businesses can still utilise first-party data to generate leads, increase sales and provide a better experience for site visitors. Research suggests that many consumers are willing to offer information to sites in exchange for benefits, for example, setting personal choices and gaining access to product recommendations.
- Enhancing customer engagement: focusing on first-party cookies, using analytics to track and monitor interactions and communicating directly with clients and web users enables marketing teams and business owners to learn more about their customers and to engage on a deeper level.
- Discovering new or different tools: third-party cookies are not the only way to collect data or learn more about user preferences, consumer habits or marketing and buying trends. Businesses and site owners can look to discover new or different tools that enable them to collect data in a safe, legal manner. Google, for example, will still allow marketers to target customers through first-party cookies and its Privacy Sandbox tools. It will also introduce Topics, a tool that enables advertisers to access three topics or areas of interest.
- Going the extra mile to provide the best experience: there is scope for the end of third-party cookies to trigger far-ranging improvements in user experience and the quality of marketing. If the experience is good enough and customers are impressed, they may still be willing to share data.
- Multi-channel touchpoints: in the absence of third-party tracking cookies, marketers and advertisers could diversify channels to look beyond tried and tested methods and cover a wider range of touchpoints.
This article has outlined what’s happening with cookies. Cookie usage is decreasing, but what happens next? As browsers take steps to ban third-party cookies and new regulations and privacy controls limit cookie exposure, it’s interesting to discuss what is happening now and what will happen next. The end of third-party cookies may be nigh, but first-party cookies will remain an integral tool for marketers, business owners and advertisers. It is likely that new tools and browser features will emerge, and creative, innovative marketers will come up with exciting, new ways to collect data and tailor customer experiences. There are opportunities to improve the quality of marketing, explore new channels and touchpoints and enhance user experience while prioritising security and privacy.