When the Cookie Crumbles

Browsers: The Big Three Monopoly

Author: Rachael LaManna
There are three browsers that rule our digital world: Safari (Apple), Chrome (Google) and Firefox (Mozilla). Half of the population uses Chrome, with Safari coming in next at around 15%, and Firefox bringing up the rear at ~5% (according to some reports Firefox is used with the same frequency as Internet Explorer). On mobile, Chrome and Safari are by far the most popular, with Chrome coming out on top at more than 50%. 

What’s the takeaway from these usage stats?

From an advertiser’s perspective, Chrome will have an enormous impact if they decide to block third-party cookies. Chrome is owned by Google who makes the majority of its money through advertising. Chrome will likely not go cookie-less unless they have a contingency plan to continue raking in the advertising dollars. Not to say they haven’t continuously ignored users’ concerns about privacy and intrusive ads. 

Early last year, by default, Google began blocking ads that violate the Coalition for Better Ads standards. So those annoying full-page and countdown ads, as well as ads with autoplay sound and video, disappeared in the Chrome world. Not only did this improve user experience, it also boosted load times. Further, during their 2019 I/O conference, Google announced new privacy policies will be put in place, likely in Q4 ’19. When they are, it will probably involve putting a stop to fingerprinting and giving consumers the option to block and/or delete cookies. 

For now, Chrome is an all-out cookie environment, but when and if it does decide to go cookie-less, there will most likely be a plan of action (unless they’re okay with losing a large amount of revenue). They even seem to be going in the opposite direction of Manifest V3 that prevents non-paid Chrome users from enabling adblocking. Only time will tell exactly the direction Chrome will go. 

Safari, the second-largest browser used, already blocks cookies. At first, they only blocked third-party cookies, but because people were utilizing Link Decoration, a workaround that stores third-party cookies as first-party, first-party cookies are now capped to seven days and will soon be capped to one day. That means, no retargeting after seven days and this is only if Link Decoration is involved and someone clicked on the ad. This will soon switch to 24 hours. 

Lastly (and somewhat least), Firefox will now, by default, block third-party cookies similar to Safari’s original ITP: Enhanced Tracking Protection. First-party cookies will still be allowed which means Link Decoration will most likely still be used.

Link Decoration Deep-Dive

As previously stated, Link Decoration is a workaround that allows third-party tracking by masking third-party cookies as first-party. This Digiday article explains it perfectly.

A side note on Link Decoration that all browsers should take seriously: It runs without consumers’ knowledge, so consumers can’t wipe collected information. Therefore it raises serious privacy concerns according to an AdExchanger report. And that data could contain PII.

How Worried Should Advertisers Be?

There are quite a few reasons we shouldn’t freak out just yet. 

  1. Advertising now happens in a multi-channel environment. Desktop display placements are just one component. Mobile, audio, and CTV are among the fastest-growing channels that also rely heavily on device IDs and cross-device targeting. 
  2. From a tech perspective, ads are already being effectively delivered in both cookie and cookie-less environments.
  3. If Google and other companies shift to a device-ID approach for web browsers, similar to Apple’s device ID, which powers the mobile in-app environment, everyone stands to benefit. That includes advertisers and consumers. 
  4. If Google does decide to go cookie-less, Google ID (Gmail) can always be utilized. (According to a poll by Morning Consult, 44% of Americans use Gmail.)
  5. Chrome will not go cookie-less without a backup solution. There is too much loss to be had in advertising dollars.
  6. Utilizing ITP or similar systems could be a way to make the Internet safer for everyone while complying and getting ahead of privacy laws that have already been passed in Europe (GDPR) and may make their way to the U.S like the CCPA.
  7. In terms of targeting, do cookies really matter? According to Wall Street Journal article, research suggests publishers only get about 4% more revenue for an ad impression that is cookie-enabled than for one that isn’t.
How do we survive in a post-cookie world?

In terms of tracking, we’re kind of already doing it. In fact, advertisers are doing okay in cookie-less environments, utilizing device IDs and cross-device measurement. 

As for targeting, keep in mind that mobile location data is especially key! Everyone always has their phone with them, and you can tell a lot by where people go: We know when a stay-at-home parent goes to school 10x/week to drop off/pick up their kids and runs to stores during the day a few times a week. Then there is employing contextual targeting on cookie-less browsers which tends to work fairly well for campaigns.

For action items, if we don’t have access to device ID and cross-device measurement, for now, we can also block or reduce the budget on browsers that show poor performance due to cookie-less environments. 

Taking all this into consideration, the tech world is moving at breakneck speed. Next year, we will have far better insights on what to do in a cookie-less environment, as Chrome will most likely have taken a much stronger stance on tracking by then. Media Matters Worldwide will continue sharing ideas and thoughts with you.