Search Engine Marketing Home / Blog article: Reaching the end of the cookie jar…

Reaching the end of the cookie jar…


By Alex Jacobson

On the 22nd of February Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford University graduate of Law and Computer Science, announced his first contribution to the Firefox codebase: a patch along with version 22 that will install a new default Firefox cookie policy set-up to reject many 3rd party cookies. The news has prompted the IAB general counsel Mike Zaneis to declare this a “nuclear first strike against ad industry,”

To really understand what impact this will have, it’s best to outline what exactly a 3rd party cookie can and can’t do.

Cookies are small files of code, stored on your computer, that hold information within them about your browsing habits. Many websites – from Amazon to the BBC – use 1st party cookies to help them customise and optimise their site around a user’s previous visit. Many times cookies will simply stamp your browser with a unique ID so that shopping carts or articles will be displayed to you based on the last time you were there.

Aside from this specific browser information, a user must volunteer anything else cookies may pick up. So there’s no way a cookie can record that my name is Alex, nor that I’m a Spurs fan, and not my age, gender, post code etc… unless I have actively chosen to give a particular site that information. Furthermore, after recent IAB Cookie Law changes, it is illegal for 3rd party cookies from other sites to pass on any personal information like names and email addresses.

As the success of online display advertising has grown, it has increasingly become the norm for sites to make their money by allowing 3rd party cookies from other sites and Ad Servers to be passed on to their visitors. Doing so gives advertisers the ability to dynamically show ads a certain number of times to an individual’s browser, in a particular sequence, and at a particular time. The huge growth in remarketing and display optimisation strategies can also attribute their success to the rich cookie pools that advertisers have been able to accumulate from their online campaigns. Over time brands have been able to learn, anonymously, what their customers show interest in online and serve them advertising more appropriate to their needs. 3rd party cookies are also at the heart of how media agencies are able to reliably measure impression delivery, click through rates, and conversions for all of their bought media online campaigns.

So is all the measurability and intelligent delivery of display advertising really at stake? After all, this is what makes it such an attractive tool for brands.

It certainly isn’t the first of such threats to the industry recently – Safari has a similar 3rd party cookie policy in place now, and a breach by DoubleClick last year prompted the FTC to charge Google a record $22.5 million fine. According to GS Stat counter, whilst only 8% of browsing was done through Safari in January 2013, Firefox accounted for a much larger 21%. In the short-term, once Firefox version 22 does come out, unless users actively enable the option themselves, there might be little that can be done about reaching these users with 3rd party cookies.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom for digital advertising – for starters, not all Ad Serving functionalities rely on 3rd party cookies. The ability to select a best performing creative, for example, functions via the use of a 1st party cookie. In the advent of Safari’s policy, and with ad blockers on the rise, Ad Servers have already been using IP addresses to help target customers. Whilst this doesn’t provide as accurate data as cookie level information might, it still can provide a pretty detailed insight into the behaviour of consumers at a household level who are using browsers that block 3rd party cookies.

Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that 67% of Internet usage occurs through Chrome and Internet Explorer, which still allow 3rd party cookies, and Ad Servers like DoubleClick and MediaMind give advertisers the ability to target or avoid certain browsers. Considering that TV advertising uses BARB ratings based on about 5000 homes, the millions of eyeballs still available will continue to provide brands with a pretty decent ROI.

Long term, there are still plenty of tracking options available. Using the Internet requires a whole host of identifiers; even when in incognito or privacy mode a browser gives out about 20 bits of identifying information, and newer languages like HTML5 offer advertisers a way of tracking that doesn’t need cookies to work at all. Advertising on the web will not always need 3rd party cookies, so when choosing the right solutions for a brand in the future the question will be whether the older, larger and more established tools currently used as an industry will have adapted quickly enough to provide them.

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