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RIP third-party cookies: What Google’s ‘pivot to privacy’ means for publishers

Google has confirmed plans to make third-party cookies obsolete within the next two years, with an aim to ‘build a more private web’ according to an update released on the Chromium blog.

It is not the first browser to do so, but with Chrome having a 67% share of the browser market, this is a significant step.

The so-called ‘death of the third-party cookie’ began early last year, with Apple announcing a new tool to block third-party ad trackers at their WWDC event in June. A few months later, Firefox said that they were releasing an enhanced tracking protection feature, which would block all third-party cookies for users on the browser by default.

Speculation that Google would follow in the footsteps of the other browsers has been mounting since they announced their Privacy Sandbox initiative last August, with the aim of developing a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy on the web.

Last September, Google was spotted adding a new ‘Block third-party cookies’ option to its latest Chrome Canary build. Now, the tech giant has confirmed it will be phasing out support for third-party cookies in Chrome.

However, Google has criticised the approach of other browsers, and says that it will take a more collaborative approach that will phase cookies out over time whilst looking for alternative solutions, rather than just offering a blocker.

In the blog post, the team write:

“After initial dialogue with the web community, we are confident that with continued iteration and feedback, privacy-preserving and open-standard mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete. Once these approaches have addressed the needs of users, publishers, and advertisers, and we have developed the tools to mitigate workarounds, we plan to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome. Our intention is to do this within two years. But we cannot get there alone, and that’s why we need the ecosystem to engage on these proposals.”

Google acknowledges that the demand for greater privacy and control over data is growing stronger, and that the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these demands.

“Some browsers have reacted to these concerns by blocking third-party cookies, but we believe this has unintended consequences that can negatively impact both users and the web ecosystem. By undermining the business model of many ad-supported websites, blunt approaches to cookies encourage the use of opaque techniques such as fingerprinting (an invasive workaround to replace cookies), which can actually reduce user privacy and control.”

Instead, Google will be working with publishers, developers and advertisers to create standards, and alternatives over the next two years that will make third-party cookies more secure, and will give users more precise cookie controls.

What does this mean for publishers?

For many publishers, this move will not be a surprise. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a concern.

Firefox and Safari’s anti-tracking moves last year have already impacted revenues. Between them, the two browsers control up to 40% of overall traffic to publisher sites, and without third-party cookies, these users are invisible to media buyers. One estimate reckoned publishers stand to lose 52% of their programmatic ad revenue at present without third-party targeting.

But this move from Google is the final nail in the coffin for the third-party cookie. 

A growing number already have plans in place to reduce reliance on third-party cookies, and the swing to first-party data was noted as one of the big publishing trends of 2019. Because publishers have a direct relationship with their audience and can process that data themselves, there’s an estimated $19bn opportunity in first-party data for publishers in the US alone.

Immediate Media is one example of a publisher who has pivoted away from third-party data. A significant amount of traffic to their portfolio comes through Google, Facebook, and browsers like Safari and Firefox which block third-party cookies by default. At one point, this meant that almost half of their audience were hidden from the advertising ecosystem.

Earlier in 2019, Immediate agreed to make its first-party data available for advertisers to view via Permutive, a neutral Data Management Platform, where both advertiser and publisher data is securely stored and can’t be shared with third parties.

As a result, Immediate saw a 135% increase in revenue, by being able to apply the data it has across a broader range of media buys. They also went from being able to identify 20% of their audience to 80%; a 7x increase in targetable inventory.

“For more than a decade, third-party providers have aggregated publisher data, packaged it and sold it to advertisers. This revenue should – and will – be reclaimed by publishers in the months to come,” said Permutive’s Kristy Schafer, in an article for Digital Content Next.

As our world grows increasingly privacy-aware – at least on the surface – Google’s plans to move away from third-party data can only be a positive thing for publishers in the long term.

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