Who wants to exist in a world without cookies? Apple, apparently. With its recent release of iOS 14 for iPhone and impending release of macOS Big Sur for desktop devices, Apple continues to move full steam ahead with its anti-tracking measures, giving pause to cookie-using publishers everywhere.
What are cookies in the digital ecosystem?
None of that chocolate chip or shortbread nonsense here! Cookies in the tech context are little bits of data that web browsers store to your computer. There are two varieties of this type of cookie: first- and third-party.
First-party cookies are created directly by a website while you’re visiting and are only accessible by that website. They’re important for enhancing the user experience. When Amazon remembers your account log-in information and the products you previously browsed for, this is because of first-party cookies. Apple doesn’t have an issue with these (yet).
Do you ever get some eerily specific display ads while reading a news article for products you once searched for? You can thank third-party cookies for this.
This cookie variety is created by outside groups while you’re visiting a specific website. They track and capture your browsing behavior, the device you’re browsing on, and the location you’re browsing from. Advertisers then use this data to fill ad spots (sold by publishers) with highly personalized ads. Apple has an issue with these cookies.
How is Apple taking action against third-party cookies?
It’s expanding its intelligent tracking prevention (ITP) measures. While ITP isn’t new, the feature’s role in Apple’s latest iOS 14 update, and soon the macOS Big Sur update, is more prevalent than ever. Cross-site tracking (via third-party cookies) was previously blocked on only Apple’s browser, Safari. Now, it will also be automatically blocked in other browsers, including Google’s Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, on Apple devices running these operating systems.
This comes as yet another blow to publishers dependent on ad revenue from programmatic advertising. Earlier this year, Google announced an initiative to eliminate the use of third-party cookies in its Chrome browser by 2022, and Apple has worked since 2017 on anti-tracking measures within Safari.
As of August 2020, Google’s Chrome dominated as the leading mobile internet browser with 63.62% of the U.S. market share. Apple’s Safari followed with 26.66%, and Samsung Browser trailed with 3.89%. iPhones account for over 45 percent of smartphones used in the U.S. today, which amounts to a cool 100 million iPhone users.
Additionally, Safari is even less popular in the desktop world, accounting for only 3.69% of the U.S. market share for desktop internet browsers. This is understandable, as Windows is the leading operating system, dominating 87.62% of the U.S. market share. MacOS trails behind with 9.40%.
Chrome, a browser unrestricted by operating systems, dominates the U.S. market share for desktop internet browsers at 69.13%. It’s no wonder Apple wants to expand its ITP features to browsers beyond Safari on its devices.
What does all this mean for publishers?
The short answer: Prepare for a world without cookies sooner than expected if you haven’t already. When Google made its announcement to permanently part with cookies in a couple years, 2022 was too far away to even comprehend. We’d have to get through 2020 and 2021 first, and look how well that’s going. We’d have two whole years to develop a new advertising strategy that would combat the loss of valuable audience data from cookies, which once enabled lucrative targeted and re-targeting ad campaigns.
Now, Apple’s pulled the rug from under us. So, in short, prepare for whatever’s next in the ongoing crusade for privacy.
Great... How can I prepare?
The long answer: Take stock of your audiences’ browsing habits. What are the mobile versus desktop browsing rates? What browsers and operating systems are they using? The answers to these questions will help you better prepare for any potential impacts.
Then, look into alternative solutions and new streams of revenue. Publishers likely won’t feel an intense impact from iOS 14’s increased anti-tracking measures, unlike 2017 when ITP was first introduced. However, the same cannot be said for when ITP measures branch out to more popular desktop browsers in the coming months with the release of macOS Big Sur.
Moreover, it’s reasonable to assume that other tech titans who dabble in internet browsers and operating systems will follow Apple’s lead. (Here’s looking at you, Microsoft.) It’s good to know what your alternatives are if and when that time comes.
What can publishers expect for the future of programmatic advertising?
Programmatic advertising, which, for a quick refresher, is the process of buying and selling ad inventory in real-time through an automated bidding system, is dependent on third-party cookies to fill ad slots with the most relevant content for each individual. Without third-party cookies, the assumption is that advertisers will be less inclined to purchase ad slots from publishers. Despite this, programmatic advertising will persevere in a cookie-less world.
Here are a few reasons publishers can be optimistic about the future of programmatic advertising:
For now, neither Apple nor Google have plans to do away with these first-party cookies, so they’re a worthwhile alternative.
If you currently require an email address or username to access your content, you’re off to a great start. If not, it’s time to require this. Email addresses or usernames handle the user identification and tracking for you, making ad targeting that much easier.
The downside to this, Paul Bannister of CafeMedia argues, is traffic from non-logged-in users cannot be tracked and becomes useless. Thus, the value of ad space inventory will decrease. This works in Facebook’s favor, as their targeting advantage over publishers only increases.
Contextual keyword targeting
This process involves placing ads on web pages where the content matches a brand’s relevant target keywords.
So, if your publication has an article highlighting “best winter coats,” it’s safe to assume readers are visiting for a winter coat recommendation with the goal of purchasing one. Contextual advertising in this scenario would result in ad slots filled by outerwear brands that are targeting keywords featured in your article.
This is a less accurate (and less lucrative) way to fill ad slots on your site, but it's also much more privacy-compliant and won’t be restricted by anti-tracking measures. Some revenue is better than none, right?
Google’s Privacy Sandbox
As previously mentioned, like Apple, Google has an aversion to cookies. However, Google knows that blocking third-party cookies has major implications for advertisers, as it impacts conversion measurement and targeting. So, the tech giant came up with the idea for a Privacy Sandbox, which is a set of standards that aim to sustain an ad-supported web in a “healthy” way.
No concrete details about the sandbox have been released yet, but Google outlined how it attempts to combat the loss of conversion tracking and targeting capabilities through internal application programming interfaces (APIs).
Per Digiday, Google will implement a series of APIs to:
- Capture Chrome users’ data and confirm they’re human
- Restrict the amount of user data publishers and advertisers can obtain from the API
- Share with advertisers whether a user saw an ad, clicked the ad, made a purchase or landed on the product page
- Track user browsing habits and any interests groups/segments a user may belong to (for targeting purposes)
Ultimately, Chrome will become the third-party cookies advertisers must glean their vital analytics from. Seems fair enough until you remember Google is a huge seller of advertising, too.
Now, there are ethical questions to consider: Will Google have the same level of access to user data as other advertisers? Or will it allow itself to dig in deeper than everyone else? Additionally, are Apple and Google in cahoots? Or will Apple prohibit Chrome as a browser on its devices?
One thing history has shown us is that when Apple and Google make privacy changes, those changes rarely hurt their own companies while oftentimes hurting their competitors. As walled gardens, Apple, Google, and even Facebook can track their users from the minute they log in, regardless of the privacy standards they impose on others.
The current publishing landscape is a precarious one, especially with only a couple giant players like Apple and Google deciding its future.
Anticipate a clear march toward first-party data, as you can only expect more privacy walls to be built. Many publishers are desperately pursuing subscription-based products, and that’s probably going to be the endgame for nearly all publishers. As the economics for digital advertising get worse and the ability to target decreases, publishers are, at the very least, going to need to implement a log-in into their sites to track reader interests. Ultimately, publishers will stop giving content away for free and require paid subscriptions to their sites.
Getting to that point is a painful and risky path, but it’s already begun with the largest newspapers fully gating their content. Smaller journalism organizations are following. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that every move that hurts the digital ad economy probably helps the old-fashioned print publisher. The data advantage of digital over print is sure to diminish. Whether print can attract eyeballs, even in an increasingly gated digital news world, is a different question.