How Google phasing out third party cookies will help build a more private web

Senka Pupacic-The-Canadian-Business-Quarterly
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Earlier this year, Google announced they would begin works to block third party cookies – which are used to track user activity and enable targeted advertising based on browsing habits – from their web browser within the next two years.

While marketers the world over had initially been perturbed about the news of the tech giant’s plan to phase out third-party cookies from their Chrome browser, web users will likely be collectively sighing in relief. Although the move is intended to enhance user privacy, marketers will still be able to implement and measure advertising campaigns, but only following the standards of Google’s recently proposed Privacy Sandbox.

What is Google’s Privacy Sandbox?

Google’s plans for its cookie-free future are aimed at increasing privacy and fraud prevention measures while still supporting targeted and measurable advertising. Rather than completely upending the online marketing world by blocking third-party cookies in one fell swoop, Google will be rolling out their proposed standards over the next two years, whereby companies who rely on these cookies to track web users will have to adhere to the standards and newly-implemented measures set by Google’s Privacy Sandbox.

In place of third party cookies, Google will be rolling out five application programming interfaces, effectively creating and providing an alternate pathway for the advertising industry to follow. The Privacy Sandbox will not block third-party cookies, but instead, provide anonymised signals within the Chrome browser to enable profiteering from Chrome user’s web browsing habits.

Boiled down to its essence, the standards set by the Privacy Sandbox means that the tracking of user activity remains the same in principle, but is instead implemented according to Google’s standards, while also allowing for a much more private and secure online environment for web users.

However, marketers running targeted ads using the Google Marketing Platform would be affected by any Privacy Sandbox changes, although these changes would mainly affect ad campaigns using Google Analytics running on non-Google-owned websites.

Developers will also be discouraged from using other tracking techniques such as fingerprinting. This involves using various snippets of information that varies between web users, such as which device they use to browse or the type of fonts they’ve installed, to create an identifiable, and therefore trackable profile that – unlike cookies – cannot be cleared by the user. 

In response to user requests for increased privacy online, Google’s Privacy Sandbox is aimed at providing users of its Chrome browser more control of how their information is collected and stored.

The problem with third party cookies

Third-party cookies are useful for digital marketers as they record various amounts of web user activity, enabling ads to be targeted to users based on their browsing habits. For example, if you were to check out an online music gear store and browse through their guitar section, you’ll be likely to see related guitar ads when you visit other, non-related websites.

While some users may consider this useful at times, the issue with third-party cookies is that over time, disturbingly large amounts of information is aggregated into a database of online profiles for each user. This invasion of privacy is not only considered creepy by many, but – more significantly – these databases also pose as a security risk should they be hacked by criminals or leaked into the public domain, allowing for potential identity theft or use for impersonation schemes. Another possible use for such information is the tracking of user movement and connections by government agencies.

In recent years, public awareness of these issues has risen dramatically, with web users increasingly desiring to opt-out of or block third-party cookies, which has led to a more private and secure alternative being developed.

What’s in the Google Privacy Sandbox?

In response to the web user’s desire for increased privacy and security, Google’s initial intentions were to make cookies more configurable and transparent for users of their Chrome browser, while also completely blocking fingerprinting techniques.

However, Google has now shifted its focus to completely block third party cookies, with the transition to a cookieless Chrome browser over the next two years. Advertisers wishing to receive information for targeting users will now have to perform an API call to Google’s Privacy Sandbox, which will provide anonymised data rather than information about individual identities.

The tech giant will begin testing click-based conversion measurements that will be tracked within the Chrome browser, rather than through the use of cookies. All required information will be delivered to the advertiser, but now without any information that could be personally identifiable. 

Challenges from the advertiser’s end

Although advertisers and publishers are concerned that Google’s intention to block third party cookies eventually will decrease their ad revenue, the Privacy Sandbox initiative aims to balance the scales with the increasingly desirable user privacy.

Changes brought on by the Privacy Sandbox will inevitably affect marketers using the Google Marketing Platform and Google Analytics to implement and measure their marketing campaigns. However, this will only affect ads delivered on sites not owned by Google. However, as the company aims to use their first-party cookies, this is unlikely to affect advertising campaigns being run through Google-owned sites such as their search results or YouTube.

Furthermore, although the Privacy Sandbox initiative aims to block third party cookies, new opportunities could be created for publishers and marketing companies that have already aggregated their databases of user data.

Google’s motivations

While Google’s intentions may appear admirable, it is entirely possible that these changes are being brought upon simply due to a global outcry for more robust personal data privacy and online security. The FTC recently fined the tech giant $170 million for a violation of the COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act) standards because of their use of cookies to track users.

Furthermore, Google’s tracking protocols are also currently being reviewed by European data protection authorities who are concerned the company are not complying with the GDPR.

Another motivational factor for Google to phase out their support for tracking cookies as that competing web browsers such as Firefox and Safari have already implemented measures to block third party cookies – a move which has proved to be highly popular with internet users.

The Privacy Sandbox is still being developed in real-time.

Senka Pupacic is the founder of Top 10 SEO, www.top10insydney.com.au.

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