Industry views mixed as Google extends third-party cookie deadline

Google has confirmed it's extending the deadline for the death of the cookie until late 2023. We ask the industry what marketers & advertisers do next

Google is extending the deadline for the death of the cookie until late 2023, a step that follows international regulatory and advertising industry pressure about the search giant’s alternative proposals and dominance across the digital advertising sector.

In a company post, Google parent company, Alphabet, said extending the deadline for phasing out third-party cookies is about providing more time to test and consult on a replacement advertising solution. These are being devised under the ‘Privacy Sandbox’ initiative.

Instead of phasing out cookies on Chrome in early 2022, Google said it now expects to keep support in place until late 2023. It has also stated publishers and advertisers will be given at least nine months to migrate once a replacement solution has been widely tested with Web communities.

Google acknowledged removing cookies puts into jeopardy the business models of many Web publishers supporting freely available content, as well as hindered finding an appropriate privacy-oriented alternative.

“While there’s considerable progress with this initiative, it's become clear that more time is needed across the ecosystem to get this right,” the company stated.

“The Privacy Sandbox initiative aims to create Web technologies that both protect people’s privacy online and give companies and developers the tools to build thriving digital businesses to keep the Web open and accessible to everyone, now, and for the future. To make this happen, we believe the Web community needs to come together to develop a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy on the Web, giving people more transparency and greater control over how their data is used. 

“In order to do this, we need to move at a responsible pace. This will allow sufficient time for public discussion on the right solutions, continued engagement with regulators and for publishers and the advertising industry to migrate their services.”

Google’s decision to drop cookies, first officially revealed in early 2020, has been touted as a win for consumer privacy. Yet their demise has also generated concern across the advertising sector both in terms of finding an alternative solution, as well as for the further power it could bestow on Google.

In March, Google confirmed there would be no replacement for unique identifiers to track individuals once cookies are removed. This will mean the sole way of targeting and measuring digital ads across Google’s browser outside of a first-party data arrangement will be via proposals managed within Google’s Privacy Sandbox

Concerns about Google’s approach have triggered regulatory investigations and discussions across the US, UK and Europe. The latest of these came earlier this week as the European Union kicked off a formal antitrust investigation into Google’s dominance in the digital advertising space.

The EU investigation is looking at alleged anti-competitive business practices across Alphabet’s brokering of advertisements, sharing of user data with advertisers across websites and mobile apps, as well as decision to block user-tracking technologies on its platforms.

Google’s decision to delay also comes after the UK’s Competition and Market Authority secured agreement from Alphabet on a range of commitments around third-party cookie phase-out. One of the most notable sees Google required to give at least 60 days notice before removing cookies for review. The UK regulator can also potentially impose further changes on any such plan.

In addition, Alphabet said it would commit to blocking its own advertising products from accessing users’ Web browsing histories in Chrome browsers to target or measure ads.

Google said this week the new timeline for third-party cookie removal is dependent on testing being completed and APIs being launched for a replacement solution for measuring and targeting advertisements in Chrome. This is expected to start in late 2022. From there, publishers and the advertising industry are to be given nine months to migrate services and for testing before support for third-party cookies is phased out over a three-month period, finishing by late 2023.  

Google has previously made clear the sole way of targeting and measuring digital ads across Google’s browser outside of a first-party data arrangement in future will be via proposals managed within Google’s Privacy Sandbox. Four are now in trials, the most notable – and criticised – being a ‘federated learning of cohorts’ (FLoC). This would see groups of consumers showing similar interests and behaviours grouped into cohorts for advertising purposed.

As part of this week’s announcement, Google said it’s temporarily pausing work on FloC after origin trials, which kicked off in April. The company cited significant feedback from the Web community and said it’s incorporating this before proceeding to the next stage of testing.

Industry message to marketers: Don't be complacent

Industry responses to the news have been generally positive, but the reasons for such relief stretch from concerns about readiness to the continued dominance of Google on digital advertising, user privacy and ad fraud. Criticism has also been levelled at the way Google is handling the phase out of cookies and its impact on publisher revenues and advertising.

Founder and CEO of digital marketing agency Tug, Nick Beck, said publishers, platforms, agencies and clients have all been working to develop roadmaps based on cookies disappearing from mid-2022.  

For some it will be a huge relief, while for others they will have to reassess their investment strategies coming into the new financial year,” he told CMO. “With this announcement, advertisers have a reprieve, giving them more time to prepare. Planning for a cookie-less world will see continued investment in walled gardens such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, but increased investment in creative, organic social, connected TV, data analytics and modelling, and of course first-party data collection, management and associated channels such as email.”

Lotame CEO, Andy Monfried, saw the news as a sign that “Google is ready to play ball” and be more collaborative with industry. He was quick to contrast this with Apple’s approach to protecting privacy. Lotame is pitching its data management solution as a clear alternative to reliance on third-party cookies.

“Regulatory pressures aside, cooler heads seemed to have prevailed at Google to delay the sunset of third-party cookies rather than jamming through unproven, siloed proposals that favour the few but harm the vast majority,” Monfried said. “If only Apple took the same hint. We look forward to continuing to work with the industry and Google to create growth and value for all on an equal playing field.”

Fellow cookie alternative provider, Criteo, also welcomed news of the delay as a step forward for an open Internet. Criteo is building out a first-party media network, contextual targeting solutions, and is also working on initiatives in Google’s Privacy Sandbox.

“We appreciate Google’s decision to create more time for the industry to prepare,” a company spokesperson stated. “But the extended deadline does not in any way change or impact Criteo’s strategy. We continue to build products that will enable our customers to reach and engage their audiences without third-party identifiers.”

Speaking from the perspective of publishers, CEO of publisher monetisation platform, 33Across, Eric Wheeler, expressed frustration at both Google and Apple for the way they have handled the question of user privacy.

Publishers are fed up with these whipsaw tactics from the walled gardens/browser companies,” he said. “In the span of a few weeks, Apple and Google have initiated and delayed major initiatives that directly impact how publishers will operate. This is exactly why publishers should have control of their destiny and need independent and open technology to create a fair value exchange for their content.

“Living at the whim of these walled gardens is the definition of insanity. It’s time for publishers to think beyond the cookie to create targetable, measurable audiences that provide revenue, increase yield, and preserve consumer privacy.”

Criticism has also flagged concerns with how Google plans to replace cookies. For example, FatTail CEO, Doug Huntingdon, cited problems with FloC because of the lack of PII compliance and technology transparency, obscuring personal identification and use. FatTail is a Saas advertising company focused on publishers.

“That said, I think there's a certain irony to the UK’s pressure on Google not to be too hasty in deprecating cookies since that’s where a lot of the anti-cookie privacy pressure emanated from. Google wins either way,” he commented.

“We are still betting privacy will ultimately prevail, most consumers will not consent to cross-site tracking, and programmatic direct deal volume will continue to accelerate. Technology will catch up to support both the programmatic ad ecosystem and consumer privacy in a way that benefits pubs and advertisers alike and prioritises them above tech vendors in the food chain.”

Beck spied a risk of still revealing a person’s personal identifiable information through Google’s FLoC, proposition, which could lead it to run foul of European GDPR laws.

“Other players are looking at unique personal IDs such as Trade Desk’s Unified ID, but really that’s very similar to the cookie approach, so we don’t feel like it will win the day,” he said. “However, no matter what solution prevails - and it might not be one but many - agencies and clients will have to improve their data analysis and data modelling capabilities to compete in the cookie- less world.”

Verizon Media head of data and co-chair of the IAB’s Data Council, Dan Richardson, believes consumers are primed for a post-cookie future. He noted the company’s research shows eight in 10 consumers would be willing to exchange data for some services such as free Internet or premium content. It's worth highlighting that many browsers have already phased out cookies such as Firefox, Safari and Edge.

Yet Richardson agreed the decision to delay is a statement of the lack of readiness across the wider industry, adding it’s not the first time Google has pushed this timeline out. He also highlighted the marketplace as well as government pressure as driving such a decision.

“The bottom line is that Google wasn’t ready. Google recognised its own solutions will not yet be ready for its original deprecation timeline, so delaying was the inevitable outcome,” he said.

What marketers need to do next

The impetus on advertisers and brands now is to use the time to lock in a robust first-party data strategy, Richardson said. “There’s nothing more dangerous to your brand than rushing a first-party data or identity strategy that misses the mark and gets it wrong with your customers,” he said. 

For its part, Richardson said Verizon is operating on the principle of business as usual and is proactively future-proofing its customers’ businesses, regardless of timelines shifting, with its own post-cookie identity solutions.
These include Verizon Media ConnectID and next-gen contextual solutions.

“I think this is a big opportunity for marketers, publishers and tech to get this right. The reality is it takes a great deal of time to create a customer data strategy that is not reliant on cookies or mobile AdIDs," Richardson said. "This means investment in privacy, security, website tagging, evaluating new Identity partners or getting your head around the next generation of contextual targeting solutions. And that’s just part of the puzzle.”  

And keep consumers informed and involved in the process, Richardson said. “The first step is addressing the gaping data education gap with consumers – 79 per cent are unaware of changes to third-party tracking cookies, data privacy and AdIDs,” he said.  

“Furthermore, 76 per cent of consumers would like sites/apps to explain why they are asking for personal information, and the value for them as an end user.”  

Richardson’s second must for marketers is building a data strategy that moves beyond the transactional, and from activities like Web-based retargeting to relationship building.  

“It needs to be an ongoing conversation with your customer that drives brand love. We know brand love comes in many forms, from pure discounts and offers to unique content, experiences or a sense of community. Brands and publishers alike now have more time to invest in this and move away from transactional or pop-up data collection events which have a limited shelf life, consent wise,” he added.    

 Beck agreed this is no time to be complacent. “Don’t sit back and relax – use this extra time to prepare for the exciting post-Covid, post-cookie world,” he advised.  

Outbrain managing director APAC and growth markets, Andrew Burke, also advised marketers to use this extra time to fine-tune their strategies to embrace data strategies such as contextual marketing.

“Our experience shows us many sophisticated advertisers are already taking advantage of the opportunity to enhance their approach to customers by adopting methods like contextual targeting, which creates a deeper connection with customers,” he said.

“I do believe that in the long run these changes in approach, and the improvement in consumer experience and trust, will hand a real advantage to publishers, who get to see what people really connect with and can form a deeper understanding of people’s real, not claimed, behaviour.”

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