Industry warns marketers to avoid complacency as Google delays cookie demise again

Google's decision to delay the removal of cookies until end of 2024 is not surprising, but the industry warns of the dangers of not keeping on top of the changes

Stay alert, don’t get complacent and don’t delay shifting off your reliance on cookies is the overall advice from industry following news that the cookie’s final demise has been delayed once more.

Google has yet again delayed removal of the cookie, now saying it’ll take until the second half of 2024 to mass adopt an alternative solution for the advertising industry. In a blog post, VP of Google Privacy Sandbox, Antony Chavez, attributed Google’s decision to the need for more time to evaluate and test replacement technologies. The Privacy Sandbox initiative was established in order to devise next-generation targeted advertising solutions in collaboration with the industry advertising ecosystem.

The decision marks the second time Google has delayed removing cookies. Having first announced its intention to phase out cookies on Chrome in 2020, the search giant told the market last June last year it was extending the deadline until late 2023, again for the reason of requiring more time to find an alternative.

The news came after 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.

The original delay also came off the back of rising anti-competitive concerns raised by governments and industry in the US, UK and Europe about the impact removing cookies would have on the advertising ecosystem. In January 2021, for example, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced plans to focus on Privacy Sandbox’s potential impacts on both publishers and users. This was followed by amendments to ongoing antitrust complaint in the US stating the Privacy Sandbox changes would require advertisers to use Google as middleman to advertise.

Upon announcing its first delay, Google made it clear publishers and advertisers will be given at least nine months to migrate once a replacement solution has been widely tested with Web communities.  In announcing the latest delay, Chavez’s blog post also tried to stress progress was being made.

Over recent months, Google has released trial versions of a couple of alternative advertising solutions in the works, including new Privacy Sandbox APIs in Chrome for developers to test. Earlier this year, the company also reached an agreement with the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on how to develop and release the Privacy Sandbox in Chrome worldwide.

“The most consistent feedback we’ve received is the need for more time to evaluate and test the new Privacy Sandbox technologies before deprecating third-party cookies in Chrome,” Chavez stated. “This feedback aligns with our commitment to the CMA to ensure that the Privacy Sandbox provides effective, privacy-preserving technologies and the industry has sufficient time to adopt these new solutions.

“This deliberate approach to transitioning from third-party cookies ensures that the Web can continue to thrive, without relying on cross-site tracking identifiers or covert techniques like fingerprinting.

“For these reasons, we are expanding the testing windows for the Privacy Sandbox APIs before we disable third-party cookies in Chrome.”

Google now expected the Privacy Sandbox APIs to be generally available in Chrome from Q3 2023. As developers adopt these APIs, phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome will begin in the second half of 2024. Chavez confirmed Privacy Sandbox trials are to be expanded to millions of users globally from early August.

“We’ll gradually increase the trial population throughout the rest of the year and into 2023. Before users are added into the trials, they will be shown a prompt giving them the option to manage their participation,” he explained. “As the Web community tests these APIs, we’ll continue to listen and respond to feedback.”

Industry advice: Brands, don't get complacent

Paid media director of digital marketing agency Tug, Isabel Blanchard, wasn’t surprised by Google’s decision considering the industry still considers it to be a hot topic. In responding to CMO questions about the significance the latest announcement, she noted many in the local ecosystem will breathe a sigh of relief – some because they have gained extra time, and others who just don’t want to deal with the change now.

“There has been some movement on agencies, brands and tech vendors pushing more on adopting post-cookie measures such as server-side API, a more cohesive data ecosystem and syncing first-party data across platforms [buying, CDP and CMPs] - but it hasn’t really moved the dial for the majority of brands,” Blanchard told CMO.

“Google is feeling the pressure from an industry not yet ready to move on from cookies. This is not the first time the deprecation has been pushed back since its announcement. But the demand for better measurement and attribution has continued to grow - which increases the data points and contingencies that the privacy sandbox needs to account for.”

Yet while many in the industry might be tired of the cookie conversation, that doesn’t take away from the fact change needs to be made - and be made well.

“This is a great opportunity for companies that need more time to implement these structures and prepare their organisations for post-cookie impact,” Blanchard advised. “I wouldn’t waste this chance - best to chat to clients, agencies, tech vendors on how to navigate this. At some point Google is going to bite the bullet and do it and then it’ll be too late. We’ve already seen how iOS14.5 affected brands; that was a fraction compared to Chrome users.

“This is not a matter to be put off, it’s the time to say yes to preparing for post-cookie advertising.”

Interactive Bureau of Advertising (IAB) tech lead, Jonas Jaanimagi, saw the news as ultimately a good thing, given the industry will have more time to get operationally prepared for changes to come.

“That’s not only with regards to 3PC but also consumer privacy considerations, competent consent management capabilities and a genuinely workable future state for responsible addressability,” he told CMO.

“We forget what an elegant and simple solution cookies are, and how prevalent they remain for so many Web-based experiences aside from advertising. Lou Montulli invented them while playing around with trying measure unique visits at Netscape almost 30-years ago. Cookies are the hero solution of the nascent Internet, and their ease of use make them hard to move away from. But it’s time to move on to more robust, cutting-edge and future-proof approaches.”  

Liveramp COO Asia-Pacific, Melanie Hoptman, also saw the decision as an indication Google did not feel companies had done enough to transition to cookieless alternatives. Liveramp provides a data connectivity platform and is setting itself up as an alternative way of employing data in marketing and advertising.  

“Regardless of the timeline Google has set, 45 per cent or more of the Internet is already cookieless, mobile in-app is cookieless, and CTV is cookieless. The time is now for publishers and marketers to control their destiny and transition away from cookie-based identity to people-based identity,” Hoptman said.

“Given the current economic uncertainty, it is especially important to optimise the impact of every marketing and advertising dollar. Marketers should be asking themselves if their investments are addressable, accountable and measurable. Those who are making progress on their cookieless futures and negotiating based on business outcomes, rather than traditional reach and awareness metrics, can ensure media dollars are working harder than ever before.”

The ongoing battle between consumer privacy and ad targeting

The whopper challenge is how to balance consumer privacy demands with a solution that’s become as flexible and critical for ad targeting and reporting as the cookie has.

One of the initial APIs Google tested was ‘federated learning of cohorts’ (FLoC), or anonymised groups of consumers showing similar interests and behaviours that could be tracked across the Web. However, criticisms and widespread opposition of this approach led to development of FLoC being stopped in early 2022.

Instead, another proposed API, ‘Topics’, was introduce. This API focuses on using categories the browser infers based on the pages an individual visits. It also means specific sites a person visited are no longer shared. Users are also expected to be able to see topics they’re associated with, and either remove those they don’t like or disable such settings.

A third API, called ‘Fledge’, is a remarketing solution allowing the sites of advertisers visited by an individual to then inform their browser that they would like a chance to show an ad to that person in future. An advertiser can also directly share information with an individual’s browser including specific ads and how much they would be willing to pay to show them. An algorithm in the browser would then inform what ad might appear to the individual on a specific website.

Blanchard was looking forward to seeing how Google navigates this space given Fledge is designed to serve ads in-browser without passing information on to publishers or advertisers. But whatever solutions are being explored, she stressed “laziness is the death of innovation”.

“While most people use the Google stack, it doesn’t mean that they can’t get left behind by the growth and successes of other tech companies,” she continued. “The Trade Desk and its Unified ID initiative is a market-leading solution and the fact it is open-sourced and has partnerships with some of the biggest names of the industry makes it a great platform to test your next campaign. I’d be keen to see how Google competes with this.”

Commenting on Google’s latest delay in the context of the ongoing consumer privacy debate, Lotame head of global partnerships, Pierre-Marc Diennet, stressed the distinctiveness and opposing approach being taken by Google compared to rival browser and device manufacturer, Apple. Lotame is a customer data platform focused on supporting brands through their own first-party data solution.

“Apple is restricting its technology and devices further. Google is making them more transparent,” Diennet commented. “What I find most interesting is how marketers have entirely abdicated the fight with Apple.”

Diennet noted the UK Competition and Markets Authority [CMA] decision to take Alphabet to court revolved around ‘limiting production, markets or technical development to the prejudice of consumers’ and ‘applying dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage’.

“This is very much what Apple has been doing and continues to double and triple down on,” he claimed. “In IOS 15.4. Apple has gone full-paternalistic and set blocking by default, removing the choice for consumers to engage with and share with the brands, apps and publishers they enjoy. The only entity that can monetise app and browser activity on IOS 15.4, and later with any real effectiveness, is Apple.

“I'm waiting for the public to wake up to the fact that Apple isn't a trillion-dollar company because they protected your data, they are a trillion-dollar company because they hoard it.”

What to do next

Search and media agency Jaywing, has been actively educating clients about server-side tracking and moving away from client-side tracking as a solution to bypass the impact that cookie consent settings will have on trackable data.

“With this in mind, we are all learning what a cookieless world looks like, and we will no doubt have to continue to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of users' privacy, whilst maintaining efficient digital campaigns,” Jaywing data and analytics manager, Christian Mulder, said.

He also advised advertisers spent more time becoming accustomed to data tracking capabilities. “Advertisers should be running tracking methodologies simultaneously and measuring the impact, which should allow advertisers to gain more confidence over time,” Mulder said.

“For early adopters, advertisers will have already initiated the switch and will continue to work towards a cookie-less future for their own requirements. This delay will allow advertisers to run Enhanced Conversions and traditionally cookie tracking simultaneously to measure the impact it will have on measurement and approach.”

Mulder’s top piece of advice is to ignore the news and continue planning and developing out your strategy to overcome the cookie updates.

“It is vital that brands do not see this as an opportunity to slow down or reconsider the investment in operating in a post-cookie world, but instead use this time to learn and adapt internally if necessary,” he said. “Assume that as much as Google could push the timeline out again, they could also bring things forward again if they so felt it was in the best interests of their business - sometimes these decisions are driven by external factors, parties and legislation.” 

The IAB Tech Lab is also working collaboratively with industry towards the ultimate demise of cookies with three emerging forms of solutions. Jaanimagi was also hopeful the industry can use the additional time constructively and “not become complacent and reliant upon nothing changing in terms of operational obligations in the short term”.

“We strongly recommend regularly keeping an eye on Google’s dedicated online Privacy Sandbox timeline for exact timings of any future updates and trials for the proposals,” he advised. “Lean into the dedicated ‘Privacy Sandbox Relevance and Measurement origin trial’ framework and if you are a Google client, ensure your specialist staff are up-to-speed and liaising with Google’s support teams directly on how to competently understand and test the proposals sooner rather than later. Remember that this includes proposed changes to both web-based (Chrome) and in-app environments [Android].

“Lastly, consider aligning your related and resources planning for these changes in Chrome and Android with also ensuring you are testing adequately and understanding Apple’s updates to SKAdNetwork, which is now on v4.0, for measurement and attribution within iOS and iPadOS.”

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