An Ecommerce Founder’s Guide to a Cookieless Future

What’s happening?

On 4 January, Google started testing its Tracking Protection feature for 1% of its Chrome users globally, or around 30 million users. Chrome makes up approximately 65% of browser market share globally.

This marks a key milestone for Google’s broader Privacy Sandbox initiative to phase out third-party cookies for all users from Q3 2024, subject to the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority approval.

This development from Google comes after 4 years of multiple delays, with browsers like Firefox and Safari having already blocked third-party cookies.

Google’s slow response has largely been due to its vested interest in the use case of third-party cookies in targeted advertising (specifically its own). The idea now is for Google to relay anonymised user browsing data to advertisers, which in turn can use Google-provided technologies to serve relevant ads while protecting the user’s privacy.

What’s changing?

One of the main technologies currently being tested is Topics API which identifies recognisable categories that the browser thinks you are interested in based on your browsing history. Unlike third-party cookies, the specific sites a user visits are no longer shared.

For example, if you visited a sports website, then the browser would match you to the topic ‘Sports’. The browser then locally collects the most frequent topics associated with the websites you’ve visited in a given week, and shares this with advertisers to serve you more relevant ads.

The current list of 469 Topics can be found here. Users will also be able to view and modify the Topics that are aggregated by the browser.

I keep hearing about a trial to temporarily re-enable cookies until December 2024 - what’s that about?

Google started offering a ‘deprecation trial’ from 4 December 2023, allowing developers more time to transition away from third-party cookies and legacy functionalities. The trial will give developers additional time through to 27 December 2024.

Importantly, the trial is not available for advertising use cases and is intended for third-party providers that can demonstrate a functional breakage in user journeys and experiences. In other words, if you want to continue using third-party cookies in your advertising then this trial doesn’t apply to you.

More information is available here, including on how to apply for the trial.

What does all this mean for me?

For the consumer, this is a huge win for internet privacy. For founders and marketers, it’s definitely a challenging but also very promising time to pivot and adopt alternative strategies to connect with their audiences.

Here are some things that every Ecommerce founder and leader should consider:

  • Use alternative tracking methods. As mentioned before, Google is actively testing already-developed technologies such as Topics API as a replacement for third-party cookies. There are also other tools and methods such as Advertising IDs, device fingerprints, MAC and IP addresses etc. It’s important to identify which ones are most suitable for you.
  • Engage in contextual advertising. Contextual advertising involves placing ads on a webpage based on its content. For example, if you sell workout apparel, you could place your ad on an article about the health benefits of exercise. This means you can segment audiences and target ads based on topics, keywords or similar parameters relating to the actual webpage content.
  • Create cohorts using first-party data. Using first-party data to create audience segments will mean that you are better able to target customers who have been grouped together based on a shared attribute or identifier, and gauge the effectiveness of your campaigns.
  • Take advantage of Google’s enhanced conversion feature to improve the measurement of online conversion from paid ads. When a customer converts on your site, you will likely receive first-party data like their email address, phone number etc. You can take this data and send it anonymously to Google (known as hashing) who will match these conversions back to those who have interacted with your ads. This improved conversion data can then be used to better understand the effectiveness of your ads and campaigns.
  • Use predictive audiences in Google Analytics 4. The predictive audiences feature allows you to leverage metrics using AI to understand buyer behaviour. You can use this to target those that are most likely to purchase a specific product.
  • Begin testing non-cookie reliant media/marketing mix modelling tools. Using large data models and backtesting to statistically infer probable ad effectiveness/causality to sales.

Remember, this is an ever-changing space and everything you do should be combined as part of a multi-pronged approach.

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