A major shift is happening online. User privacy is at center stage. The end of third-party tracking looms. Cross-site and cross-device tracking was the norm for many a year, it’s just how things work online, right? But recently we have seen a shift, and even bigger things are afoot. Will they bring the end of shady third party user tracking and transform the industry?
Death of Unwanted Tracking
By 2022 Google has promised to follow the example of other browsers and start blocking third party cookies by default in Chrome 1. As a result, most browsing sessions will not accept them anymore. In addition to this, Apple’s commitment to App Tracking Transparency initiative 2 might just be the killer blow? Let’s do a quick recap to understand what’s going on.
The world wide web
1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposes an information management system, and implements the first communication using HTTP, inventing the web 3. He had a vision:
… a place where one could publish any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards 4
A place for information storage and retrieval. A phenomenal success of instantaneous (if you could dial-in) access to information. However, it remained such for 5 short years.
People realized there is more money to be made here. And I don’t mean sales of goods, but advertising.
E-commerce and Cookies exploited
1994, the humble ‘cookie’ is invented 8. It was intended for a page to store some data on your computer. Consequently it could read it back with the next request. This may sound insignificant, but it was a revolution – the web gained memory between requests. A state. It could recognize you from your previous request, previous visit. Only the page you are visiting was supposed to be able to store cookies. But websites evolved, started pulling in parts from other sites as building blocks, like little Legos. Remember (in)famous “Like” button. Those parts also stored their cookies, even though technically you never visited that website.
The Golden Age of No Privacy?
Things moved fast: In 1995, Amazon and Ebay were born, 1998 – Paypal, 1999 – Alibaba, 2000 – Google AdWords. It took only a few short years for the web to diverge from TimBL original vision and change forever. Consider a very simple concept. A company provides online advertisements to many different partner websites and stores many cookies on the same device. It could tie all this information together, and create a personal profile about an individual and his/her interests. That almost sounds too good to be true for people purchasing advertisements. The ability to populate the web with truly focused, hyper-personalized ads. A panacea.
Scandal of ’18
By 2018, data leaks and privacy breaches are no longer front page news. In fact – they are quite common. Companies collected vast amounts of user data, yet did not invest enough to secure it. People are aware that no services online are actually free. In the mean time, in 2013 a political consultancy agency is established. They gather, acquire and misuse a lot of user data for intelligence work. Several years later the worst case scenario for user privacy infringement reaches daylight: the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica data scandal 9. People truly understand the importance of their data when they see first hand how it can be weaponized in election battles. News of the scandal explode globally.
Legislation and Technology
Simultaneously to the scandal, GDPR10 and CCPA11 are finalized and later come into effect. Online privacy starts being properly regulated. Users visiting a website must be greeted with a ‘consent dialog’.
They tend to split into 2 large groups: the “just click accept” and the “just find the hidden reject all”. And a tiny minority of “let’s read all of this and need some serious stress relief later”. But even for the accept faction, the mere fact of seeing large privacy notices, banners and opt-in pleas keeps data privacy a first order concern. On top of that, browsers begin blocking third party cookies by default. Safari, Firefox.. and eventually even Google Chrome12. Yes, the 2/3rds majority market share ad-giant owned browser is taking up arms against third party cookies as well.
End of The 3rd Party Cookie
This does not mean first party cookies are going away, Websites will still store cookies, use them for their own user tracking, website improvement, cross sale purposes and what not. But by default, all unsolicited third party trackers should eventually be phased out. I cannot see many users actively searching for the ‘enable tracking’ button buried in the browser settings. This will cause real, significant impact to marketers and advertisers. The business model of under the hood tracking-everywhere is fading. It won’t cause sudden bankruptcies for advertisers, as the death of the 3rd party cookie is slow and by now – expected. Companies had, or have time to adjust. And adjust they must.
More reliance on your own first party cookies, more content personalization according to user segment rather than hyper-targeted for each individual. And critically, more transparency and trust towards and from your users.
End of Tracking by Hardware ID
3rd party cookies and web browsers are just one side of the coin. Mobile apps hold the other one. We cannot go a single day without them. How did advertisers track you among different apps? Turns out its even easier than you might think. Google GAID and Apple IDFA: those are baked-into-device identifiers for advertisers to use on each phone.
Facebook or Google have SDKs that so many use. For example, Facebook SDK is installed in more than half of the top 200 apps. An App serves ads through Facebook, providing them your device identifier. Facebook puts it in your ad profile. But Apple made a move to tackle this 13 14: their devices will soon block the disclosure of this identifier by default, requiring explicit user opt-in. Once again, I cannot see that happening. And once again, it is a shock but not a surprise, Apple gave a ‘grace period’ to allow businesses to prepare 15. But it also reaffirmed their commitment to banning apps that somehow violate their policies. There are also rumors that Google will follow suit.
Incentive to Innovate
So where do companies go from here? They have time to prepare, but what can they do? In short, evolve, and innovate. Rely less on a single solution or technology, improve user experience and be open with their site visitors. It is only the end of third-party tracking, not the end of the world. There are better tools at their disposal. Let’s look at some.
Value your Visitor
First of all, reduce the reliance of hyper-targeted ads on other websites as the main driver of sales. Use 1st party cookies wisely: each visit in your site gives some data, so investigate it. Make that experience as good as possible. Value the visitor: their actions and interactions in your side might provide more information than you thought. Innovate. Provide interesting, engaging content for the user both during their first visit, as well as upon return. Utilize personalization by segmentation based on previous interactions on your site. Get the user to want to come back for a high quality experience.
On the other hand, if the first thing a user sees is a deliberately confusing, complicated cookie consent banner, with the aim of getting everybody to give up and just click ‘accept all’… well, lets just say it’s not a good first impression.
The Golden Logged In User
If a visitor is an existing customer, he should want to log in. And not at the last step of the subsequent checkout, but throughout the whole experience. The pandemic has shifted more and more people to shop and spend their time online. Polls show that people really value personal touch and convenience online, ease of use. So create a site can cater for that, a truly fluent, personal experience starting with the landing page 16. A logged in user is a user who voluntarily allows a company to identify him and give him the best experience possible. Therefore, a logged in user is gold, a site should use that good will properly.
But how to achieve that? Well, my online grocery shop provides a good example: I can save my usual shopping basket that I purchase every time, I can favorite some goods, I am highlighted and notified of discounts to my liked and frequently bought things.. As a result, I wouldn’t ever want the option of shopping there anonymously.
Take Pride in Openness
Last, but most important: innovate in transparency and openness. The pandemic did more than just shift audiences towards the web. People also found themselves in an interesting conundrum. They were asked to hand over their geo-location data to help fight the pandemic. We understand it is for a noble cause. And honestly, we are likely to agree to that. But having found out that it is big ad-tech giants behind the apps to be installed on our phones… A loss of that good will surfaces. We would tell everything to our doctors, we trust them. And Facebook… the antithesis of trust.
Therefore a smart brand should use this opportunity to deepen the relationship with their users. Provide transparent policies, easy to understand explanations (instead of over-complicated legal texts). Be open with what data is collected and why in a way that non tech-savvy users get it. And pay attention to security. Raise the security focus in the company, avoid personal data breaches. Gain the trust that we see lacking now 17.
User Tracking is not Dead
It’s just changing. In fact, some already see a darker side here. For example, Apple has an ecosystem, where users often consume more than one service, purchase more than one device. Apple is free to track their users however it likes. Restricting the abilities of others to track their users? It’s just good business sense, camouflaging as “privacy advocacy”. I would love for the online world to shift to a transparent and reputable place in regards to personal data but I’m not that naïve. Technology will not not stand still and find ways to work around regulation or tools. The tracking pixel is the perfect example 18. Browsers learn to block those too. However, I believe that a brand pursuing this cat and mouse approach is on eventual dead end path, while a company evolving to be trustworthy will be the one that wins out in the long run.
Got a different opinion? Let me know! Or check out my other posts or drop a comment below.
- Information Management: A Proposal, Tim Berners-Lee, CERN, March 1989, May 1990 https://www.w3.org/History/1989/proposal.html
- Click-through rate: a percentage of people who click on the link when seeing it