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How the end of third-party cookies will affect PR and SEO

Third-party cookies: what does it all mean?

You’ve likely heard a lot of talk about the demise of third-party cookies.

This year will see Google’s total and complete removal of third-party cookies. In fact it’s a process that has already started.

In early January, the search engine began the rollout of this change across 1% of its platform. By the end of 2024, Google will have phased out third-party cookies across its entire ecosystem.

But what does all this mean… and why does it matter?

A brief history of blocking third-party cookies

It should be noted that Google is behind the curve in its efforts to remove and block third-party cookies.

Others, such as Safari and Firefox, have blocked third-party cookies as standard for a while now. While Opera has also allowed users to opt out of third-party cookies manually.

So you may ask, why this change is causing such discourse, if others are already doing it.

The reason for that, is that Google Chrome has more collective users than most other browsers combined. It has also built a massive economy around ads and targeting. A lot of businesses are using Google’s third-party data to to create targetted marketing outputs.

So this change of direction from Google has a far greater potential for widespread change and disruption.

Before we unpack what this could look like, it’s important to explain how third-party cookies actually work.

First Party Cookies vs third-party cookies: explained

Essentially, Cookies are text files that allow websites to remember things about you. This could be anything from login information, search and browsing history

First-party cookies are created by the website you are directly visiting. Say you’re visiting Amazon, it uses first-party cookies to remember things like items in your shopping cart.

But third-party cookies are created by sites and domains that are not the ones you’re currently visiting.

Still with us? Great!

Third-party cookies are created by domains other than the one you are directly visiting. For instance, many websites include content-like ads or analytics tools from other external domains. Those third-party domains can drop cookies on your device through the site you are on. If those pieces of code and content feature on other sites, the cookies follow your journey and paint a picture of your online habits.

Companies use this data to build profiles of web browsing habits.

You could visit multiple websites on your lunch break, and each of those sites could have third-party cookie codes from the likes of Facebook, Instagram or Amazon – granting powerful cross-site tracking.

So when you come home in the evening, your Facebook feed is littered with recommended products and content which have been fed information from.

When you scroll Facebook or Instagram or get served YouTube ads for things that seem all too familiar and convenient… that’s how third-party cookies work.

The primary function of third-party cookies is this tracking capability.

Why block third-party cookies now?

Google is stripping out its use of third-party cookies to appease the growing concerns of the wider public.

In recent years, the wider public has become increasingly concerned about the way their personal data is captured and used online. So this move is societally driven.

But, because Google Chrome holds the lion’s share of search and ad revenue and because other browsers have been blocking third-party cookies for a while, it’s created a rather complicated set of factors.

For decades digital marketers and advertisers have been reliant on third-party cookies to create engagement and conversions and effectively prove their worth. They have built a business model, and a very successful and financially lucrative one at that, around the language of third-party cookies.

Google has also reaped the rewards of this. They’ve created a mutually benefical eco-system and for a very long time, a lot of people have been building their platforms and their success on the foundations of the third-party cookie.

Some have called Google out for the length of time it has taken to get this far. Which is understandable. But it’s also understandable that Google are taking their time. This is a massive leap for everyone involved.

What’s actually going to change

Will things be as chaotic as our imaginations can predict?

The search engine brings in around 90% of its revenue through its Google Ads platform. So there’s really no surprise that they’ve been delaying this roll-out, quite literally for years.

Google needs to get its proprietary alternatives to third-party cookies right. But right now, there is no clear guidance from Google and Alphabet about how these alternative products are going to work.

Make no mistake, a misstep from Google could have massive ramifications on its bottom line. But, a company the size of the Alphabet Group makes it much more resistant to change over time.

In real terms, the biggest changes are likely by the end users.

Many businesses and brands have built their platforms and fortunes on Google’s third-party cookies and data. They are going to have to adapt to new ways of targeting their core audiences for themselves and their clients.

From an advertising, marketing and re-marketing perspective, those who have previously relied on third-party data will have to shift. But what that shift will look like is, at this moment, hard to say.

What are the alternatives to the third-party cookie?

This is a difficult question to answer at this time.

There remains a great deal of uncertainty around what Google’s proposed proprietary alternatives – the Privacy Sandbox API’s – will do and how they will function without the use of third-party cookies by default.

Testing on these products has been delayed, for a long time.

Google has provided little to no information regarding the functionality of these products and until we have a clear sight of Google’s new products, then a clearer answer will be possible. But right now, we don’t even know if and how they’ll fit into GDPR regulations here in the UK.

There are other alternatives being discussed, such as device fingerprinting, OS level tracking and even hardware tracking are being discussed as viable alternatives to replace third-party cookie tracking.

But there are concerns about these ‘replacements’ and the risks that they could become ethically opaque and open to misuse. Should this happen, we may find ourselves in a situation where one morally ambiguous solution to data tracking and audience segmentation is being replaced by another.

A shift in mindset & approach

The general tone of the conversation is one of shifting away from third-party cookies that track user’s every move, to more ethical first-party data.

This could be site data taken directly from website users on owned sites and apps. Another alternative being discussed is contextual targeting; which analyses the content of any given page visited, without divulging private user data.

The potential downside of contextual targeting is that sites would require more text and content to extract any meaningful data or signals. Contextual targeting can’t offer the same levels of granular detail regarding user interest and intent.

This presents us with another issue, which is that models built on contextual targeting would need to be reliant on sophisticated natural language processing algorithms. This will naturally require unified global Ai legislation and regulation, which currently does not exist.

The shift in search: will this shift alter SEO?

You may have also seen a lot of varying discourse around third-party cookies and the impact their removals will have on organic search.

Some are saying it’ll hit organic search hard, and some aren’t.

Google has stated that it does not use Cookie data for rankings. While there are some cases, where third-party cookie data could be used as a signal for engagement or site popularity, but these are indirect ranking factors.

So SEO fundamentals ought to remain intact, from an organic perspective.

What is likely to change, is that the promoted search items and snippets which Google presents to users will likely become less relevant and honed as third-party cookies are phased out. So you promoted and recommended search items, may lose relevancy.

That makes it difficult for businesses that are ranking for keywords, if they’re showing up in irrelevant paid search. There’s not much by way of ROI there.

This presents a big opportunity for brands and businesses to put a focus on strong owned content to raise their standings within organic search.

In summary

If your business has been built around targeted ads, tracking user behaviour, gathering data from third-party platforms or generally using detailed tracking data in order to build your or your client’s pipelines… then things are going to change for you.

Unfortunately, until such a time as Google fully confirms how its alternative proprietary solutions will slot into the gap left by third-party cookie tracking, there will exist something of an existential limbo.

Because this isn’t a change of tech, for tech’s sake.

The removal of third-party cookies isn’t really a question of technology, it’s a question of the market shifting to a more ethical approach towards user data.

This is a change, that has been a long time in the making and has been fuelled by a growing public distaste towards the more clandestine tactics around online advertising, marketing and targeting.

Whatever comes after third-party cookies, has to be ethically sound while still being functional as a re-targeting tool. Certainly not an insignificant challenge and perhaps all this current discourse will prove, in hindsight, to be pure conjecture and this is exactly what happens.

But that’s probably over-optimistic.

What’s arguably the most likely thing to happen is that everyone has to learn to adapt to a new way of life when it comes to targeted advertising and marketing.

The most likely outcome is that we lose the hyper-specific levels of targeting capability. The nuance and detail which third-party cookies have given people, will start to peel back and the nets of marketing and advertising will need to widen.

Things may become a little more broad and the most affected area will be the very top of the funnel.

It’s here where strategies will need to be adapted. From content to digital PR, Organic SEO and everything in between.

The battle for eyeballs and engagement will be fought over a brand’s ability to entice and engage audiences in these early stages.

The top of the funnel is about to get a lot noisier.