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Why is Google really killing the cookie?

David Murphy

Google’s announcement earlier this week that it would phase out the use of third-party cookies in its Chrome browser within two years sent shock waves around the industry, and has also divided opinion among ad tech executives. 

Mike O’Sullivan, VP, product at ad exchange, Index Exchange, said he is encouraged by Google’s move. “We hope to see more announcements like this one,” he said. “It’s critical that our industry embraces privacy and consent as the foundational framework from which we can build atop innovative solutions. We’re committed to this new framework – it’s why we’ve been investing so heavily in people-based solutions and migrating away from cookie-based approaches over the last three-plus years. It’s imperative that we achieve privacy-first solutions across the industry, while maintaining a healthy, independent monetization ecosystem for marketers and publishers.”

But Trevor Martin, senior manager of growth at digital learning company BrainStation, questions the real motives behind Google’s move. He said: “While Google is looking to protect users’ privacy by removing third-party cookies, they will only do so once they have an alternative for advertisers in place. Most of Google’s revenue comes from advertising and they won’t be in a hurry to give that up.

“They have made similar moves in the past, by encrypting organic search keywords effectively removing that organic keyword data from advertisers in the interest of user privacy. However, they still provided keyword data on their paid search side, which many saw as a way to push more people to use their Google Ads platform. With a two-year runway in place, Google will most likely have an alternative to third-party cookies in place for advertisers before making the switch to remove third-party cookies

“Google introduced Privacy Sandbox to showcase ideas about how behavioural advertising could work without third-party cookies and inviting industry leaders to comment, however, some wonder if Google should be the one who decides how advertising on the internet should work at all.”

To give Google its due, it was pretty candid in making the announcement about third party cookies that it was working on alternatives. Justin Schuh, director, Chrome Engineering, wrote: “We are confident that with continued iteration and feedback, privacy-preserving and open-standard mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete. Once these approaches have addressed the needs of users, publishers, and advertisers, and we have developed the tools to mitigate workarounds, we plan to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome.”

Nonetheless, some cynicism towards Google is understandable, given the power it wields over online advertising. Richard Jones, CMO of Cheetah Digital, is one of many in the industry encouraging brands to move away from the walled gardens of traditional ad tech to more transparent sources of customer data in order to transcend more impending legislation and to retain customers.

He said: “What’s interesting about Google making moves to phase out third-party cookies is that they are arguably the leading browser, but not the first to make this move. Mozilla announced (it was) blocking cookies in 2019. The desire for control over data is now forcing browsers and manufacturers to continuously update versions of their systems to address consumer wants, like removal of cookies, decreased use of location data and more.

“We’re seeing forward-thinking marketers get ahead of privacy issues and technology disruptions like this by focusing on zero party data collection – data shared directly with a brand by consumers. This approach can future-proof their marketing efforts and, in most cases, transcend impending legislation that continues to erode current advertising strategies.”

Niall Moody, trading director at Nano Interactive, believes Google’s announcement will force the industry to collectively change for the better. He said: “We see it as an opportunity for innovative companies and collaborations to come to the fore and enable brands to maximise their full reach and revenue potential in a far more sustainable way that is respectful to the end user.

As a business we’ve been anticipating this move for a while which led us to build a targeting platform that does not depend on cookies and puts live user intent over identity. Over the past 12 months we’ve seen growth of 144 per cent year-on-year from brands already implementing our Live intent targeting solution into their wider digital strategy.

The recent moves from the leading browsers will only bring about a more transparent, trusted advertising ecosystem that sees benefits for all. Users will see relevant advertising that does not compromise their personal identity and increases the chance of them being receptive to advertising messages. Publishers will gain back greater control and be in a position to offer audiences more contextual relevance. In return they will see better yields. And advertisers will be forced to re-set how they have previously measured their digital advertising success. The move will now enable brands to revert to traditional principles of marketing and take a more user centric approach where the longer term brand metrics take centre stage.

Finally, John Regan, CEO of Mymyne, a startup encouraging consumers to take ownwership of their personal data, says the end of cookies was inevitable. 

"If Google didn’t kill them, then a combination of legislation, and audience disengagement most surely would have forced marketing to evolve towards a more effective use of targeting," said Regan. "The problem with Programmatic is that it’s easy to buy, and this has led to many unimaginative and lazy campaigns.

"Without a deadline the industry would have dragged this out as long as possible with the current practices dying a death of a thousand cuts. Now we have a whole industry unified in the task of solving this problem before 2022. This is a great opportunity for innovation to come to the fore rather than be swamped in a sea of lethargy and unwillingness to take a risk on a new idea.

"The truth is that Google didn’t kill cookies, abuse of privacy did and as a result there’s been no public outcry at the loss of personally targeted advertising. If we’re to come up with a long-term solution, much of the answer lies in a transparent and mature attitude to consent. If people a. Understand how their PII is used and b. Feel that they benefit as a result, then permission becomes part of their brand experience rather than the thing that we dare not discuss. Cookies are soon to be thing of the past, whatever follows will have a limited shelf life without transparent consent.

"One potential solution is to start gathering first party data at scale and use the learnings from that data to drive engagement and advocacy. This comes back to transparency and value at the heart of privacy.

"The internet and apps are on the whole free to use and much of this ‘free’ service is paid for by selling the data which such services generate. The fact that ‘internet citizens’ continue to use such services is seen by some as a vindication of this system. In truth however the debate has moved on, it’s reasonable for private citizens to have the right to understand and control how information which relates to them is used for marketing. Public opinion is increasingly demanding this, and it’s reflected in legislation.

"In this climate the only long-term solution is for brands to be transparent. This means if a service is offered for ‘free’ because it generates data then this should be made clear and there should be an option to pay with cash instead. There is a lot of research which suggests that given this option many would still choose the data route. It’s the deception that people are objecting to.

"This level of transparency limits the use of third or even second party data. Many have said that the problem with this is that it’s not possible to generate first party data at scale. This is a lazy response to a problem which isn’t going away."

Whatever comes along to replace it, the death of the cookie has been predicted for some time now in ad tech circles. Google’s announcement this week brought it one giant step closer.

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