Cookies have been an important part of the internet since the mid-1990s, but some examples of this technology may soon fade into internet history.
Table of contents
- What exactly are web cookies?
- What is the difference between first-party cookies and third-party cookies?
- Key differences between first and third party cookies
- What will happen with third-party cookies in 2021?
- Cookies’ role in affiliate marketing tracking
- What will happen to affiliate marketing with cookie’s death?
- How does using affiliate software help run your business smoothly?
- Google will use Privacy Sandbox APIs to substitute third-party cookies.
- What alternatives will advertisers have with Privacy Sandbox?
Today, we will examine the most recent plans to phase out third-party tracking cookies, including a Google initiative to replace intrusive tracking technology with a new set of APIs. This is meant to provide advertisers with the data they require while maintaining user anonymity. We will also examine the difference between 1st party and 3rd party cookies, and see what will (or will not) affect the future of online affiliate business.
What exactly are web cookies?
Cookies are data snippets that can be installed on an internet user’s web browser when they visit a website. These cookies can provide information to their owner about an internet user’s online activities, such as which websites the user have viewed or actions they have made while using a website.
Cookies can be used in a variety of ways. In certain circumstances, they remember a user’s behavior or preferences on a specific website, allowing the website to offer functionality like keep a user’s shopping cart populated between visits or allowing forms to autocomplete with user data. Cookies with these purposes are almost unanimously considered as a beneficial use of visitor data that benefits all parties.
Cookies can also be used to track online user behavior in order to support personalized marketing. These are generally called “affiliate cookies”.
Suppose you’ve ever noticed advertisements or links to third-party articles that look uncannily relevant to your previous online activity while reading an online article.
In this case, this could be the consequence of a web cookie tracking your behavior. While essential to modern digital marketing and eCommerce methods, such cookie usage is contentious since a sizable portion of users believe these approaches violate their privacy.
What is the difference between first-party cookies and third-party cookies?
A first-party cookie is associated with the domain that installs it on the user’s browser. This allows the website/cookie owner and the user to communicate information “one-on-one”. Amazon, for example, installs first-party cookies on visitors’ browsers to save their shopping cart status (and, of course, for various other reasons too).
A third-party cookie is coming from a different domain other than the one you are using, and installing cookies on the user’s browser. This domain is frequently a service provider or a business partner of the installing domain. The third-party domain then has access to the user’s data.
Affiliate cookies deployed by online advertising service providers such as Xaxis and Tribal Fusion on their clients’ sites are common examples of third-party cookies.
While some advertisers, publishers, and web users see third-party cookies as fundamental to the internet’s monetization and operations, others see them as a threat to online privacy. There is truth on both sides of this debate, which has left key digital giants such as Google, Apple, and Firefox with a difficult question to answer: what should be done about third-party cookies?
Key differences between first and third party cookies
The following are the primary distinctions between first-party and third-party cookies:
- Availability of cookies: The domain that originated the cookie, has access to first-party cookies. A third-party cookie can be accessed by any website that loads the code from the third-party server.
- Browser compatibility/blocking: All browsers support first-party cookies, which can be disabled or deleted by the user. All browsers support third-party cookies, but many prohibit the establishment of third-party cookies by default. Users are increasingly taking matters into their own hands and manually deleting third-party cookies.
What will happen with third-party cookies in 2021?
Since at least 2017, when Apple released iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra, third-party cookies have been under threat. Both new operating systems included a version of the Safari browser with a function called “Intelligent Tracking Prevention”, which automatically erased cookies identified as unimportant to the user experience. The next year, Mozilla set the default setting in its browser Firefox to prohibit third-party cookies.
Here were the creators of two of the world’s most popular browsers, portraying third-party cookies as the villain – and getting one over on their mutual foe Google, which has incorporated third-party ad cookies in its products.
Despite these incidents, third-party cookies continue to be routinely employed today. They may be divisive, and they may even be ineffective in some browsers, but we simply do not have a replacement for third-party cookies at this time. However, based on recent developments, this appears to be changing.
Cookies’ role in affiliate marketing tracking
Let us refresh our memories about the role of cookies in affiliate marketing. An advertiser conducts an affiliate program in which they locate eligible publishers who will run an ad unit, usually on their website. When a user clicks on this ad (which is supported by an affiliate link), they are sent to the advertiser’s website.
The user then performs the specified action (purchase, sign up, etc.). Because the affiliate link often connects to ad servers hosted by an affiliate network, a third-party cookie is dropped in the process.
Understandably, affiliate marketers are apprehensive about the future of their business. A browser that prevents the cookie from being dropped limits the ability to track and attribute the user’s action to a certain publisher.
As a result, the advertiser would have no idea where the consumer came from, and the publisher would lose attribution for their ad spend.
While third-party cookie blocking has been available for some time, the vast majority of internet users have not been affected.
Chrome, which controls about 70% of the global market, has followed its competitors’ footsteps and has already included blocking.
Furthermore, third-party cookies will be prohibited in Chrome browsers beginning in 2023. The search engine giant stated that it plans to create a “safe environment for personalization that also respects user privacy.”
It is becoming increasingly evident that we must take user privacy extremely seriously. While the advertising sector will be impacted, there is no reason to panic.
What will happen to affiliate marketing with cookie’s death?
Major stakeholders are well aware that access to the free online material is dependent on advertising dollars. However, it is fair to assert that eliminating third-party cookies will not end affiliate marketing.
Alternative tracking options that are less personally invasive have been developed to fill the void that will be created. There are a few viable alternatives to using third-party cookies for affiliate marketing tracking:
- First-party cookies: Tracking can be done using first-party data collected by the website owner. It merely necessitates that business partners synchronize their data in the background.
- Server-to-server tracking: Server-to-server tracking enables affiliates and advertisers to track without the usage of cookies. When an action or conversion event occurs, servers on both sides of the relationship interact. In preparation, most affiliate networks have switched to this more accurate method of tracking in recent years.
Cookies also serve an essential purpose in internet marketing: targeting. Affiliate marketing excels in this aspect because it does not rely on third-party cookies. There are alternatives to using cookies, the most common of which are native and contextual.
How does using affiliate software help run your business smoothly?
If the prospect of a cookie-free future makes you nervous about your affiliate program, you’re not alone. The notion of adjusting to a new system can be intimidating. Nonetheless, recognizing your current wants can assist you in gracefully embracing fresh ideas.
Previously, Google Analytics relied on cookies. However, they will abandon that approach in October 2020. As a result, you’ve most likely been working on cookieless data for a few months.
Many scripts and tools became absolute with the slow death of cookies, but this does not concern affiliate marketing software, such as Scaleo, which uses 1st party cookies to track commissions and, moreover, offers several other tracking methods, such as 3 types of Pixel tracking, postback URL and more.
Google will use Privacy Sandbox APIs to substitute third-party cookies.
Google is pitching itself as a go-between for business interests and online privacy rights – and it intends to accomplish so by finding a happy medium between preserving web users’ anonymity and delivering important insight to advertisers.
In August 2019, Google unveiled Privacy Sandbox, an initiative to build a set of open privacy rules for the internet that might secure online publishers’ user-data-driven profits while aligning online privacy standards with consumers’ expectations.
“Some proposals include innovative techniques to ensuring that adverts remain relevant for users, but user data exchanged with websites and advertisers would be decreased by anonymously aggregating user data and keeping much more user data on-device alone.”
The Director of Chrome Engineering at Google, Justin Schuh, in a blog post announcing the scheme.
As part of the Privacy Sandbox initiative, Google has announced its intent to phase out third-party cookies on its browser Chrome by 2022.
Schuh revealed on the Chromium blog in January 2020:
“Following initial discussions with the web community, we are optimistic that, with more iteration and feedback, privacy-preserving and open-standard technologies like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies unnecessary. We want to phase off support for third-party cookies in Chrome after these techniques have addressed the interests of users, publishers, and advertisers, and we have built tools to mitigate workarounds. Our goal is to complete this in two years.”
David Temkin, the director of Product Management at Google, Ads Privacy and Trust, issued an additional announcement at the beginning of 2021, underlining Google’s commitment to implementing their new tracking method.
“Chrome will also release the first iteration of additional user controls in April, and will build on these features in subsequent releases as more proposals reach the origin testing stage, and they receive more feedback from end-users and the industry.”
What alternatives will advertisers have with Privacy Sandbox?
As the project’s development progresses, the Privacy Sandbox has taken on a more defined shape in recent months. The initiative appears to consist of five application programming interfaces (APIs) that advertisers will be able to utilize in place of third-party tracking cookies.
The Privacy Sandbox APIs will provide advertisers with aggregated data on key areas of activity such as conversions and conversion attributions, rather than the personally identifiable information (PII) that makes third-party cookies problematic today.
It is envisaged that the insights supplied by this approach will provide enough insight to advertisers without the need to track individual users using their personal data.
The Privacy Sandbox APIs are not yet finished, but they are rumored to include the following:
- Trust Tokens API: This will replace captchas, a popular verification test, with a method in which users fill out a captcha-like form only once, following which their humanity is validated using anonymous trust tokens.
- Conversion Measurement API: This will replace the present common IDs used to track conversions with an alternate method that protects user privacy better. According to the GitHub description for the Privacy Sandbox, this API will not be able to support all conversion measurement cases, with view conversions and detailed click conversions likely being excluded.
- Privacy Budget API: This API will allocate a budget to websites, limiting the amount of data they can access from each individual, preventing user identification and tracking throughout the web.
- Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC): This system will observe user behavior and group them into cohorts, or flocks.’ The users will then receive advertising that is tailored to the group to which they have been assigned. FLoC intends to build useful groupings using machine learning.
The first experiments for two of the new Privacy Sandbox APIs began in 2020. There has yet to be any news on how online advertisers can get part.
Google’s Privacy Sandbox is concerned with more than simply third-party cookies.
An intriguing aspect of Privacy Sandbox that some industry observers have overlooked is Google’s intent to phase out other user-linked tracking mechanisms than third-party cookies. According to the overview of the Chromium Projects documentation for Privacy Sandbox:
“We will vigorously attack current non-cookie-based cross-site tracking techniques such fingerprinting, cache inspection, link decorating, network tracking, and Personally-Identifying Information (PII) joins.”
A shift away from these tactics would have far-reaching implications in the digital marketing business.
For example, affiliate marketers and Google have long utilized link decorating to convey information via visitors’ address bars from one site to the next. Attributing affiliate sales becomes extremely difficult without the use of third-party cookies or link decorating.
The elimination of cookies appears to be part of a broader shift away from potentially intrusive web technologies.
This is more than a technical change; it is a cultural transformation for digital marketing.
The bottom line, and the only thing you need to know, is that nothing changes for you as an affiliate marketer (either advertiser or publisher). Your link tracking will continue to function even if 3rd party cookies will completely discontinue its’ existence. Not only affiliate marketing operates on 1st party cookies, which are not impacted at all – you also have a wide variety of other tracking choices to choose from.
While there are many uncertainties about how these updates will affect advertising in the long run, the good news for affiliate marketers is that affiliate marketing is ready to deal with any new issues that may arise in 2022 and beyond.