Louisa Holman
13 min read

These Cookies are Not for You - Exploring Cookieless Marketing

If you thought that the story of GDPR aka data privacy was over and that it ended up in a dissatisfying Game of Thrones kind of ending, don’t worry, we are actually entering volume 2 of this saga and it’s going to get interesting (and complicated) again.  

GDPR was the topic du jour in 2018. Even though we’d all had plenty of notice that this new law protecting people’s personal data would change the marketing landscape, marketers were still scrabbling to be compliant months later and even to this day, I’m still not convinced everyone ‘gets’ it. 

The focus on GDPR has arguably faded as new priorities revealed themselves and other marketing tactics moved into vogue. As the tedious business of worrying about the T&Cs was sorted and so could be “forgotten” about, marketers did what we needed to in order to keep running our campaigns. For users, privacy notices on websites have become wallpaper and users mash buttons to make them go away. 

Whilst we’ve been surviving a global pandemic and getting our ducks in a row re: Core Web Vitals, it understandably slipped our minds that in January 2020, Google announced that it would “phase out” third party cookies (a.k.a. 3P cookies) in its Chrome browser within two years. 

Can Chrome really phase out third-party cookies?

It turns out, not as early as Google had thought. Google’s move to block third-party cookies from their Chrome browser whilst well-intentioned is ambitious. Now, at the end of June 2021, they’ve announced a significant delay to their plans until late 2023. 

"We need to move at a responsible pace, allowing sufficient time for public discussion on the right solutions and for publishers and the advertising industry to migrate their services,"  

Chrome Engineering Director Vinay Goel in a blog post.

“This is important to avoid jeopardizing the business models of many web publishers which support freely available content. And by providing privacy-preserving technology, we as an industry can help ensure that cookies are not replaced with alternative forms of individual tracking, and discourage the rise of covert approaches like fingerprinting.”

Essentially, the move from Google could encourage alternate tracking technologies that negate the intended benefit at the heart of this.  

If you’re wondering whether Google is going too far, too fast with the idea of eliminating third-party cookies here are a few facts to dwell on: 

  • In April 2021, Chrome had 64.47% browser market share, the largest in the world. Apple’s browser Safari is the second most popular globally and they’ve already fired the starting pistol with the release of iOS 14.5, but we’ll get to that in a bit. 
  • If plans had gone ahead, marketers would not have been able to utilise data from third-party cookies as the technology would stop working on major browsers. This means that targeted ads based on third party data would have become a thing of the past in a startlingly short time frame. Necessity is the mother of invention and there is just too much money to be made (and lost) from advertising when a whole industry has to handle an almighty shift in technology.  
  • The plan was that from 2022 you’d then be able to target based on first and second party data and also generic, interest-based audiences (sans cookies) similar to the likes of print or radio advertising. 
    • According to an Econsultancy survey published on 5th May 2021, only 36% of marketers feel like they have a good handle on what a cookieless future could look like. SMEs are most likely impacted by a shift to cookieless marketing. 

With six months to go before their initial deadline, it’s fair to say nobody was ready. 

Before we go any further, I am going to clarify terms used in this article. 


A snippet of data given from a website’s server to your browser. It is a unique identifier that is held on your device for ideally, up to 30 days. Some cookies are required for functionality, such as remembering the items you put in your basket on an ecommerce website, some allow for personalisation such as remembering what country you told them you are in.

GDPR required webmasters to disclose when they were using third party cookies. Since May 2018, you’ve had the choice to opt out of this kind of tracking should you wish.

First party data 

This is data you collect directly from website visitors and customers. It’s the data you hold in your Customer Relationship Management System (CRM System), or information about customer actions or behaviours that have happened on your website in places such as Google Analytics.

Give me an example of how it might be used?

Using cookies (also known as pixels) to re-target a user who has taken a specific action on your website but not yet purchased / converted. 

Second party data 

This is using someone else’s first party data. This data could theoretically be sold in a single transaction (think email address lists pre-GDPR) or anonymised ‘licensed’ access to this data. 

Give me an example of how it might be used?

Facebook and Google allow advertisers to target users using their first party data. In this example, creating an advert aimed at people who have liked a particular page on Facebook e.g. Sainsburys. 

Third party data 

This is data that has been collected from multiple external sources (websites and apps) and has been aggregated. It is often rich in behavioural or demographic data but it can be like cold calling in that it may not be immediately relevant to the consumer. With this type of data, you can ‘throw enough jelly at the wall and see what sticks’. Particularly when cost per 1,000 impressions (CPM) is just a few quid and your marketing budget is small, it can be very lucrative when companies pass you that jelly. 

Give me an example of how it might be used?

Using an advertising platform’s audience profiles based on third party data, with placement of your adverts on what they say are relevant websites. If I’ve landed on a website looking for pet insurance and I accept third party cookies, then another pet insurance company could then try advertising to me elsewhere. 

Could cookieless marketing really disadvantage SMEs?

In Vinay Goel’s blog, he acknowledges that this move has to go through a “multi-phased, public development process.”. This can’t just be spearheaded by Google and forced through with everyone else picking up the pieces. 

Platforms such as Taboola who work with publishers and Verizon Media (formerly Oath), enable marketers to reach new customers very cheaply and very quickly. The speed at which campaign insights can be gained is unprecedented and people who have only ever worked in digital marketing sometimes forget that you could be waiting weeks to learn how your campaigns performed in the old days. 

Without third-party cookie data, SMEs with a smaller budget will struggle to advertise and market to warmer leads. New technologies take time to develop, implement and learn to use.  Likewise, marketers on short or small campaigns will likely struggle to create customer personas, research, plan and create content that touch customers at multiple points along the long sales funnel.  

I completely acknowledge that marketers can still use their own first-party data or track users by providing free content behind a login, but this requires more involvement than you’d think. First, a significant number of people need to visit the website in the first place for the marketer to draw meaningful conclusions. It also requires greater development knowledge, more sophisticated back-end systems, data security policies, business-wide infrastructure and front-end features that are often impractical or out of reach for your average SME. Alternatively, they can continue to pay other companies for the vast knowledge graphs they have amassed over the years via first party data.

Apple & iOS 14.5: privacy vs advertisers

The privacy landscape is already changing and the customer may not even notice that the ads they are seeing are already less specific than they were. In fact, we can already see evidence that third-party tracking is unpopular not just with end-users and Google it seems, but with other multi-billion dollar companies too. 

iOS 14.5 was released on 26th April 2021 but a month later, only 5% of US users have agreed to third party website & app tracking. With the Safari browser in second place to Google Chrome, holding 18.69% of global browser share, Apple is addressing long-standing privacy concerns by prompting users with the option to enable third party tracking - it’s now off by default. When I checked my phone, iOS 14.5.1 was installed and yet I have no recollection of what I have already agreed to, or when. I wonder how many people are getting on with their lives unaware that they have opted out. 

Is it worth considering the motive to predict the future? 

A cynical person might suggest that the release of Core Web Vitals has distracted digital marketers and webmasters over the last year. Along with Apple’s latest update that is itself similar to Google’s move to remove third-party cookies from Chrome, one could argue this is a brazen move to retain a stranglehold in the digital marketing sphere and push out Facebook as well as other companies that sell 3rd party data. It’s not malice, it’s just the corporate world, right?

The role of the artist is to make the revolution look irresistible and Google has spent years acquiring the competition or squashing it. It seems as though on the topic of third-party cookies, they got a little ahead of themselves. 

Scare stories of ad fraud and that third party cookies have become a marketing relic; cumbersome, fallible and out of touch with what customers want don’t reflect the usefulness SMEs find in them. Maybe that’s true, or maybe marketers have come to rely so heavily on third-party data that we abused the privilege and now it's our own fault and we’re the reason that we can no longer have nice things.  

Using the data that individuals and marketers gladly hand over for free in return for services such as via Google Analytics, there is still much to play for. 

Can we truly attribute sales and leads in a cookieless world? 

Google Analytics 4 is attempting to fill in the attribution gaps between your website and mobile apps because for a long time, tracking cross-device and cross platform was and is a massive stumbling block. Think how many times you use the email app and click a link that takes you to another app. Maybe you then click on a Facebook remarketing ad that takes you to a website. Perfectly normal browsing behaviour but in the face of cookieless marketing, a black hole for understanding user journeys. 

I opened an email on my phone reminding me it would soon be Mother’s Day. After much cursing and fretting that my mother would be displeased that I forgot, I clicked a link which opened the retailer’s app. Long story short, I arranged to have flowers sent to her and got 20% off for the pleasure. However, this was not before visiting the website in Safari and finding out that the 20% offer is app exclusive! How do you attribute that path to conversion in a cookieless world? Compare this to my husband who had intended to get his mum supermarket flowers on Mother’s Day. There was not a bloom to be had. It’s wild how late people leave it. 

With GA4, it seems Google is certainly working towards very appealing solutions that could be wondrous for user privacy and online advertisers alike. There are however, still very real gaps in Google’s offering that machine learning has not or may not overcome, and I expect we’ll be talking about that still in future blogs. 

What can SMEs do to prepare for a cookieless future? 

First of all, don’t panic, this isn’t happening overnight and if you’re reading this, you are fore-armed with knowledge! 

There is potentially huge technology changes ahead but this is how things currently stand:

First-party cookies, location and contextual targeting are still wholly viable as long as you have the appropriate policies and disclaimers in place. 

Zero party data, where you ask the user questions on their visit, is often under-utilised but gleans information directly from the individual in exchange for a targeted experience. Questions such as what is your purpose for today’s website visit with multiple choice answers allows you to establish the user’s primary focus e.g. price, customer service or gauging their urgency for your product or service. 

Nothing changes for organic social marketing - likes, comments, shares will all still be reported to you, and advertising to interests and demographics as part of paid social activity can still be super effective. Equally, influencer marketing is no longer the preserve of those with a hefty marketing budget thanks to micro influencers. 

Good old SEO and content marketing remain a solid and faithful part of the marketing mix too, as the users come to you via relevant keyword searches. 

Marketers for SMEs are some of the most creative and skilled marketers in the industry because the full complement of marketing tactics isn’t always available to them and so they work harder to get results in the toughest of environments. Just because you hear of something new and shiny, it doesn’t mean the fundamentals are going anywhere.

If you are an SME looking for website and digital marketing support, contact Adtrak today to discuss your requirements.

1. https://gs.statcounter.com/browser-market-share

2. https://www.techradar.com/uk/news/barely-any-iphone-users-have-agreed-to-app-tacking-in-ios-145 

3. https://gs.statcounter.com/browser-market-share 


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