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A cookie-less world is coming, and it has nothing to do with the Cookie Monster eating all of them. What we’re talking about here is a pragmatic shift in how websites communicate data and activity to the servers that need it in order to, amongst other things, track individual preferences, and cross-site activity. How does that impact your digital marketing? Well, it may in many ways, but before we get into that, let’s take a step back and understand, in lay mans terms, what this is all about.
If we were to take the way back machine, to the beginnings of the web, and by the beginnings, I don’t mean the origins (that’s way further back), I mean the time when the public at large started to interact with what we now know as the digital space, we’d find the origins of cookies. Wikipedia defines cookies as “HTTP cookies (also called web cookies, Internet cookies, browser cookies, or simply cookies) are small blocks of data created by a web server while a user is browsing a website and placed on the user’s computer or other device by the user’s web browser. Cookies are placed on the device used to access a website, and more than one cookie may be placed on a user’s device during a session”. When we look at the origins of the web, the basis of the internet was in the interconnection of information. It’s why the internet was called the information superhighway. It allowed information from one server (computer) to be served to another server across the country. It was all about the transfer of information to build what would be come the world’s encyclopedia. A place where all information became easily accessible. If we think about it as a filing cabinet, which it’s formulation was structured in, we still to this day use terminology that came from that structure. Servers have files, we still transfer files (as we did from one cabinet to another), we also still have folders, as what held the file sin cabinets, an so on. However, interconnecting those servers inferred that one organization would be accessing another organization and transferring those files over a connection. Thus there was an innate need for security. When web browsers were created, which made that information available to the broad public, that need for security became even more evident. Thus, browsers were built to have that security built-in. A lot fo that security had to do with keeping information safe, anonymous, and non-identifiable. However, we still needed to be able to track activity on the web, as in passive activity, like how many pages a person visited on a website and which and active, as in how many times a user returned to a website. In came cookies.
Originally, cookies were just files the web browser would place in your computer, without your knowledge, that tracked identifiers that allowed websites to then “pick up” a previous cookie they had left on your computer OR if they hadn’t yet left one, they could create one. This cookie tracked your activity on their site. Activity like what items you had left in your cart, what types of content you were interested in, and the like. This was a useful way for a your information to be safe, yet available. As with everything in technology, over time, these cookies became meatier and meatier, they had more and more information on them. That caused a slew of problems. Why? Because as with everything on the internet, there are good actors and there are bad actors. You could say: But the cookie just hd anonymous information. That may be true, the problem came with the fact that if you provide enough anonymous information on a person, you eventually are able to gather enough information on someone to construct who that person is. So if I told you that a cookie on your machine knew you were a man, from Los Angeles, in Santa Monica, who liked a specific group of foods, ate at a specific group of restaurants, was somewhere between 30 and 32 years old, went to school at UCLA, was an architect, and so on. Eventually, you could gather enough information to determine who this person is. As an Advertiser myself, I can tell you that is premium information. As a software engineer, I can tell you that is valuable information, and in the wrong hands, it could be extremely valuable information to anyone meaning to do harm.
We’ve known for a long time that cookies were a problem. However, we’ve built an economy on cookies. It is estimated that data tracking accounts for at least 60% of internet commerce. We know so much about you at this point that we may know more about you and what you want and need than you know about yourself. And that, is scary, not only because like us good actors, bad actors will be able to use that information. Because bad actors can use that information to cause serious harm, not only to you but to the economy as a whole. So over time, it as decided that cookies had to go. And so they will, in 20222 (partially).
Having worked at a tech firm, an ad tech firm, and a publisher, I can tell you that one of the greatest fears for both tech firms and businesses that rely on the internet, is government regulation. Why, because the government will for the most part, take things to an extreme, and make good actors pay for the deeds of bad actors. Ideally, we prefer a self-regulating body, where experts come up with solutions that help resolve the problem in a way that prevents or reduces the ability of bad actors to take action while allowing business to thrive. The problem I see with that is that it ends up transferring that ability to make decisions on the overall welfare of an industry to the only groups able to dedicate enough resources to coming up with these solutions. That is, large corporations, the large tech firms that have all but monopolized the internet. Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. However, that is the subject of another blog. What matters on this one is, what do I do now?
Well, there’s many initiatives out there that can help prepare you for the shift to a cookie-less world. Google for one, is testing transferring the information from being kept by your computer, to being kept by your browser, so that websites will get anonymized and randomized data from the browser; not your computer, to help them make decisions. So, the website will know you have the pants you left in your shopping cart there, but it won’t know that you left them there last Tuesday. Another initiative that is happening is contextual advertising, which has been around for a while, but will become more prominent as this rolls out. Contextual relies on the content of a website to inform an advertisers decision to serve an ad to the website. So the ad server may not get to know you like cars but if you’re reading an article about cars then you probably do. Depending on how many options are out there, I foresee a world with a LOT of articles about cars, beauty products, fashion and the like. As that will become the way to be able to deliver the number of advertising impressions required to hit the impressions needed for a campaign.
You may have also heard about apple allowing you to opt-in to give your information to apps. Most people didn’t even know that the apps on your phone can track you while you’re on other apps on your phone. Guess what, that is one of the basis of the success of facebook at advertising. If you’ve ever wondered how they know so much about what you like. It’s not only what you do on their apps/site, it’s what you do on your phone and on other websites that have nothing to do with them, other than maybe advertise on facebook. And speaking of Facebook, they’re one of the ones that is resisting these changes the most. I wonder why? They’re coming up with solutions like a server-side form of tracking. So the data would be gathered by facebook, on the server of the websites people visit. This would allow them to bypass the browser, which if you haven’t figured it out yet, it allows them to skip the controls established by Chrome (Google), Safari (Apple), and Edge/Internet Explorer (Microsoft), amongst others.
So now that you know more of what is going on. How will you prepare? For one, you may want to Talk to an expert on cookie-less advertising. That’s us!
Here are some useful resources for the tech savvy and for the lay man.