In an increasingly privacy-first world, what’s next for the world’s most hated cookie?
The history of the cookie
Originally developed to enable virtual shopping basket functionality on an e-commerce website, the cookie has been a part of most web browsers since 1997. At first, the technology contained no third-party tracking capabilities at all, confirmed by the original patent filed in 1995. It took less than a year for advertisers to realise the potential of the technology, the ability to share user data across different third-party websites and platforms.
In recent years, cookies have been met with increasing concern in a world where people put privacy and security at the forefront of their browsing habits, but this concern is nothing new. In 1996, the Financial Times released an article labelling the cookie “unsafe”, followed by worries over “giving the web a memory” as reported by The New York Times in 2001. Alongside the rising popularity and sophistication of advertising platforms and the giant volumes of data they harvest, privacy concerns surrounding third-party cookies have grown at an exponential rate, forcing manufacturers and software companies to do something about it.
One of the most prominent companies to make changes is Apple, with their Safari web browser no longer supporting cookies and more recently, the iOS updates which forced Facebook to issue warnings to advertisers last year. While we don’t know exact numbers, it’s been widely reported that the opt-in to cookie tracking on iPhones has been (unsurprisingly) very low.
Google, one of the largest collectors of user data on the planet, announced two years ago that they would start phasing out support for cookie technology, starting in 2022. Understandably, the lack of suitable alternatives to effective online advertising meant advertisers weren’t too happy about this, with the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) also getting involved to oversee the development of any new technology. This has slowed Google’s development of what they’re calling a ‘Privacy Sandbox’ – a new set of tools and technologies centered around user privacy.
In June last year, Google revealed significant delays to the initiative, citing the need for “sufficient time for public discussion on the right solutions”. The outcome of those discussions was the development of a technology named ‘FLoC’, which aimed to solve the concerns of all parties by placing users with similar interests into aggregated, anonymous groups. Unfortunately, this proposal also raised a number of questions over its suitability, primarily over advertising effectiveness and Google halted the plans late last year. It’s clear Google’s task here is one of balance, meeting the expectations of privacy-first users and demands of the CMA while also growing advertising revenues to keep their shareholders happy.
The latest in a series of privacy-first projects, Topics API was unveiled in January and promises to be the answer to many of these concerns. Rather than relying on the content of individual cookies to group users into pools of similar behaviours, the technology uses page content to assign users to up to three topics per week e.g. beauty, fitness and travel. Advertisers will then be able to target these user pools, while knowing nothing about the users contained within them, until the assigned topics expire after three weeks. We’ve seen mixed responses from the advertising community so far, with most eagerly awaiting the complete list of available topics. The key limitation here will be the number and granularity of the topic groups, advertisers will only want to invest budget if they know they’re reaching users who are closely matched to their own products and services.
We often see multinational technology companies making decisions without user or public input, so the fact that Google is taking this so seriously is a welcome change. After a number of proposal u-turns, we’re eagerly awaiting updates on the latest Topics API development and will be closely watching how this affects the digital efforts of our clients.
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