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Insights All you need to know about website cookies

Andre Wilkinson
Andre Wilkinson
Senior Performance Specialist

05 May 2022

4 minute read

laptop on table with snacks

Before we start looking into the crystal ball of a cookieless future, I feel a brief history lesson is in order on what cookies are and how they have been used to get us where we are today. You know, just to get us all on the same page

What are cookies?

In the most simple of terms, cookies are small files which are placed onto your computer by websites. These files store information about you and your website usage. These files can then be read by your browser and allows websites to perform in various ways.

While cookies get a lot of bad press of late, they are not all bad. Cookies have made the internet a more user friendly place. Things like not having to log in to every page on your social platform of choice, or being able to add an item to a shopping cart and then browsing some other products before checking out, are only possible because these websites remember that you have logged in and what you have been doing moment to moment through information stored in cookies.

While cookies are great for a seamless browsing experience , they are equally great for marketers and data analysts. 

We use the data collected by cookies (anonymised of course) to understand how people use our websites through Google Analytics, helping us identify popular content or drop off points in user journeys and how to make a better user experience..

Marketers also use cookies as a way to target users through ads that we run online. By serving ads only to people who fit a demographic or interest make up, we are able to be much more efficient at how we spend our marketing budgets.

So why the hate?

Cookies allow for some really insightful profiling, the kind of profiling that some advertisers (and it turns out the CIA and FBI) will pay top dollar for.

This has led to the rise of “data brokers” who incentivise websites to share this kind of information with them by placing their own cookie on a website for a fee. These are known as third party cookies and are often sold on data exchanges to the highest bidder. 

Data breaches and the likes of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, have made people and lawmakers very aware and vocal on digital privacy.

Death to the cookie

In light of public scrutiny and potential legal ramifications (GDPR) cookies have been one foot out of the door for a few years now, with Google being one of the last players still in the game. It is not surprising really as 90% of Google’s revenue is through advertising and they needed the time to prepare for what this future holds.

In more recent news, Belgium's data authority (APD) has found that the usage of cookie-pop-up-notifications fell foul of the law on several fronts, in a ruling already approved by regulators across Europe.


cookies on plate


No cookie, some problem

With cookies and third party data going the way of the dodo, few users will be as negatively impacted as marketers, or anyone trying to make sense of their analytics data to improve website engagement.

In the immediate future, some challenges we as marketers will face are:

  • Less data points to analyse
  • Less granularity in our data as things need to be inferred from what is available
  • Targeting within platforms will be less granular and accurate
  • Retargeting as a concept is at risk of disappearing
  • Costs could rise in order to generate and house your own 1st party data

So, what now?

Luckily, this has been seen coming for a number of years, which has provided some runway for platforms to make plans for their futures. Sadly, without cookies and third party data, these plans are hardly replacements for what we are losing, at least for the everyman.

We have seen Google roll out their new Google Analytics 4 (GA4). Universal Analytics, as we use now, is going to be phased out by July 2023. While it is nice to be able to still track user activity on your website, GA4 does “feel” a little half baked at this stage. It also requires some tinkering and coding knowledge to be really useful to track things that Universal Analytics had previously built in by default.

Given the importance of tracking website behaviour in measuring success of advertising campaigns, Google will almost definitely be improving on GA4 in the near future with feature updates.

Google is also working on its “privacy sandbox” as a mechanism which allows advertisers to still target users through their Google Ads platform. Unfortunately, this is very basic in its current iteration with very limited data points we can target users against. This should also improve over time as Google navigates the cookieless waters, but as it stands it is akin to older “spray and pray” advertising methods of radio and television.

The second thing we can start looking at doing, is generating our own first party data for user analysis. There are a number of tools out there which allow you to track users on your website through first party data collection. These are often expensive and require a basic level of coding understanding to set up and configure. This does potentially put this out of reach for smaller brands and/or teams who lack all the expertise required. 

The need for first party tracking solutions will likely see an influx of new providers. This competition should bring this cost down over time through simple supply/demand economics.

In the interim, what you should definitely be doing is:

  1. Install GA4 and do some training on it now. Just so that there is already historical data there when the big switch flips.
  2. Download your current Google Analytics/Facebook/Instagram etc… data and analyse your top performing audiences/traffic sources… etc. 

By learning as much as we can about your current top-customers, the better prepared you are to market to them when you have limited data at your disposal. 

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