The top 9 replacements for third-party cookies

Third-party cookies have long been a popular targeting technique for online advertisements. By tracking user activity and interests across their Web experience, third-party cookies allow advertisers to show the right ad to the right user at the right time. While this greatly benefits advertisers, it poses a huge privacy concern for users.

As of right now, third-party cookies are banned on Apple, Safari, and Mozilla Firefox. This leaves Google as the main Web browser that still uses them. However, they are slowly following suit.

But what happens when third-party cookies are gone for good?

For starters, everyone in the digital marketing ecosystem will need to rethink how they connect to their audiences. Discover what’s new in cookie depreciation news and what the 9 best alternatives are to third-party cookies.

Where we are in the cookie deprecation saga

So, where exactly are we with the exodus of third-party cookies?

As mentioned above, most web browsers have already blocked third-party cookies. Therefore, we’re really only waiting for Google to pick up the slack. Google had originally planned to scrap third-party cookies by 2022. As we’ve seen multiple times, this did not come to pass.

Now, Google is delaying the depreciation of third-party cookies until 2024. This is the second extension they’ve made as they were supposed to start phasing it out this year. It’s not because Google wants to keep third-party cookies alive. Rather, it involves the company’s Privacy Sandbox initiative.

The Privacy Sandbox

The Privacy Sandbox is Google’s response to a cookieless future for Chrome.

It’s essentially an initiative to set new standards whereby cookies will be replaced by a set of different APIs. Advertisers will be able to use these APIs to receive aggregated data concerning ad performance, conversion and impression attribution, and other valuable types of information regarding their ad campaigns and target audience.

How does the Privacy Sandbox work?

Essentially, the Privacy Sandbox will work using anonymized signals — not cookies — within a user’s Chrome browser to collect information on user browsing habits. All ad targeting, measuring, and even fraud prevention will have to follow suit by the Privacy Sandbox’s standards. The end goal will hopefully make for a more secure user experience.

Ultimately, Google needs more time to conduct tests on its Privacy Sandbox initiative, which is exactly what is causing the company’s delay in deprecating third-party cookies. The transition to a less intrusive means of data tracking for Google Chrome may be on its way. It’s just taking a little more time than expected.

Top 9 alternatives to third-party cookies

While the goalpost keeps changing, it does seem inevitable that third-party cookies will be a thing of the past with all Web browsers. As such, advertisers and publishers alike will have to adjust to a cookieless world despite Google taking its time.

Having said that, let’s move on to the top 9 alternatives to third-party cookies:

1. Zero-party cookies

Zero-party cookies are information that a user chooses to intentionally share with a business. It’s essentially the same as first-party cookies, only it uses a different method of collecting information.

For example, zero-party data is collected as users voluntarily provide their information via sign-ups for accounts or subscriptions, filling out forms, changing site customization, and so on.

The most important thing to remember about what makes zero- and first-party data such a valuable and top-tier alternative is that it provides transparency. Users and potential customers know exactly what information they’re giving out and are doing so willingly. This is unlike the data tracking methods that third-party cookies run in the background unbeknownst to users.

Email marketing newsletters

One example of zero-party data collection is through email marketing newsletters. Advertisers tend to forget that emails are still a very powerful marketing strategy.

It takes some time to collect customer information through emails. But, the more you collect, the better you can personalize your newsletters to go beyond just using your customer’s first name.

Customer data is often collected first via a newsletter registration form, and then a series of emails that include welcome offers and other free offers, links to onsite surveys, regular email surveys, asking users to share their birthdays (for an incentive), and more. From there, you could take note of their online habits via first-party data to fine-tune your emails and make them more personalized.

2. Universal identifiers (IDs)

Universal IDs are user IDs created by ad tech companies for the purpose of identifying user data without having to sync data cookies. More importantly, universal IDs allow for the collection of data beyond third-party cookies, and they aren’t based on probabilistic matching but deterministic matching instead.

A few universal identifiers we’ve previously noted include:

If you use header bidding via Prebid, you can utilize their User ID Modules which support a variety of methods to create pseudonymous IDs for users.

3. Topics API

Google’s Topics API (which was born out of the FloC test trials) aims to personalize advertising through a set number of content topics regularly updated by the user’s browser. It leverages machine learning by giving browsers the ability to select three to five topics to record and map a user’s primary interests.

The unique thing about Topics API is that any shared topics linked to a website will only remain mapped for up to three weeks. Once the topics expire, they are deleted and replaced with new ones.

Topics API breakdown

According to the Privacy Sandbox website, Topics API is still in the early stages of development.

4. Publisher Provided Identifiers (PPIDs)

PPIDs, also brought to us by Google, are another form of user identifiers that are assigned by publishers. More specifically, they allow for the user IDs to be shown to advertisers. However, they only work if the publisher can get users to log into their website to access their content as that’s how PPIDs are collected.

As of 2021, Google has enabled publishers to share their PPIDs with DSPs through Google Ad Manager 360, allowing for better-targeted ad campaigns using programmatic guaranteed deals that include personalized audience segments.

5. Contextual advertising

With contextual advertising (or, contextual targeting) more relevant ads can be served based on a webpage’s content. Therefore, it’s all about content and keyword analysis as the only other data utilized is information shared by the publisher such as device type, location, OS, and so on.

Contextual advertising works best for publishers that have websites with a specific theme or niche.

Its subject matter should bring back users consistently with genuine interest and trust in the website as a specific source. This is why you’ll notice that car blogs or gaming blogs have a large and loyal audience base. They focus on one area of interest, position themselves as an authority on the topics concerning that interest, and only serve up ads that are relevant to their niche and the users’ interests.

Here’s an example of contextual advertising.

Screenshot of Healthline's website

Healthline curates evidence-based articles that focus on health and wellness. This particular article discusses different sunscreens, which fall under the skincare category. In this example, there’s a match in interest as the viewable ads showcase products that also fall under the umbrella of skincare.

6. Data clean rooms

Data clean rooms are essentially virtual stockrooms for large amounts of user data. They’re independent of publishers and advertisers to ensure user data is safe and secure. Both publishers and advertisers can upload or match first-party data to these stockrooms.

Upon matching data to their servers, advertisers can gain valuable insights about their audience from any participating publishers to activate targeting ads.

The only downside is that for a data clean room to work efficiently, there must be scale — tens of millions of entries — for ad tech players to get an accurate user match. So, in order for a data room to provide success, both advertisers and publishers will have to coordinate when to share user data and the entity itself must be an unbiased intermediary that complies with data privacy laws.

7. User identity graphs

User ID graphs typically combine personally identifiable information (PII), like an email address, with non-PII like publisher IDs and first-party cookies. The primary advantage that user ID graphs offer is that they enable cross-channel and platform tracking and targeting.

However, user ID graphs can be a challenge when it comes to their development and deployment as they can accidentally compromise user privacy. If you’re going to go with a user ID graph, your best bet is to stick with a well-known and trusted vendor that specializes in user ID graphs.

8. First-party cookies

First-party cookies collect data directly from your audience and customer base. It’s also the most valuable type of data for several reasons. You can typically collect and analyze this data through your CRM (customer relationship management) or CDP (customer data platform).

First-party cookies are arguably the best alternative to third-party cookies right now since most other alternatives are still under development or in testing mode. Either way, this type of data is the most accurate while respecting user privacy as it’s not collected in the background but through value-packed content, newsletters, gated articles, forums, and other straightforward forms of user engagement.

9. Ad Ops partners

Most publishers are focused on increasing the amount of traffic to their website in order to monetize more users. This can include spending resources on search engine optimization (SEO) and curating new content.

As such, many publishers lack the bandwidth to optimize their website monetization efforts.

In times like these, publishers may outsource this to Ad Ops partners who specialize in maximizing ad revenue potential. Fortunately, these partners are well aware of the cookie deprecation and offer services such as identity solutions to manage that for publishers.

In summary

Google has recently stated that it will complete phasing out third-party cookies by 2024. Their alternative lies with their Privacy Sandbox initiative and the various technologies they are currently testing to completely replace third-party cookies.

While the actual deadline for the cookiepocalypse seems to be continuously pushed down, it doesn’t hurt to prepare in advance.

Here are the top 9 alternatives publishers should consider when it comes to user data collection in a privacy-compliant environment.

  1. Zero-party data
  2. Universal identifiers
  3. Topics API
  4. Publisher Provided Identifiers (PPIDs)
  5. Contextual advertising
  6. Data clean rooms
  7. User identity graphs
  8. First-party cookies
  9. Ad Ops partners

Let us know in the comments how you are preparing for a cookieless advertising experience.

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