The demise of third-party tracking cookies has been years in the making, with marketers being granted several ‘stays of execution’ as Google repeatedly pushed back the date it had pledged to end support for third-party cookies in Chrome, the most widely-used web browser.
But 2024 looks set to be the death date on third-party cookies’ tombstone, with Google laying the groundwork to phase out cookies starting from midway through the year.
With findings from Econsultancy’s recent Future of Marketing Report revealing that as little as 8% of marketing professionals are “fully prepared” for the death of third-party cookies and a further 22% are “mostly prepared”, it’s clear that there’s plenty of ground still to cover in the transition away from third-party cookies. Paid search is no exception, with cookies giving key insight into a user’s journey beyond the search box, as well as enabling audience targeting and conversion measurement.
This shift in the industry is one of the trends identified when we spoke to a number of experts in search and performance marketing.
“The biggest weapon you have on search versus your competitors is your first party data.”
“Less data is a challenge for all paid search marketers,” says Emma Welland, Co-Founder at performance marketing consultancy House of Performance. “It is really important that all marketers keep on top of the changes in the industry and update their tracking in line with industry requirements.
“A good example of this is the GA4 implementation: a lot of marketers left this until the last moment and in some cases this impacted figures and performance.”
Everyone can advertise on the same keyword, but no-one else has that insight that you have about your customers.
-Emma Welland, House of Performance
Without the data and insights that third-party cookies can offer, how can marketers make up the shortfall? Welland highlights first-party data as a major opportunity that brands are still under-utilising.
“The biggest weapon you have on search versus your competitors is your first party data,” she says. “Everyone can advertise on the same keyword, but no-one else has that insight that you have about your customers.”
For example, first-party data can be integrated into Google Analytics to inform decision-making, used to create Remarketing Lists for Search Ads, or used as a data source to refine Smart Bidding targeting. Search Engine Journal‘s Ben Wood dives into several of these options in his article on boosting PPC performance with first-party data.
A new approach to capturing a range of user intents
Jodie Brookton, Strategic Director at ethical marketing agency Climbing Trees, points to the enduring value of keyword intent for paid search targeting and conversion.
“The phasing out of third-party tracking cookies does cause challenges for audience targeting in paid search,” she agrees. “However, it’s far from a dead end.
“The strength of paid search has always been its ability to leverage keyword intent, which remains a strong strategy; even though we could be moving to a keywordless future, content such as landing pages and other assets can be used as a basis for ads that match intent.
The strength of paid search has always been its ability to leverage keyword intent…
– Jodie Brookton, Climbing Trees
“Marketers have an opportunity to capture the range of user intents, from informational to transactional, with appropriate messaging and user journey strategies. This, paired with Google’s privacy-centric bidding algorithm, can potentially help in mitigating the negative impacts of having less data.”
Good data and a well-connected CRM system are key
Christos Stavropoulos, Head of Product Strategy at AI-powered adtech company BrightBid, notes that the impact on measurement from the demise of third-party cookies has been the most profound. “Previously … you had a source of truth and you would go there, and trust it, and perform your analysis on it. But now, it’s become more complex; if you’re not a big enough company to have your own resources in-house, then obviously, that becomes a disadvantage.”
The idea of paid search needing to be better connected to internal data sources is picked up by Stavropoulos. “A very important piece is … having a CRM system with healthy data that is very well-structured and connected to the database, [so that] you can join the dots together with other searches and data – for example, Google Analytics, or your advertising platform.”
Maybe the accuracy will not be exactly the same – but I also feel it wasn’t there 100% with cookies.
– Christos Stavropoulos, BrightBid
This approach can be assisted by having an in-house data science team who can join the data points together, normalise them, and present the information in a consumable way. Overall, Stavropolous says that the demise of cookies doesn’t spell the end of marketing measurement and tracking. “Maybe the accuracy will not be exactly the same – but I also feel it wasn’t there 100% with cookies. Long story short, it’s not ‘game over’ – we should continue to try to understand the impact of each of our activities.”
It remains to be seen whether Topics can match cookies for effectiveness
Google’s ‘Privacy Sandbox’ is its proposed solution to ad targeting in a post-third-party-cookie world: a series of proposals to enable advertisers to target and track their campaigns after third-party cookies are phased out.
The major piece of this new system is something called ‘Topics’, a mechanism for aggregating users’ interests based on their browsing history and using these to identify the most relevant ads. For instance, a user’s browsing history might indicate an interest in Fitness or Travel, leading to them being shown ads related to these topics. A more detailed explanation of how Topics works can be found in this January 2022 blog post from Google.
Google began the roll-out of Topics in July with the release of Chrome 115, ahead of a planned migration of 1% of Chrome users to Privacy Sandbox in Q1 2024. Clark Boyd, CEO and Co-Founder of Novela, is uncertain whether Topics can successfully walk the line between privacy and performance.
“The big question for marketers here relates to both effectiveness and transparency,” he reflects. “Performance Max campaigns are opaque, although Google may offer more clarity on campaign data in the near future.”
“It remains to be seen whether Topics can deliver anything like the same performance – and respect consumers’ privacy rights. Without access to reliable performance data, it will be difficult for marketers to know for sure either way.”