Google has announced its plans to “update how cookies are handled by Chrome”.
This doesn’t sound particularly worrying at face value. After all, developers update their software all the time. So why is this one update causing ripples of anxiety for marketers?
But first, a refresher.
What are cookies?
A cookie is a packet of information (data). When a user visits a website, the website sends the cookie to the user’s computer.
This cookie is used by the website to understand your activity online, keeping note of your visits and interactions on the site. For example, first-party cookies are used to remember your login information on Facebook, or the contents of your shopping cart on an e-commerce site.
Cookies are also what serve you personalised content and ads.
For most people, cookies are occasionally useful (such as when your details are saved on a booking website) or annoying (like when an ad for a product follows you around the internet).
Are cookies dangerous?
Not all cookies are bad, not all are good.
Blocking all cookies can make some websites virtually unusable. First-party cookies are what allow you to stay signed into websites and enable you to continue accessing content.
One kind of cookie that some users might be worried about are third-party tracking cookies, which allow your online movements to be tracked. By limiting third-party tracking cookies users are able to protect their privacy online.
And sometimes computer viruses can be disguised as cookies, but most browsers protect users from these.
What changes is Google Chrome making?
Google will be changing how cookies can be used to track users across the internet.
This is a departure from the current model where websites can self-regulate the level of privacy afforded to users. Regular internet users will be familiar with the prompt, “please allow cookies to continue using this site.”
As a result of the update, it will be users, not websites, that will have greater control over the information being gathered about their activities. Chrome will give users a simple control panel to help them choose which kinds of cookies they want to enable and which they want to block.
Chrome is also cracking down on “fingerprinting”, a technique for partially identifying individual users. If you’re interested in learning more, see our article on personal data and metadata.
“Because fingerprinting is neither transparent nor under the user’s control, it results in tracking that doesn’t respect user choice,” argues Google.
Another privacy-related change that’s happening is the extension of the private browsing mode (“incognito”) to Google’s apps such as Maps and Search, and users of Google’s Android operating system will now get an alert when apps access their phone’s location data. This will be a blow to any app developer that relies on continuously recording location data in the background.
Why does it matter if Chrome is being updated? It’s just one browser.
There is a 62.8 per cent chance that you’re reading this article on Google Chrome, and a 15.8 per cent chance you’re using Safari. Where are these stats from? These are the market share of the two most commonly used browsers, leaving the remaining 21.4 per cent scattered among other browsers that account for fewer than 5 per cent of the total.
This means that changes to Chrome will have a significant impact on the online landscape.
How will these changes impact advertisers?
Tim Burrowes, content director at Mumbrella, highlights the obstacles that the Chrome change will create for the industry: “For a marketer, if you can’t drop a tracking cookie, how will you be able to tell if the prospect converted to a customer further down the digital marketing funnel.”
Expect fewer humidifier ads following you around the internet as behaviour-based advertising is inhibited.
Advertisers will probably have to go back to a reliance on contextual cues: a person reading an article about cooking for fussy toddlers might be interested in ads about childcare.
Why is Google making these changes?
Google says it wants to build a better internet, it wants to respect user privacy.
While that might be true, it’s not the whole story.
Google has come under fire again and again for privacy breaches, anti-competitive practices and failing to stem the tide of online misinfomation.
By preemptively taking a stance on user privacy regarding cookies, Google can get on the front foot in a debate that will only get more heated in the years to come. After all, self-regulation is generally preferable to being policed by governments and regulators.
As Google CEO Sundar Pichai put it, the company wants to do more to stay ahead of “constantly evolving user expectations” on privacy.
Chrome isn’t the only one changing
Safari, the pre-installed browser for Apple hardware such as the iPhone, has also seen updates cracking down on cookies and user privacy. Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) will “reduce trackers’ ability to establish user identities across sites.”
You can read all the tech specs on Apple’s WebKit blog, but the main points are cookies that will expire after a certain period (as few as seven days for client-side cookies) in order to stop users’ activities from being tracked over an extended period.
As Paul McIntyre of Mi3 argues, “third party cookies have been on notice for the best part of a decade.”
“Now the advertising industry and publishers have even greater impetus to collaborate on solutions.”