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Google punts third-party cookie ban to 2023 for 'responsible planning'

My background is in political science and obscure movie trivia, so you don't need a degree in technobabble to understand why this Google Chrome third-party cookie ban story is a big deal. (And trust me, it is.)

Google punts third-party cookie ban to 2023 for 'responsible planning' Blog Feature

Liz Moorehead

Editor-in-Chief, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast

June 25th, 2021 min read

Google third-party cookie ban (short version) 🍪

Full disclosure, I haven't eaten lunch yet. As a result, I worry the number of times I will have to type the word "cookie" could lead to disastrous results. This could potentially infringe upon the safety of myself and others. 

For now, however, let's dig into the basics of this story for all of you business website owners out there:

  • Many advertisers, marketers, and business website owners use cookies for tracking across a wide variety of digital marketing purposes such as website personalization, lead tracking, ads, smart content and calls-to-action.
  • There are first-party cookies (created and hosted by the site you're visiting) and third-party cookies (created and hosted by a different site than the one you're on). This is a critical distinction because this news only targets websites relying upon third-party cookies for tracking.
  • Google and privacy advocates do not like third-party cookies because they are too effective at collecting lots of personal user data and tracking an individual's website activity. More often than not, people don't know how much data is being collected by these cookies.
  • As part of Google's Privacy Sandbox Initiative to create a more open and private web, the powers that be at Google had announced they would block third-party cookies on Google Chrome, such as Safari and Firefox, by 2022. For the website owners who rely on third-party cookies, this was very big (and very scary) news.
  • This week, however, it announced it was pushing back the third-party cookie block in Chrome to 2023 to allow for more "responsible planning" with publishers, regulators, advertisers and other parties.
  • The rollout itself with occur over a three-month period in 2023.

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The problem with this story is that a lot of the announcements and coverage is very, very technical. That means it's hard for people like you to understand:

  • What the heck is actually going on.
  • If you're even impacted, because not everyone is.
  • What you're supposed to do with this information.

So, like I've been doing with the never-ending Google page experience update saga, we're going to walk through everything you need to know in plain language. That way, you can decide for yourself if this story matters to you or if it's a nothing-burger, without needing a deep technical background.

Mmm ... burger. 

Why you should care about Google Chrome

Google Chrome is only one browser. But the most recent data shows that Google Chrome owns more than 35% of the overall browser marketshare with about 2.65 billion users. 

As I write this, there are 7.647 billion people on Earth. That means 34.5% of every living human being on the planet uses Google Chrome. 

On top of that, Google Chrome is reported as being the most-used desktop browser. So, yes. When Google Chrome makes a change of this magnitude, it is a very big deal; a lot of your ideal buyers are using Google Chrome on desktop and on mobile, not just a small handful.

First-party cookies vs. third-party cookies

Before you start repeatedly smashing the panic button on your desk, you need to understand that not all cookies are going to be impacted by this block. And, whether or not you are impacted comes down to a simple set of questions:

  • Do you use only first-party cookies on your website? If so, you're not impacted.
  • Do you use any third-party cookies on your website? If so, you are impacted.

Considering I was today-years-old when I learned there was even such a thing as first-party cookies, let's break down what the difference is between first-party and third-party cookies:

  • First-party cookies: These are cookies stored on the domain you're visiting directly. These are the cookies we all like because they allow site owners to create better user experiences.
  • Third-party cookies: These are cookies stored on a website or domain that is not the same one as you're visiting. These are often used for ad-serving and retargeting across websites.

If you rely upon third-party cookies in any way for your marketing and advertising needs, this cookie ban will impact you. 

Are HubSpot websites affected by this news?

If your website is hosted on HubSpot, you don't need to worry that all of the automated tracking HubSpot provides is going to vanish come 2023. HubSpot tracking cookies are confirmed as first-party cookies, so they are not impacted by this block. 

Even though some are getting third-party cookie flags on their HubSpot websites, the HubSpot team says there is definitely nothing to worry about:

"HubSpot’s cookies are first-party cookies, so they’re not impacted by the Chrome updates. Your HubSpot tracking code will continue to function, and your HubSpot reports will continue to contain data.

"The scripts responsible for setting HubSpot cookies will generally be hosted on a domain different from the HubSpot-tracked website (e.g., the HubSpot analytics script is hosted at hs-analytics.net) and this is likely the reason that Chrome is flagging the cookies as being 'associated with a cross-site resource.'

"The HubSpot scripts setting the cookies are considered cross-site resources, however the cookies themselves are first-party cookies and do not track visitors across multiple websites/domains."

That's a lot of techno-speak, but what they're saying is that the critical component of HubSpot's tracking is a first-party cookie. There is a single, small component of HubSpot's overall tracking ecosystem that may be setting off a few Google alarms, but it's nothing to be concerned about.

Wait, why is Google delaying to 2023?

Although some of you may have gotten this far and are breathing a sigh of "I only have first-party cookies" relief, the block of third-party cookies on Google Chrome is going to be massively disruptive to a lot of industries and businesses.

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As a result, a lot of people are not happy or have serious concerns, suspicions, or otherwise generally arched eyebrows about the whole ordeal:

"Google wants to wait a bit, Apple and Firefox believe the crisis is already too big and have already started blocking third-party cookies — perhaps before there’s a viable replacement for some use cases (and in some cases, they may not want there to be one).

"The battle is big and the rhetoric is getting sharp. People accuse Apple of wanting to smother the web in favor of a walled-garden App Store. Others accuse Google of wanting to maintain an ad-tracking dystopia.

"Google worries that cutting off cookies now will encourage bad actors to switch to harder-to-stop fingerprinting methods, but then everybody notices that it’s awfully convenient that Google doesn’t want to stop ad tracking until later." (Source)

There are those, however, who are trying to stay positive:

“I think this is going to spur innovation within the space,” Justin Choi, the founder and CEO of advertising technology platform Nativo, told Recode. “There are third parties that are trying to create alternatives.” (Source)

But even Choi admitted there are no solutions yet, not even for Google. So, there's a lot of "retooling" to be done.

Considering what we know about how hard it is to make a simple website redesign project launch on time (and on budget), you can imagine how something of this magnitude is going face a number of hurdles with its own on-time launch.

And, although Google cited more broad commitments to "responsible planning," it appears this specific hurdle is centered around regulatory concerns: 

"Google says that decision to phase out cookies over a 'three-month period' in mid-2023 is 'subject to our engagement with the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).' In other words, it is pinning part of the delay on its need to work more closely with regulators to come up with new technologies to replace third-party cookies for use in advertising." (Source)

Again, this is a messy issue, so this should in no way be surprising.

What should you do right now?

Truth be told, we're in a bit of a holding pattern, which I know isn't terribly helpful. However, if you are using third-party cookies on your website, try to take some comfort in the fact that it's well known that there are a lot of unknowns about this issue and how it can be resolved. And a lot of people are working on that.

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More than that, given the wide reach of how many industries and established ways of doing business (e.g., ad-serving and retargeting), you can bet your bottom dollar that there are thousands of people, including folks at Google, trying to figure out what the future alternatives will be. 

So, here are the three things you should focus on:

As we learn more information about this story, we'll share it with you.

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