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Will There Ever Be Cookie-Less Tracking?

Posted on 4.30.2013

:: By Matt Swan, Affiliate Window ::

With the recent news that the next release of Mozilla’s Firefox browser will come with third-party cookies blocked as standard, there has been a lot of uncertainty for online marketers. Indeed, the IAB has launched a petition which has been signed by in excess of 500 fearful online businesses, urging Mozilla to drop their plans. If this is implemented, it could potentially put a significant amount of companies reliant on cookie-based tracking out of business.

The threat to cookie-based tracking is nothing new though. The ‘do not track’ initiative is prevalent throughout the U.S. and has been a major risk to online advertisers and their publisher base. With cookie-based tracking the most widespread method of understanding user behavior, purchasing habits and preferences, this is something that needs to be taken seriously. The ePrivacy directive that is in place throughout Europe ensures that users have informed consent regarding what is tracked and by whom. They are then given the choice to opt out of this if they wish.

Concerns around the reliability of cookie-based tracking are not new. Anti-virus solutions that may be blocking or deleting affiliate cookies have been around for years. Advertisers have sometimes increased their commission rates to reflect that there may be some loss of commission due to this occurring.

While there are some concerns around cookie-based tracking, it is still by far the most reliable method of tracking, and reliability is paramount for online marketers – particularly those that operate within the performance marketing space. If cookie tracking was unreliable or these were blocked by default, it could negatively affect the customer journey in a number of ways. For example, if using a cashback site, a member expects to see their cashback track successfully. With cookies being blocked, this will not track correctly and the user will have had a negative experience of both the publisher and the advertiser and is likely to not return to either. It is easy to see why the most robust solution is the preferred one and why defending it is important.

With the increasing awareness of cookies amongst consumers, there are often misconceptions around what these are actually used for. There are some who still perceive cookies as spyware and this is a misconception that needs challenging. A number of online companies use cookies to understand user behavior and target consumers with relevant advertisements. Cookies are also used to improve website functionality and the user experience. Simple things such as remembering a user’s login details or preferences set for using a website. With cookies being blocked/deleted, websites will lose a lot of their functionality and user benefits.

Another common misconception that is heard across the performance marketing channel is that cookie deletion is rife. While there will inevitably be some instances where cookies will be deleted, this is minimal. Some cashback sites for example will mention in their FAQs that their members should clear their cookies prior to purchasing to ensure their cashback tracks, but their estimation of the proportion of people that actually do this is minimal.

Consumers actively deciding to delete their cookies is one thing, but whether or not browsers are accepting cookies is another entirely. As mentioned previously, the announcement that Mozilla will be blocking third-party cookies as standard has caused uproar within the online community. 

This is not an entirely new practice though and has been common with mobile devices. The iPhone for example is set to only accept first-party cookies (those set by an advertiser’s own server) and by default blocks third-party cookies placed by other companies. 

With other browsers like Chrome providing users with the ability to delete third-party cookies, first-party cookies like Flash cookies and other tracking solutions such as eTags are perceived as more necessary.

So to answer the question set out in the title of this post – will there ever be just cookieless tracking? No, not anytime soon. Cookies are an essential part ensuring a fully functional web-browsing experience and as such, consumers will be willing to accept the benefits of cookies – as long as advertisers are upfront and open about the cookies they use, and how this benefits the user experience.

Matt Swan is a Client Strategist at global performance marketing network, Affiliate Window. He works with advertisers to offer strategic advice to optimise campaigns. He also contributes to new business pitches and is an active member of the IAB AMC.

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