What the third-party cookie apocalypse means for media analytics

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Every week, members reach out to INMA and me to help them find relevant research, case studies or best practices in audience analytics.

Here’s a recent exchange:

Question: We are using Google Analytics 360 for audience analytics now. Would a first-party data strategy mean building our own analytics system? 

INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota answers a question about third-party cookies.
INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota answers a question about third-party cookies.

Answer: It’s a simple question, but the answer will be complex. 

Technically, Google Analytics and Google Analytics 360 both use first-party cookies to analyse traffic to you site. To be more precise, the so called first-party cookies are issued by your Web site when a reader visits directly and are saved on the reader’s computer. Google Analytics uses these cookies to capture data about your visitors and their behaviour on your site. Nothing changes here. 

What changes is what happens with the so-called third-party cookies. These cookies are issued by other Web sites than yours. For example, when a reader visits your Web site but watches an embedded video or sees an advertisement, these other Web sites — of a video host and an advertiser — try to save their cookies on the reader’s computer, too. 

These third-party cookies can be blocked by Web browsers. Readers can browse in an incognito mode. Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox are blocking them in default. The big news is that the most popular browser in the world — Google Chrome — announced it will start blocking them within two years. 

It matters because third-party cookies are heavily used in online advertising. As advertisers add their tags to your page when you display their ads, they can track users who saw the ads and their devices across the different Web sites. 

So, the risk of the third-party cookies being blocked is primarily to advertisers. They will not be able to track and target users, and therefore they might spend less money on traditional advertising networks. Publishers who rely on this sort of revenue will be hit, too.

This change might potentially pose an opportunity for publishers. They enjoy high volumes of users and traffic, and therefore they, in theory, collect a lot of data in comparison to other sites and they could offer their services for a higher price. 

The problem is that publishers’ tech infrastructure, including analytics systems such as Google Analytics, are not really built for those purposes. They track and analyse users in aggregate. For example, Google Analytics can show you a site or page had so many views. It doesn’t really track individual users — so you cannot see that a given person saw this and this page in that order and at that time.

Without being able to view individual users’ behaviours, you cannot really group these users into segments advertisers search for. You also cannot make predictions based on users’ past behaviours — for example, whether they are likely to click on an ad or buy an advertised product. These predictions are critical to modern ad targeting.

In summary, the first-party data strategy is about building capability to view users individually, segment them, analyse the behaviours of groups and do predictions. 

These kinds of analyses require different analytics tools — for example, customer data platforms. Similarly to Google Analytics, they collect first-party data about visitors to a Web site, but differently to Google Analytics, they track behaviours of individuals rather than only aggregate numbers.

The opportunity lies also in registering users and logging them in so you can collect more precise data about individuals, and in integrating other types of data, for example, on transactions or from the surveys. 

The result would be richer profiles for each and every user and capabilities to group them based on those profiles and then target them with the right advertisements.

Additional readings:

What’s your question? E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org.

From the editor: Welcome to the data-positive world!

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In this newsletter, I will be sharing insights and best practices in democratising data and tying it to editorial and business objectives.

I address this newsletter to decision-makers, or simply data insights users, in the boards, newsrooms, marketing and sales, product, technology, research and — surely — data analytics departments themselves. 

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About Greg Piechota

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