The final countdown? Navigating Google's move to deprecate third-party cookies in 2024

After years of back-and-forth, third-party cookies are finally on their way out (or so it appears).

Cookie deprecation isn't new—major browsers like Safari and Firefox started removing third-party cookies all the way back in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Since then, 50% of web activity in the U.S. has been on browsers that don’t accept third-party cookies. So why is the industry still buzzing about third-party cookies?

Google, of course. Their will-they-won't-they approach to deprecating third-party cookies has kept the topic at the top of the news cycle for years. We know, because we wrote about it in 2020. And again in 2021... 2022... 2023... and now 2024. The persistent delays have left marketers' heads spinning, wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.

But it appears the wait is over: On January 4th, 2024, Google took the first step and deprecated third-party cookies in 1% of Chrome browsers globally. They say that their plan is to deprecate 100% of Chrome third-party cookies in Q3 of 2024. But will they actually follow through, or will we get another postponement? How much longer do marketers really have to future-proof their digital media strategy?

The short answer is, we just don’t know. But what we do know is deprecation of third party identifiers is inevitable, even if the timing is not completely clear. We also know that Epsilon has been preparing for identifier deprecation for a decade—so we can help you prepare, too. 

If you're wondering how Google's moves will impact your day-to-day, the adtech partners you work with, or you're simply not sure how to navigate the future identity landscape, keep reading.

Let's recap. How did we get here? 

Google’s Chrome is the last major browser to hang onto third-party cookies in the wake of regulatory changes and consumer concerns. As mentioned earlier, Safari, Firefox, and Edge all opted to get rid of third-party cookies in the past five years. Google followed by announcing in 2020 that they planned on phasing out third-party cookies, but had no successful alternatives for publishers and marketers to reach consumers.

The Sandbox was Google’s response to marketer needs in the wake of cookie deprecation. By design, Google’s Privacy Sandbox aims to create a consumer-centric, privacy-forward environment that enables targeting via Topics, a limited set of attributes based on recent browsing history, and measurement based on cohorts.

The catch? The company continues to allow itself to leverage Google-owned user-level identification while undercutting independent publishers and competing adtech companies’ ability to target consumers. In contrast, Google’s Privacy Sandbox offers advertisers limited contextual data that gives only limited insight into consumers.

In September of 2023, Google's Sandbox became generally available to Chrome users, and the company is strongly encouraging industry players to test the solution. They explained the move as a "significant step on the path towards a fundamentally more private web." Google’s approach has received plenty of criticism, but this is a major step towards a world without any third-party cookies. While they continue to enhance the Sandbox to make it more acceptable for marketers, the cookie lives on—but (maybe) not for long.

Ask questions now to avoid trouble later

There's clearly a lot of nuance when it comes to cookie deprecation. But the inevitability, no matter how long it takes Google to fully deprecate third-party cookies, is that the marketers who rely on them—even a little—will see disruptions to their day-to-day once they're gone. In fact, our survey on marketers' perceptions and readiness for the deprecation of third-party identifiers showed that 70% of marketers feel that digital advertising will take a step backward as a result of these changes. It will only get more difficult to identify customers on the web, which means: 

  • Reach: Marketers who depend on third-party cookies will need to find a new way to reach their customers online.  
  • Competition: With less identifiable inventory, competition for it is going to get tougher.
  • Campaign management: Certain campaign types (ex. retargeting) will see a larger impact due to the change, while others (ex. CTV) should see a lower impact.
  • Personalization: Less information means fewer chances to personalize ads, which may cause marketers to turn to low-performing cohort-based or contextual alternatives.  
  • Campaign measurement: Unidentified inventory will make it challenging to measure return on ad spend (ROAS) and potentially lead to over-reliance on media mix modeling (MMM), which has significant time delays in delivery and offers much less actionable insights. 

However you slice it, brands can expect a drop in messaged revenue and ROAS—all things that make a marketer's job harder.  

These challenges are especially pertinent if you're working with a partner to run your media campaigns. Don't sit back and assume they've got it all figured out. All partners that don't have a strong identity solution will likely struggle with the same things. Here are a few key questions to consider discussing with your adtech partner about their approach to cookie deprecation: 

  1. What is your approach to identity resolution? Do you message real people—instead of just cookies or devices? Do you focus on audiences or real individuals?
  2. How does your solution today reach browsers where third-party cookies are already gone? Can you provide me metrics about the percentage of my campaigns that are to Safari? To iOS in-app? How well do these campaigns perform?
  3. How are you managing personalization on Safari and Firefox today? What are your plans for personalization post-Chrome deprecation?
  4. Measurement is one of the real pitfalls of identifier deprecation. How are you going to approach multi-touch attribution, or are you going to rely on MMM?
  5. Do you have direct relationships with publishers? How are you ensuring access to identifiable inventory?
  6. What alternative solutions are you currently testing? How are they performing? Have you tested them in browsers like Safari that don’t accept third-party cookies?

How to succeed without third-party cookies

There is a world in which your brand can do more than just survive cookie deprecation, but thrive in the wake of it. The key is future-proofing your digital media strategy to ensure you can deliver to customers what they want: privacy + personalization.

Epsilon saw the flaws of third-party cookies long ago. Since 2012, we've invested in solutions that do not need (and will never need) third-party cookies to deliver and measure personalized advertising at scale. Here's how it works: Epsilon’s people-based CORE ID is anchored to deterministic data elements, making it not only reliable in finding the right consumers, but stable against regulatory shifts. Our data is privacy-centric and pseudonymized before it enters the digital ecosystem, keeping consumer information safe. And by working with 17,000+ publisher partners who have developed trusted first-party relationships with their audiences, we can identify site visitors without third-party cookies and provide transparent measurement at scale.

The proof is in our existing performance on Safari and with Apple users. Today, marketers using Epsilon Digital are already reaching and measuring 1:1 ads on Safari and iOS (browsers that do not have third-party cookies in tact). Currently, 33% of the impressions Epsilon Digital serves worldwide go to identified (and valuable) Apple users. 

While Google’s back-and-forth is confusing and frankly frustrating, it doesn’t mean you should take your foot off the gas. Consider working with a partner like Epsilon, who the industry agrees is leading the way in helping marketers reach consumers and drive performance without third-party cookies, and is rated a top ID alternative for publishers by Digiday.