The Cookie is Crumbling: A Primer on Big Tech’s Privacy Push

There’s an old expression in the ad industry that states “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” That has been the case since the advent of free, ad-supported radio and television, but the Internet has taken this model to an entirely new level. In 2019, spending on digital advertising exceeded all other forms of traditional marketing for the first time, with Google and Facebook pocketing more than half of the global spend.

The value of these digital ads, of course, is their ability to target specific individuals with incredible precision, based on their location, device, search terms, emailing and posting history and more. RWS’s own AdRocket platform relies on Google and Facebook’s precision targeting capabilities to deliver significant website traffic and conversion rates for AdRocket customers.

Following the cookie crumbs

What makes this tracking capability possible is the placement of a “cookie”—a small bit of tracking code—on your device.

First-party cookies placed by the websites themselves can be helpful, allowing the site to remember items in your shopping cart, personalizing your return visits, and even storing your login and password information for a more streamlined experience.

Third-party cookies—code placed by sources other than the website, but usually with the site’s permission—often act as tracking devices, logging your browsing habits, visit history and more away from the placement site. The cookie then reports those activities back to its owner to be used or sold to other potential users or advertisers.

While internet users have been comfortable (or at least aware) they were giving up large amounts of sensitive personal information in exchange for free social media accounts, email clients, streaming media and more, the tide of consumer sentiment has shifted in recent years.

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytics scandal and documentaries like The Social Dilemma have exposed just how much Big Tech companies know about us and how they aren’t always using that information in our best interests.

Apple wears the white hat 

Apple CEO Tim Cook believes user privacy is “one of the top issues of the century,” and the world’s largest technology company is making big changes to do something about it—and sending shockwaves through the digital advertising world in the process.

This spring, Apple launched its “app tracking transparency” (ATT) initiative as part of its iOS 14.5 update, empowering iPhone and iPad users to choose which apps were allowed to track their identity and activity across other apps.

Until now, that permission had been assumed, providing advertisers and information brokers with a treasure trove of data about iOS users, their devices, their app usage, and additional personal information which could be used directly or sold by third parties.

At its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Apple doubled down on its privacy commitment in several ways: hiding the IP address of Safari browser users on mobile devices and computers; preventing sites from knowing where the user is located; removing email tracking pixels from Apple Mail users; and encrypting all web traffic data of iCloud+ paid users to ensure the user’s anonymity.

Google makes its own privacy push

Although Apple has stolen the privacy headlines this year, it’s rival Google has been making its own strides towards user privacy since August 2019, when it began the Privacy Sandbox initiative. At the core of this initiative was Google’s commitment to eliminate tracking cookies from its Chrome browsers by the end of 2022. This has since been pushed to “late 2023” at  the earliest due to the digital industry’s delay in developing an alternative to the third-party tracking cookie.

Apple’s announcement was significant because of its leadership in the mobile device space; Google’s was notable because of its search and browser dominance. Google’s Chrome browser currently accounts for nearly two-thirds of all browsers used worldwide.

What RWS customers need to know   

With the basic building blocks of digital advertising quickly being eliminated or blocked by two of the biggest and most influential names in technology, it’s natural for savvy digital marketers to wonder, “How does this affect me and my business?”

As an RWS customer, you can rest easy. Although Apple’s recent actions have made user privacy a mainstream topic, RWS leadership and development teams have been tracking Google and Apple’s intentions from the beginning and planning accordingly.

Also, RWS relies on first-party cookies and information—data gathered about retailers’ visitors by RWS on your RWS platforms and products—to deliver the industry-leading features and functions you rely on to compete and win in their local markets.

For AdRocket Base and Boost customers, the RWS platform is “tracking agnostic,” meaning it doesn’t really matter how Google plans on targeting individuals with advertising, just that the platform remains able to do so. With Google’s $150 billion in annual digital ad revenue on the line across its entire network, retailers can be sure it has no intention of leaving that ability to chance!

No matter what happens in the months ahead, RWS’s digital advertising experts will be following events closely, ensuring that AdRocket customers will continue to maximize the return on their digital advertising investments.

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