Cookie Party: Dipping First and Third-Party Tracking

Buckle up your seatbelts on the tech roller-coaster that is tracking and data collection on the web, because in this article we’re diving deep into the world of cookies. No, not the delicious kind you can never have just one of, but the ones that power the web. I’m sure you have heard a lot about them in the dialogue around the ‘Death of the Cookie’, but I find that most people I speak to struggle to really understand what the difference between first- and third-party cookies are all about. So let’s dive in and get you up to speed.

1st Party Cookies: The Trusty Companions

Picture yourself walking into your favorite brick-and-mortar store. The shopkeeper warmly greets you, remembers your name, and recommends products based on your previous purchases:

“One choc chip muffin with a cup of steaming hot black tea, no milk or sugar, and a squeeze of lemon”.

Me, every day

Well, 1st party cookies are like that friendly shopkeeper, remembering your preferences and creating a personalized experience on the web.

1st party cookies are generated by the website you visit directly, allowing it to remember crucial information such as your login credentials, language preferences, or items in your shopping cart. These cookies enable seamless interactions by preserving your session state and tailoring the website’s content to suit your needs. In other words, they are essential for a user-centric web experience.

From a marketing perspective, 1st party cookies provide insights into user behavior, allowing website owners to understand their audience better. By analyzing cookie data, marketers can optimize their websites, refine their content, and provide relevant recommendations. It’s like having a virtual concierge, ensuring a personalized and engaging user journey.

3rd Party Cookies: The Sneaky Trackers

Now, let’s step into the world of 3rd party cookies, the enigmatic voyagers lurking in the shadows of the web. Unlike their 1st party counterparts, these cookies originate from external domains and can track your online activities across multiple websites. They’re like the stealthy spies, collecting data about your browsing habits and interests, often without your explicit consent. But how do they work and why are they such a concern for privacy advocates (and why should you be worried also)?

When you visit a website, the website may contain content or components from other domains. These could be advertisements, social media widgets, or analytics tools, among others. These external domains can set cookies on your browser, separate from the cookies set by the website you are visiting. We call these cookies “3rd party cookies” for this exact reason: because they come from a different domain than the one you directly interacted with.

Epic cookie battle, generated by Bing Creator

The primary purpose of 3rd party cookies has been to track users’ online behavior across multiple websites. By setting and accessing these cookies, tracking entities can gather information about your browsing habits, interests, and interactions with various websites. This tracking data allows them to build detailed profiles of individuals and deliver targeted advertisements based on their interests and preferences.

Let’s dip our cookie a little deeper into our mug: let’s say you visit an online store that sells Furbies, and this store uses 3rd party advertising providers such as Facebook and TikTok. These providers can track your activity on that clothing store’s website using 3rd party cookies. Later, when you visit a completely different website (let’s say, Potato Club Forum), the advertising providers can recognize their 3rd party cookie in your browser and know that you previously visited the Furby store. This information enables advertisers to display relevant ads about Furbies to me… ehem, I mean you… hypothetically… Whatever the case, the aim of the advertiser is that there is a higher probability of capturing your interest and driving conversions/sales with an ad that is relevant to your interests.

Heres the thing, though: any users have become wary of the extensive data collection and sharing practices associated with 3rd party cookies, and rightfully so. Sometimes it feels like advertisers know more about us than we do! The information collected through these cookies is often shared with various entities for purposes that users may not be aware of or have explicitly consented to. This lack of transparency and control has raised significant privacy concerns.

As a response to these concerns, major web browsers and privacy regulations have taken action to limit the usage of 3rd party cookies. For instance, Google Chrome, the most popular web browser, has announced plans to phase out support for 3rd party cookies by Q1 of 2024.


Time remaining until Google Chrome deprecates 3rd party cookies (exact date TBC).

And they are not alone, with the likes of Safari and Firefox already implemented restrictions on 3rd party cookies to enhance user privacy. And if you want to see a browser that has put their privacy controls on hardcore mode, look no further than Brave Browser, which has extensive privacy and fingerprint obfuscation capabilities baked right into it.

So, with that, we know that 3rd party cookies are going the way of Vine and MSN Messenger (rest in peace sweet prince), so how do we overcome this?

Embrace the Power of 1st Party Data

It’s time to shift our focus to where the real value is for organizations—1st party data. You know, that valuable treasure trove of insights you collect directly from your own website or app. It’s time to strengthen those direct relationships and squeeze every ounce of juicy data from those loyal users.

By leveraging 1st party data, you can gain a deeper understanding of your audience and provide them with more personalized experiences that are more meaningful to them, and of its meaningful to them, it will likely result in positive outcomes for you. Combine it with smart segmentation, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Use tools like customer relationship management (CRM) platforms and data management platforms (DMPs) to harness the power of your own data and unleash its full potential.

Contextual Targeting for the Win

Remember the good ol’ days when content was king? Well, it’s time to bring that mindset back with a modern twist—contextual targeting. Instead of relying solely on user data, let’s take a step back and focus on the content itself. By analyzing the context of the webpage, advertisers can serve up relevant ads without relying on individual user tracking.

Contextual targeting allows us to match ads to the specific content a user is consuming at that very moment. It’s like giving them the perfect ad at the perfect time, without invading their privacy. There are interesting way to measure impact here as well. By UTM tagging your ads with the contextual targeting criteria you expect them to be served in, you can measure which placements work best and generate the best impact for your organization. In short, measure, measure, measure.

Server-side Tagging: Make Their Cookies, Yours

In our quest for post-3rd party cookie alternatives, we mustn’t forget the mighty power of server-side tagging and first-party analytics. Enter Snowplow, an open-source event data platform that empowers marketers and analysts to take control of their data and build powerful, privacy-centric analytics solutions in first party contexts.

With server-side tagging, you can move away from relying solely on client-side tracking. Instead of loading scripts and tags directly onto user devices, server-side tagging shifts the tracking process to the server. This approach not only reduces the dependency on cookies but also allows for more flexible and customizable data collection. And the real kicker? These 3rd party resources can be loaded as first party recourses, making them more resilient to tracking prevention and privacy preservation technologies.

Final Thoughts

In the ever-changing landscape of online tracking and data collection, the era of 3rd party cookies is coming to an end. But fear not, fellow marketers and analysts, for there are exciting alternatives on the horizon. By embracing the power of 1st party data, we can build stronger relationships with our users and deliver personalized experiences that truly resonate.

Contextual targeting takes us back to the roots of content-driven advertising, matching ads to the specific context of the webpage without relying on individual user tracking. It’s all about delivering the right message at the right time, without invading privacy.

And let’s not forget the magic of server-side tagging and first-party analytics, exemplified by platforms like Snowplow. By shifting the tracking process to the server and collecting event data directly from our own infrastructure, we maintain full ownership and control over the information. This approach empowers us to build comprehensive user profiles, make data-driven decisions, and stay compliant with privacy regulations.

So, my fellow data and tech nerds, as we bid farewell to the era of 3rd party cookies, let’s embrace these alternatives with open arms. Let’s forge new paths, leverage the power of 1st party data, tap into contextual targeting, and explore the possibilities of server-side tagging. It’s an exciting time to be in the world of marketing and analytics, where creativity and data-driven strategies go hand in hand.

Remember, adaptability and innovation are key. Stay ahead of the curve, experiment with new approaches, and always prioritize user privacy. With these alternatives in our toolkit, we can navigate the post-3rd party cookie era with confidence and continue to deliver exceptional experiences for our users.

P.S Don’t tell anyone I regularly visit the Furby website I mentioned above…

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I'm a Technology Consultant who partners with visionary people who want to solve human problems using data and technology (and having fun doing it)!


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🎉 Nice work, that was a long article!