by Kevin Mullen
I might be slightly sentimental about the departure of the third-party cookie as it has been a significant feature in the web and AdTech for years. I sympathize with companies whose business model will be or has been disrupted, but at the same time I’m terribly excited about the opportunity before us to build something better.
A eulogy for our dear friend the third-party cookie
We are gathered here today to celebrate the life (and death, to be frank) of the third-party cookie (3P). Truly, a life well-lived!
I first encountered cookies back in 1994, when I explored the internet as a child. And we grew up together! The man responsible for cookies is Lou Montulli. He developed one of the earliest Web browsers, Lynx, in 1991 (still available for download). He joined Mosaic, later to become Netscape, in 1994. He was responsible for a variety of Web innovations including the blink tag, server push and client pull, HTTP proxying, and cookies.
According to the man himself, cookies are named after the computer science term “magic cookie,” as discovered by Clouseau on Google Answers. The Jargon File describes a magic cookie as “something passed between routines or programs that enables the receiver to perform some operation; a capability ticket or opaque identifier.”
As anyone who has ever added something to their digital shopping cart and then left the site, only return and buy that item a few days later knows: a cookie was then, and is still, a supremely useful way to track user behaviour across a site and increase functionality.
It’s close cousin, the third-party cookie has a bit more checkered past. As reported by the New York Times in 2001, Koen Holtman, a Dutch computer scientist & privacy advocate who, with Montuilli, was on the original working group trying to find solutions to the privacy issues that cookies presented wrote to the group in 1995, ”Someone is bound to try this trick [using third-party cookies] and it will, when discovered, generate a lot of bad publicity for the whole Web.”
Holtman, of course, was right about the use of third-party cookies and the bad publicity they’ve generated over the years. And, he was right about it in that moment; just as he was predicting 3P Cookies, Doubleclick was rolling out one of their first uses, in exactly the way Holtman was warning against.
I guess it’s fitting that Google, Doubleclick’s parent company (acquired 2007), who effectively invented third-party cookies, will be the one who finally kills them off. They have had a great 25 year run.
Billions of user sessions, trillions of ads served… we will miss 3P cookies when Google Chrome throws it out the door next year! You’ll see! Cookies ARE the internet! There is no internet without cookies! We’d still be using carrier pigeons if it weren’t for 3P…
Just kidding. To tell you the truth, I was never all that crazy about the ol’ 3P. The third-party cookie has been a huge pain in my a$$ for years and I can’t wait for this 25 year old piece of tech to go away. I came to AdTech after years in Analytics and SaaS companies, and my first question when I stepped onto the web’s dark side was why on earth do all these pixels exist? Having been in the web and mobile performance business, I empathized with the IT/Ops teams for whom slow and unresponsive pixel fires to generate cookie syncs were the bane of their existence, and often the reason they missed out on bonuses.
I will no longer have to deal with it in 10-14 months.
I’m not going to miss having to hop between cookie spaces to map quickly to a new partner.
I’m not going to miss not being able to easily get my data into a distribution channel because they don’t have the space to rotate my pixel and I can’t afford to rotate theirs…
I’m not going to miss managing and buying 4x more data than I can use in the hope that my cookie sync will catch-up to the data feed.
Third-party cookies are a dumb way to do business and we all know it. I was at an industry conference in February, and had more than 5 conversations about various ways to make something like a cookie, but better. The only reason they exist is because they were around in the internet boom of the 90s, and no one wanted to shift the status quo. I always hated third party cookies for cross-site user tracking. Why would you design this? It’s the worst system of all time. It’s a waste of time and resources for everyone.
If you look at the way we at Roq-ad buy data in the cookie market to build our product—we buy what are effectively observation data points. We buy access to anonymous users over and over again, all around the world to build up an understanding of those users viewing habits . The guys that sell that data to us on the cookie side drop cookies on those users’ browsers via a network of various websites. Our partner generates scale of both their cookie space and ours primarily so that we can use the firehose of data underneath.
Right now, those partners give us all the observations that they see of all the people they see.
We can only use about ¼ of it.
There are ways to do it better. Now is our opportunity.
It’s not hard and it makes a bunch of people’s data more valuable and easier to obtain and use. We’re in a position where we have a solution that supports first-party cookies. We think long term that’s a better and healthier position for the market anyway. And we’ve already solved the identification problem. Who cares if the third-party cookie goes away? Let’s celebrate the fact that we don’t have to deal with cookie syncs anymore, and just operate in everyone’s first-party space at the same time.
Let’s see, how can I describe how I feel about it succinctly and truthfully?
Ring the bell, for the third-party cookie is dead! Long live the first-party cookie!!
What lies on the road ahead for Adtech? It depends on what we decide to build
So an opportunity lies before us.
I’ve been talking about how other ID services are pushing the entire ecosystem to operate in their ID space, and have been for several years. The TradeDesk, LiveRamp, ID5 & others have all recently played with open identifiers being “given” to the publisher community & other players in Adtech, but these are not new themes.
One only has to go back as far as 2018 to know how identifier consolidation turned out for the folks using the AppNexus ID in it’s 2017-2018 incarnation.
With the loss of third-party cookies entirely, the industry has an opportunity to not make the same mistakes again. If we all operate in every first party cookie space simultaneously, we don’t need to have the same identifier. We just need a way to read each-other’s respective identifiers.
So— this is a weird mixed metaphor, but it actually makes some sense to me:
In Lord of the Rings, all of the different characters speak the “Common Tongue” in addition to their own language. That system works pretty well, but it breaks down when either: a group doesn’t use the “Common Tongue,” or individuals within a group don’t interact enough in the “Common Tongue,” and lose the ability to speak the language over time.
Well, we all know how that eventually turns out: epic battles between groups who don’t speak each other’s languages.
In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, every individual drops a babel-fish in their ear, and can instantly understand all other languages, regardless of prior knowledge.
I like to think of The Trade Desk, LiveRamp, and ID5 as the “Common Tongue” solution and Roq-ad as the “Babel-fish” solution.
Instead of forcing the industry to adopt our language, we give our customers the tools to operate in their own language and get the benefit of understanding everyone else’s at the same time.
I think this is the way forward for our industry. We are not in the business of hoarding personal data and spying on our users. We are in the business of learning about the users’ interests and serving ads that might match them for our partners while respecting privacy all the way.