In 2018, the EU introduced the General Data Protection Regulation, better known as GDPR. This law requires websites to declare tracked information and gives the user the option to have only essential data tracked. The USA appears to be following suit, too: in 2020, California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act, which applies similar requirements to companies serving California users.
These are landmark laws that define the rights of website users. GDPR violations can result in fines of up to €20 million (~£17 million) or 4% of global turnover. The effects of GDPR were quickly felt and European internet users were frequently met with pages blocking them from accessing some of the biggest sites while site owners scrambled to comply.
The end of the cookie?
The short-term result of GDPR was an avalanche of cookie pop-ups, which ask users to give prior consent before handling their data. Most users are now very familiar with consent pop-us — although they're not exactly popular. While in theory they give users more control, cookie pop-ups have been branded as "infuriating" (WIRED), "meaningless" (TechCrunch), and "annoying" (TameBay) by users on both sides of the Atlantic, who resent the need to spend time checking their preferences when accessing top sites.
But in the long term, it looks as though these types of cookies — and the pop-ups they entail — are on their way out. Intrusive tracking isn’t just an issue being tackled by policymakers and politicians: the largest internet browsers are planning to switch to their own first-party cookie system. Apple has their Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) on Safari, which aggressively blocks cookies, and Firefox is limiting cross-site cookie drops. They aim to eliminate cookie tracking by 2022.
Why are cookies on their way out?
So, what exactly is the issue with cookies? The first thing to remember is that there are lots of different types of cookie a website can use.
One of the most common types is what’s called a first-party cookie. A website will drop this in your browser to remember user interface settings and login information. These aren't all that controversial, because the disruption they cause for the user is minimal — more often than not, they actually improve user experience.
The cookies raising issues are called third-party cookies. These are tracking codes created by domains other than the one the user is visiting at the time and are mainly used to gather your data for targeted content. Think of this kind of cookie as the one that is responsible for banner ads and video ads promoting a site you may have visited months ago.
Third-party cookies have raised serious privacy concerns. Internet users are increasingly online-savvy, and more people are beginning to understand the full scope of what cookies track and how much of their personal data is taken without consent.
What does this mean for affiliate marketing?
Asa result, we’re now witnessing a shift away from intrusive third-party tracking, and a gradual move towards cookie-less affiliate campaigns. This may seem daunting if you are running a cookie-reliant campaign or business, but there are a number of changes in the pipeline that will make the transition much easier.
For one thing, cookies are no longer the dependable tracking tools they once were. In affiliate marketing, cookies used to offer parity between conversions tracked and actual sales, but month after month there is a growing gap. These days, reporting on cookie-tracked campaigns is frequently outperformed by more advanced reporting tools such as Google Analytics due to increasing browser blocks on link-dropping cookies. All signs point to marketers becoming less and less reliant on third-party cookies.
Browsers are starting to roll out changes, too. Google Chrome — which has almost two thirds of browser market share (StatCounter) — will still be using its own first-party cookies and plans to implement its own type of tracking via its marketing suite. This will offer marketers a more seamless, less invasive form of tracking, without compromising on results.
There are a few silver linings, too. This decline of cookie tracking also presents business opportunities for those who are willing and ready to adapt quickly. For example, a company with a robust customer database and strong SEO strategy will come out ahead of a company that is over-reliant on cookies to bring in new customers. As with most things in affiliates, being agile and thinking ahead are key.