Apple has always been at the forefront of the Privacy Revolution, and the company has often held a user’s online privacy up as being one of its most important ideals. But has Apple gone too far with it’s latest attempts to protect user privacy online?
Back in 2017, Apple first announced its Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) features for Safari & iOS devices, and we’ve seen a number of key ITP updates since then – the most recent back in April 2020.
Previously, ITP allowed advertisers some unintentional wiggle-room; that is to say enough data could be gathered to allow for some tracking across the web. However, with the ITP updates back in April, these loop-holes are now firmly closed.
With iOS 14 being released in September, all Apple devices & Safari browsers are now able to block all cookies from third-party websites, and prevent third-party advertisers from targeting you based on your browser history and online habits. How has this impacted the world of digital marketing?
A Brief History of Cookies
There are two types of cookies a website may pass onto your browser, known as party and third-party. Both types of cookies contain the same pieces of information, and can perform broadly similar functions. The real difference between first-party & third-party cookies is how and where this information gets used.
First-party cookies are always used by the website you are currently visiting. In general, first-party cookies are considered to be useful – and Apple doesn’t have an issue with websites deploying them. They allow experience-enhancing functions on-site, but also let website owners collect analytics data about how you’ve interacted with their website.
On the other hand, Third-party cookies are created by domains other than the one you are currently active on – usually an advertising provider. However, whether or not third-party cookies are “good” or “bad” is a slightly greyer area.
Apple correctly argued that third-party cookies are mainly used for cross-site tracking and advertising purposes, but they also allow website owners to provide additional useful services – such as live chats or social media buttons.
Third-party cookies which are set by an advertiser are accessible on any website you visit which also loads the third-party servers code, such as ads.doubleclick.net. By recognising the cookie created on a previous website, ads are able to use your information to provide tailored content across multiple websites based on your browsing history.
Years Ahead of Google Chrome?
Apple’s push for privacy is an important milestone for web privacy advocates, and it puts Safari officially two whole years ahead of Google’s own browser – Chrome.
Unsurprisingly, Google itself has a lot more to lose from this move towards total online privacy than Apple, as so much of its earnings depend on the deployment of third-party cookies and advertising through DoubleClick, Google Ads and the Google Display Network.
Despite this clear and present danger to Google’s bank account, Google said back in January 2020 that it would begin the process of phasing out third-party cookies and expected third-party cookies to be fully blocked by 2022.
So is Google biding its time, working out what their next move is?
We’ve already seen some interesting cookie workarounds coming from the tech giant in the past month, with its recently announced “Consent Mode” being far less reliant on the deployment of cookies for tracking.
Watch this space.
Has Full Third-Party Cookie Blocking Affected Digital Marketing?
With 93.1% of iPhone users opting for Apple’s Safari, and 37.9% of Mac users browsing the web on Safari, ITP can potentially account for a lot of lost traffic to your website. Neither Apple nor Google has made any official statement about how ITP impacts Google Analytics, there is some evidence of the implications of blocking third-party cookies.
Reviewing Safari traffic of our longest standing clients, we can draw an interesting conclusions to the impact of Apple’s push for privacy:
The primary impact Mackerel has identified is a clear jump in “New” Safari users visiting the site from April 2020 when ITP 2.0 was introduced:
We can see clear increases in “New Visitor” from Safari & iOS devices during May & October 2020. This strongly suggests that Apple’s updates to ITP (introduced one month before both the May & October spikes) have cleared the Google Analytics cookies stored on a users browser which would have previously identified the user as “returning” to the site. While a simple test, this information does allow us to understand that Apple’s ITP third-party cookie blocking does have an impact on the data we are seeing. More concerningly, this “refreshing” of a users data can impact any A/B tests advertisers are running – with a real potential that a single user could be placed into multiple experimental groups.
The impact of this discovery is that data for Safari devices may not be as accurate as pre-ITP times. However, as with all data interpretation, digital marketers need to be aware of the bigger picture – how are the trends on other devices shifting, and what can we learn from the data that IS available to us?
In addition to this, other digital marketing authorities eCPMs on Safari inventory are around 30% lower than Chrome due to identifying data on Safari audiences being stripped out – although this has not been verified by Mackerel Media.
Are There Any Benefits to the Introduction of ITP?
Since the rollout of ITP 1.0 Apple has faced a fierce backlash from the digital ad industry – which also relies heavily on tracking cookies to advertise. There’s no doubt that Apples’ push for user privacy on Safari has led to significant losses in advertising opportunities since it’s launch.
However, the most recent versions of ITP might actually be beneficial to digital advertisers by forcing marketers and agencies alike to focus on information that can be learned from first-party cookies only.
Knowing what a user is most interested in on your website, where critical drop-off points occur and how buyers interacted with your business as a whole can lead to a more meaningful sales experience than a procedurally generated advert for a product 6 months after a user visited your site.
By focusing on how best to optimise your wider digital marketing strategy and on-site user experience, you could argue that Safari’s ITP updates are actually beneficial to your businesses online presence.
And let’s not forget – Google isn’t going to take Apple eating into its bottom line lying down.