Along with the release of the iPhone 8, Apple’s new operating system, iOS 11 and its browser, Safari 11 on desktop, are causing quite a stir among advertisers and marketers. Not for their new design or ease of use but for their release of “Intelligent Tracking Prevention” — a feature which would limit website owners’ ability to track users across domains. But what does that mean exactly, and how can marketers best prepare for it? Let’s take a closer look:
What Does Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) Actually Do?
In a nutshell, ITP limits the ability for advertisers and site owners to track users across domains. Any websites that load things like scripts or image across domains are classified according to a machine-learning algorithm, and cookies that those sites deposit are essentially sectioned off — preventing them from tracking the user 24 hours after they first interacted with the site. Why 24 hours? The cookie is stored in the system in case the user wants to user their login information from one domain on a separate service — for example, logging into a service using your Facebook or Google credentials.
Once the cookie is partitioned away, it sits there until 30 days have passed. If the user hasn’t interacted with that site any more after 30 days, the cookie is purged.
What Does This Mean for Advertisers?
Currently, ITP is only enabled for mobile and desktop versions of Safari. According to Statcounter as of August 2017, Safari holds a little over 20% of the desktop browser market – but as much as 58% of the iPad tablet market (Android mobile devices do not support Safari). This may not sound like much compared to Firefox or Chrome, but it actually represents millions of users. And, as privacy concerns grow, advertisers and marketers alike can expect this type of technology to spread across all popular browsers and devices.
The question then becomes, what does this actually mean for advertising – particularly platforms like Google AdWords?
Google has responded to the Intelligence Tracking Prevention initiative by changing how it captures and reports conversions within AdWords. According to Apple’s own recommendations, which recommend “server-side storage for attribution of ad impressions on your website” and that “[l]ink decoration (padding links with information) [be] used to pass on attribution information in navigations”.
According to Chi Hea Cho, a spokesperson for Google, “[w]e are updating our measurement tools, consistent with Apple’s recommendations for ad attribution, to help our customers continue to accurately measure ad clicks and conversions. These changes are designed to work for all browsers, but are timed to adapt to the new settings Apple is introducing. Our goal is to limit interruptions to our users’ experiences and to preserve our partners’ ability to evaluate their investments in digital advertising. As always, giving users choice and control of their data and how it’s used is a top priority for us.”
To that end, Google has also sent out an email to AdWords users with the following technical details:
To help ensure conversions are reported accurately in your AdWords account, we’ll be making three changes, consistent with Apple’s recommendations for ad attribution:
- If you have auto-tagging enabled and a Google Analytics tag on your website, we’ll begin to set a new Google Analytics cookie on that site’s domain, which will store information about the ad click that brought a user to your site. If you have linked your AdWords and Google Analytics accounts, the AdWords conversion tracking tag will be able to use that click information.
- AdWords will continue to report conversions for users who have recently interacted with Google services and domains.
- AdWords will also use statistical modeling to estimate website conversions that could not be measured from Safari, and include them in your AdWords reporting.
To help with these changes, Google Analytics has created a new type of cookie, called _gac, which extends Google Analytics tracking to include AdWords conversions. Whenever auto-tagging is enabled, the cookie is used to store ad click details. Right now, the cookie is sent from Googleadservices.com — which makes it a third-party cookie and one of the types that Apple’s machine learning process would in turn segment and separate.
With _gac, the cookie is instead set on the advertiser’s domain and thereby becomes a first-party cookie — one that conforms to ITP’s rules and recommendations. That means all the ad data associated with that particular user will continue to be sent across for conversion reporting and attribution.
So if you’ve linked your AdWords and Google Analytics campaigns, as most people have, you won’t see any changes and will continue to record conversion data from Safari users. Those that haven’t will notice that Google records the conversion activity only within that first 24-hour period.
How Can Marketers Be Prepared?
The biggest shift that affects reporting and tracking is going to be the migration from third-party to first-party cookies. Still, even first-party cookies aren’t a foolproof solution since no one is truly certain how Safari’s machine learning processes will identify them, and whether or not human ingenuity will work to circumvent these changes and continue to track users as it has in the past.
If you’re working with a vendor that uses its own form of reporting and measurement, ask them what steps they have put into place to mitigate the issues arising from potentially lower data quality from Safari users. It’s important to note that there will likely be shifts and changes in the performance data that’s gathered in the coming weeks and months — so avoid any rash decisions for the time being until things settle.
Of course, the ever-looming elephant in the room is the issue of how effective campaigns will be now that this type of remarketing has effectively been cut off or severely restricted. What happens when users view products across multiple devices but wait longer than 30 days to purchase? The data you gather in these cases is simply not going to be an accurate reflection of what’s really happening.
AdWeek has joined the fray, expressing their concern to Apple and others about how this change has affected business models and the nature of the internet as a whole. They write:
The infrastructure of the modern Internet depends on consistent and generally applicable standards for cookies, so digital companies can innovate to build content, services, and advertising that are personalized for users and remember their visits. Apple’s Safari move breaks those standards and replaces them with an amorphous set of shifting rules that will hurt the user experience and sabotage the economic model for the Internet.
We strongly encourage Apple to rethink its plan to impose its own cookie standards and risk disrupting the valuable digital advertising ecosystem that funds much of today’s digital content and services.
Even Forbes has demonstrated that small to mid-sized companies, especially those in the retargeting and demand-gen fields are going to see significant negative impact, whereas sites that users visit daily, like Amazon and Facebook, stand to gain tremendously as prices for ad inventory on Safari browsers is lowered.
The best thing you can do right now is to let the digital dust settle, and then carve out a plan that goes beyond just collecting and acting on the data you receive. Facebook and Amazon represent great two-way social channels that are extremely lucrative for brands looking to foster consumer relationships and brand awareness. Marketers may find that their campaign actions shift based on what data they can collect and extrapolate from Safari users, rather than focusing on what they can’t have.
But let’s turn the question over to our users. Are your ads and data tracking practices affected by these changes, and what changes are being made in your organization? Do you think Apple is making a smart decision, or are they damaging the economic foundation of the internet itself? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
About the Authors: Sherice Jacob helps business owners improve website design and increase conversion rates through compelling copywriting, user-friendly design and smart analytics analysis. Learn more at iElectrify.com and download your free web copy tune-up and conversion checklist today!