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Google’s plan to change the way online advertising is delivered in its Chrome web browser will not happen by the end of the year as intended. This is a setback for ongoing efforts to enhance consumer privacy on the internet, writes Anna Collard, the SVP of Content Strategy and Evangelist at KnowBe4 AFRICA.

For years now, Google has been on a mission to eliminate third-party cookies, just like Apple and Mozilla did with their browsers, Safari and Firefox. Unlike these companies, Google has faced some significant challenges in their efforts to protect user’s online privacy from industry stakeholders.

Google’s marketing potential is huge. Almost two out of every three internet users worldwide use Google Chrome as a browser. Estimates suggest that the global online ad industry is valued at approximately $600 billion. So, when Google makes rumblings about changing the way it collects data on its users, it understandably ruffles the feathers of industry bigwigs.

The search giant first announced their plans to block cookies in early 2020, with the goal of completely getting rid of them by the end of this year. However, they had to revise their timeline, and now the new target is sometime in 2025.

The problem with third-party cookies

Companies have been using third-party cookies for decades as a way to track users’ activity online. They can do everything from save your log-in details, hold items you want to buy and show you pertinent news headlines. The reason regulators in the UK and the US do not like third-party cookies is because they invade your privacy. They nibble away at your online behaviour and preferences, storing information so that it can be repackaged to you as personalised online ads.

As well as building detailed user profiles, third-party cookies allow advertisers to track users’ activity across multiple websites and apps. Although most would consider personalised adverts pretty harmless, they can become intrusive and even manipulate consumer behaviour. Moreover, malicious actors could potentially use the sensitive information collected by cookies, such as users’ health status, political affiliations, and login information, for harmful purposes. It is for this reason that many web browsers have already blocked third-party cookies.

What is the alternative?

To replace third-party cookies, Google plans to introduce Privacy Sandbox, which includes a system called Topics. It is designed to register your top interests based on your browsing history with a limited number of topics. Advertisers can then access this data via a browser interface, which allows them to send ads that reflect your interests. Every two weeks or so, the system deletes the topics and users can see, remove, or disable the feature completely. This system allows advertisers to send you relevant ads without tracking your individual web activity or collecting sensitive information, such as your gender or race.

What does this mean for you?

The good news for Chrome users is that this change will reduce the volume of personalised ads they get and give them greater control over their personal data. Nevertheless, online advertising will not completely vanish. Without cookies to track user behaviour and preferences, advertisements displayed may be less relevant to users, leading to a higher volume of generic or irrelevant ads. There may be a shift towards more privacy-centric advertising that relies on zero- and first-party data for personalisation. Unfortunately, it also does not mean tracking stops. Alternative technical solutions exist and they will be used to gain insight into consumers.

If you have been relying on cookies to fill in passwords for you, it may be time to enlist the help of a password manager to avoid becoming vulnerable to a cybersecurity attack.

You also still need to be careful about clicking on online or pop-up ads. Rather, go to the vendor site directly if you are interested in buying something. It is also a good idea to get good antivirus software installed on all your devices and make sure it updates regularly.

What does this mean for businesses?

Businesses and website owners rely on cookies for tracking visitor data and analysing user behaviour. Without this data, it may be harder for them to improve their services or tailor their content effectively.

If the South African digital advertising market, currently valued at more than R14,5 billion, is expected to grow, companies will also need to shift their approach. They will need to prioritise transparency, user control and collecting minimum amounts of data while still enabling effective advertising. One way companies can do this is by focusing on first-party data for advertising, such as their customers’ subscription data, CRM data and purchase data.

By focusing on personalised experiences using first-party data, companies will explore new ways to reach and engage with audiences in a way that respects their privacy. Keeping up with the latest updates on the adoption of privacy-friendly advertising technologies will be essential for South African businesses to remain competitive in the digital landscape.

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