Tracking after 3rd party cookies: The most important article you’ll read

The complete demise of 3rd party cookies was something that was always looming on the horizon and casting a shadow on marketers’ efforts. The vague threat got real with Google’s very concrete promise to end support for 3rd party cookies in 2022 in Chrome.

The idea is noble but its consequences for advertisers everywhere are very much real. A lot of tracking technology used by them relies on cookies. Does this mean that the end of cookie support equals the end of tracking?

If you are here for the short answer, here it is:

No, tracking is not going to die, there already are ways to track visitor’s activities. With the time the industry still has, new workarounds and techniques will also be developed.

The Voluum team has planned ahead to tackle this problem and today I can proudly say that Voluum is completely futureproof.

What it means is that you now can, and will be able in the future, to track visitors without the use of 3rd party cookies. This will allow you not only to keep tracking traffic from Chrome after 2022 but also track traffic from the Safari browser that already blocks 3rd  party cookies.

However, the devil lies in the detail and I would like to strongly encourage you to keep reading to learn about how does the new tracking work, what will be affected and how, what are the potential risks and what should be done on your part.

What are 3rd party cookies used for?

Cookies are small text files used by web browsers to save various kinds of information on a user’s computer.

  • 1st party cookies are saved by the domain you are currently visiting
  • 3rd party cookies are saved by other domains

Everything that we will say here will refer only to the latter ones. The former ones are not likely to be blocked in the foreseeable future.

3rd party cookies have been used by the most popular tracking method – a redirect one – to store identification data that helps to connect various points of visitor activities into one journey. It is simple and effective.

A standard affiliate journey

Consider the following scenario: You have a campaign funnel with a lander and you use a standard redirect method of tracking. When a visitor clicks an ad, they are redirected through Voluum servers to a set destination. At the same time, a 3rd party cookie is saved with visitor’s click ID. 

When a user decides to click the CTA button on a landing page, they will activate a click URL that you have put there before. The click ID value will be pulled from this cookie and used to identify the original visit (activation of a campaign URL).

The visitor would then be directed to an offer or another lander in a listicle. 

First shots fired

Last year, with the famous Chrome 80 update, Google threw first punch towards 3rd party pixels. This update has allowed Chrome to block those cookies that didn’t use a secure connection.

This didn’t change much for the majority of users and this update has been later rolled back due to the pandemic. It was merely a preview of what Google was planning to do.

In the future after 3rd party cookies, trackers that drive traffic through its domain (like Voluum with a redirect method set) will not be able to connect the dots. The click ID value that identifies a visitor along the campaign funnel cannot be recorded and passed to Voluum servers.

All data will become gibberish.

Where are 3rd party cookies allowed?

As of the moment of writing this article, the only browser that already blocks all 3rd party cookies by default is Safari

Chrome, as we have said it before, is on the path to phase them out by 2022.

From other major players, Firefox also blocks 3rd party cookies but only those that make requests to domains that have been identified as used for tracking. With Voluum’s dedicated domains, you are safe with Firefox.

Other browsers usually don’t block 3rd party cookies (minus the ones focused heavily on privacy, like Vivaldi).

What is a cookieless tracking method?

Alternative tracking methods are nothing new. They were developed to be used whenever redirects are banned by a traffic source. For example, Facebook did not allow redirects for a long time. It only allows driving visitors to its destinations directly. Hence the general term describing these methods: a direct method of tracking.

It lives under many names:

  • direct
  • zero-click
  • cookie-less
  • redirectless

From now on, we will be referring to this method as “direct”.

Despite different names, they all come down to one simple thing: a script that runs on a page load and makes requests to tracking servers without the need of pulling any data from a 3rd party cookie.

What are advantages and disadvantages of both methods of tracking?

The noteworthy thing is that both methods of tracking have some strong and weak points and the decision behinds using either one of them should be motivated by your specific requirements.

A redirect tracking method is not an obsolete reminiscent of affiliate marketing’s glory day, and likewise, a direct tracking method is not an answer to everything.

We recommend reading the article about the future of redirect tracking if you want to learn more.

Redirect method: pros and cons

A redirect method allows you to use many path altering features that Voluum users are accustomed to, such as lander or offer rotations, rule-based paths, or AI.

On the other hand, it is a bit slower than a direct method. The detour through Voluum servers adds a couple of milliseconds to the whole time between clicking an ad and loading a landing page. To learn, if these milliseconds are a lot, please read our tracker speed test article.

Pros of a redirect method:

  • Path alterations available
  • Easier to implement, as no scripts are required with 3rd party cookies still available
  • Able to use meta-refresh and double meta refresh to hide referrer data from an affiliate network

Cons of a redirect method:

  • Non-compliant with many popular traffic sources (like Facebook)
  • A bit slower
  • Users may be discourage from completing the journey when they see a redirect in a web browser’s address bar

Direct method: pros and cons

Direct tracking method is a complete reverse of its older cousin in terms of advantages and disadvantages.

The biggest disadvantage is that any lander rotations are not available.

This is because Voluum has no option to change the destination with visitors going there directly. Voluum only receives information about visits and clicks but only can alter the click URL.

So, lander rotations are not possible (this includes weights, rules, and AI), offer rotations are.

The main advantage is that this method is futureproof: compliant, fast, and cookie-resistant.

Pros of a direct method:

  • Fast
  • Compliant with popular traffic sources
  • Doesn’t require 3rd party cookies support
  • Enables tracking of the organic traffic

Cons of a direct method:

  • Path alternations not available
  • Harder to implement, requires editing landing pages and/or offer pages
  • Not able to use meta refresh and double meta refresh to hide referrer data from an affiliate network

How do various campaign funnels work with both methods of tracking?

In this step we go over different shapes of a campaign funnel and describe how they work with both methods of tracking with 3rd party cookies disabled.

Scenario 1: Ad -> Offer with a direct method

This simple campaign funnel requires you to put a direct script for offers on an offer page. Then you have to submit a direct destination link to your traffic source and users will be taken from an ad directly to an offer without the initial redirect.

This of course means that you have to be able to edit the offer page. If you cannot edit this page (as it often is with offers from affiliate networks), go with scenario 2 and use the standard redirect method. But if you still want the first transition to be direct, please go to the scenario 3 or 6.

Scenario 2: Ad -> Offer with a redirect method

This basic campaign funnel will work just fine without the 3rd party cookies support. After activating the campaign URL that is hidden behind an ad, Voluum will count a visit and direct to the offer page.

Because there is no landing page in the middle, no 3rd party cookies are required for this method to work.

Scenario 3: Ad -> Landing page with a direct method and Landing page -> Offer also with a direct method

This scenario requires:

  • Submitting a lander tracking script to your traffic source platform
  • Putting a lander tracking script on a lander.
  • Implementing a click URL on a landing page.

The direct tracking script will count both a visit (arrival to a landing page) and a click (leaving a landing page after clicking a click URL). This setup works with a single click URL or with multi-offer click URLs.

When a lander loads, the script will replace a click URL with a direct offer URL. This enables you to use paths and weights for offers even with the direct method of tracking.

You don’t need to put any script on an offer page in this scenario, unless you want to track conversions with a conversion pixel, with conversions occurring on an offer page load. Read the Set up conversion tracking section.

Tip: Our lander verification tool will automatically check if you have correctly implemented a direct script for landers on a landing page.

What will not work are any forms of lander and offer rotations, rule-based paths, path weights and Voluum AI.

Scenario 4: Ad -> Landing page with a redirect method and Landing page -> Offer also with a redirect method

Without the support of 3rd party cookies and no further adjustments, this funnel will encounter problems. The lack of cookie with a click ID value will cause the aforementioned disconnection between a visit and a click.

This will keep your data reliable and consistent, while at the same time it will allow you to benefit from the advantages of a redirect method of tracking: rotations, paths and AI.

Don’t worry about your visits being counted twice, by activating a campaign URL and by a direct script for landers – we have a fail-safe mechanism for that.

Scenario 5: Ad -> Landing page with a redirect method and Landing page -> Offer with a direct method

You can use different tracking methods on various steps of the campaign funnel. With this scenario you still benefit from various forms of altering paths to landers (by rules, weights or AI), while reducing the time needed to go from on a lander to an offer.

You are still required to put a lander script on a lander (this is obligatory for both methods of tracking from 1/26/2021).

Scenario 6: Ad -> Landing page with a direct method and Landing page -> Offer with a redirect method

This type of a campaign funnel allows you to be compliant with the requirements of many traffic sources, as well as use various techniques of hiding referrer data, such as meta-refresh and double meta refresh.

But you can go with a simple redirect for the second step of your campaign funnel. The direct script for landers is still required though.

Scenario 7: Organic traffic

With direct tracking script for landers obligatory, tracking of organic tracking will be easier to set up.

When a landing page is reached organically, without a campaign ID in a URL, such a visit will be assigned to the campaign which ID is hardcoded in the direct script. When a campaign ID is present in the URL (a visitor went through the campaign URL), Voluum will ignore the hardcoded ID and will use the one from the URL.

Summary

The most important thing to learn from this long section is that once you put a direct tracking script for landers on a landing page, you will be safe in 99% cases with either method of tracking used.

If you were to remember only one thing from this article, this would be the one.

 How to track conversions without 3rd party cookies?

The demise of 3rd party cookies poses some challenges to conversion tracking as well, regardless of the tracking method used.

Right now you have two methods at your disposal:

  • S2S postback URL
  • Conversion tracking pixel

While the former method will work fine even without 3rd party cookies (assuming it is correctly configured to pass a click ID value back), the conversion tracking pixel will require a small change.

Usually, the pixel was pulling the click ID value from a cookie. With this option out of the picture, the click ID value has to be passed in a token. This required adding the cid parameter with the tracking token that contains the click ID value to the conversion tracking pixel.

However, if you use an offer tracking script, you can use it not only to track visits in a funnel without a lander, but also to record conversions. Hence, no need of using the conversion tracking pixel with direct script for offers in place.

So, what does it all mean?

This rather long article tries to point that cookies are just one of several different techs that backs the tracking industry. The end of their support won’t kill tracking for advertisers – the stakes are simply too high.

We at Voluum decided that we don’t want to be afraid of the future, we want to tackle it. That is why we’ve prepared a whole new tracking technology that is complementary to the standard one.

So worry no more, you are always on the safe side with Voluum.

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