Cookiemageddon, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the iOS 14 Tracking Updates

Artists's interpretation of an internet search surrounded by cookies.
By Eric Westerman |

Note: This post focuses primarily on web tracking data. The iOS 14 tracking updates also affect native app tracking—stay tuned for a follow-up post on exactly this!

As a technical analytics professional, the tracking updates related to iOS 14—the most recent and highest-profile example of a greater industry trend toward privacy protection and user rights—have been a dominant issue in my life since the beginning of 2021. I have written, rewritten and scrapped this post on at least three previous occasions as new information has emerged and changed the dynamics of the update. However, with the updates finally launched, I am now comfortable providing a point of view on the subject, what it means and what you should be focusing on in its aftermath.

A Quick Rehash of Events

It all started with an announced update from Apple at the beginning of this year. The update is a major overhaul, and honestly, we could spend a week discussing everything it entails as it relates to websites and app tracking/disclosure. However, it will affect the majority of marketers, analysts and users the most by requiring iOS 14 users to opt in to third-party cookie tracking (previously, users had the ability to opt out of this tracking). If you are a marketer, you would have had to be living under a rock to miss the litany of notifications in Facebook ads related to this. We will forgive Facebook if it feels like this update is targeted specifically at them, because it probably is—with all platforms that utilize third-party cookies being caught in the wash.

Taking note of that, there are also a number of things that are not happening. For instance:

  • Your primary website analytics tracking tool (Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, Webtrends, etc.) is unlikely to be affected. These platforms utilize first-party tracking cookies—i.e., the cookies are stored by the domain the user visits. Third-party cookies, such as Facebook, are stored by the third-party site.
  • You’re also not going to lose data directly associated with what happens on third-party platforms (you will still get click, cost, CTR and CPC data from ad vendors).
  • The iOS 14 update will yield drastic results immediately, in most cases. While it is the newest version of the most popular brand (Apple) of the most popular way to access most websites (mobile devices), it would still represent only 5% to 15% of web traffic for most sites (varying by industry and marketing mix).

Now, with that out of the way, let’s jump to three takeaways for dealing with iOS 14’s tracking changes.

3 Takeaways to Deal With iOS 14’s Tracking Changes

1. Transparency Is Key

All of these updates—GDPR, CCPA, iOS 14—have a common catalyst. The major tech companies have been sneaky with their processes and algorithms and were revealed to have been collecting and using the data in ways they hadn’t disclosed. I have my own opinions on the amount of danger this poses (or does not pose), but it remains that the data collection industry has a muddy—at best—history when it comes to data collection transparency. In other words, we kind of brought this on ourselves.

The solution is to be upfront with what we are collecting and how we are using it. OneTrust and other similar vendors now make it easy to put a notification banner front and center for website users. In Pace’s case, 100% of the data we collect is to optimize our clients’ website performance. We never sell user data to third parties. Our emphasis is on nonidentifying engagement data and optimizing site performance for end users based on that data. Everybody wins in this scenario.

Tell users how you are going to use their data. Do it early and be clear. Burying it in a privacy policy or TOS is no longer good enough.

2. First Party Data Collection Will Persist 

Wherever possible, utilize first–party tracking cookies. Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics and others that utilize first–party cookies are likely to make it through this round of tracking updates unscathed. The problems begin when you hand data collected on your site over to the control of a third-party vendor. Do your research; ask them about cookie creation, how they collect the data, how they use the data, and how they plan to adhere to the spirit (not just the letter) of the new tracking rules or laws. Ultimately, each site is responsible for the scripts and cookies it incorporates and creates, so make sure you are informed.

Ensure that your site utilizes first-party tracking cookies, and be aware of what is being collected. Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics are prominent examples, but other options exist based on needs and preference.

3. Data Analysis Is Back

This aspect is encouraging to me. I have seen too many marketers latch onto social media algorithms and reporting, which frequently lacked context (and accuracy). For example, how many people have been reporting view-through conversions on Facebook retargeting campaigns as lead conversions when other sources were ultimately driving the engagement?

The iOS 14 changes put a greater onus on marketers and analysts to utilize first–party tracking tools for downstream results and compare with tagged traffic attributed to match downstream results with campaign clicks/interactions. This is more in tune with how we used to do it back in the old days (late 2000s). Having a good analyst or analytics team will help to collect data, connect it to upstream viewership and put the results into context.

Analyze, or hire somebody to analyze, your primary KPIs and build attribution funnels. We are not losing the ability to track any user interactions. Rather, the effects of iOS 14 relate to the ability to tie these interactions to activity on third–party sites. Tagging and downstream will be critical in bridging this gap.

Bonus Takeaway: Vigilance Is Key

There have been multiple moving parts on this topic since it was initially announced. Updates that were supposed to go into place in February have been pending for months. Facebook has released workarounds utilizing server-side API calls and limiting the number of events collected. Other third-party trackers are working on their own solutions. We are working closely with our partners and vendors to ensure that we are adhering to or exceeding these new rules and standards while minimizing the effect on our clients’ ability to collect actionable data.
Stay tuned to the Pace Insights blog for updates and analysis on this subject as more information becomes available.

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