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How Mozilla’s move could affect your marketing

Chris-Gerber-Blog

By Christopher Gerber, Associate Digital Editor
March 26, 2013
Filed under Chris Gerber

Third-party cookies, proliferating around the web, are the backbone to a targeted advertising model that’s been building steam. But moves from Microsoft and Mozilla could change the way you reach audiences.

Beginning later this year, Mozilla will be releasing an update to its Firefox browser that will automatically block third-party cookies on websites that a user hasn’t visited yet.

The ability to utilize cookies from third parties has helped spread relevant advertising in both timeliness – reaching a user as they’re searching – and in accuracy by matching the advertising with their current interests. Many small businesses have used this to great success, reaching customers with specific deals and offers at just the right time, through the use of files called cookies.

The biggest concern is that so few people know about it. Cookies are abundant and relatively harmless. Since they are used to track customers as an entity, rather than an identity, users have been jumping for joy where industry groups are calling it a “nuclear first strike against the ad industry.

Two players calling it quits

Microsoft (makers of Internet Explorer) and Mozilla (makers of the Firefox browser) have made changes to the default tracking settings in their browsers to change the way user privacy is shared.

Apple’s Safari browser has disabled third-party cookies automatically for years (since its launch in 2003). But the paltry sub-5 percent of desktop web traffic from Safari-based browsers hasn’t concerned these ad networks. However, the 54 percent of U.S. (desktop) web traffic from IE-based browsers and the 20.2 percent that Firefox owns is something that advertisers are taking notice of. These two combined account for around 45 percent of total web traffic, including desktop and mobile.

Beginning with IE10, released on Windows 8 in October 2012 and Windows 7 in February 2013, users will have a “Do Not Track” tag in their browser that sends a message they do not want to be tracked. But this has been only a request placed by the browser, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has said it will not honor the requests.

Mozilla is now taking its first step in this fight with Firefox version 22. Set to be released this June, it will block third-party cookies by default on browsers where there is no first-party cookie present. Users will still have the option to turn on third-party cookies and web tracking, but unlike in previous browser versions (for IE, Firefox and Google Chrome), users will have to find and switch off this preference on their own.

Little big brother

In essence, if your website was a “city,” cookies would be a little tracking beacon placed on users as they reach “city limits” and monitor every time you entered and what you did as you walked around it.

First-party cookies do this with the user’s expressed permission, usually by logging in to something or simply visiting a website.  After the cookie is placed (by third party or first), they may not know any information about the person, but they can follow their search and web histories to see where they go and what they like to do.

It became a great tool for businesses. But because third-party advertisers are connected to websites beyond your own, they could affectively track a user as they went to different towns in the network and help advertisers reach customers who were searching for related topics that may not be for that specific business.

As you went from one website to another, they could see where you had been by recognizing the cookie on your computer, and display relevant – or if your search history is erratic like mine, irrelevant – ads from advertisers and even check their inventory and display ads to you that you may have never seen before.

These advertisers could follow you around the world (wide web) without you ever knowing it, offering businesses a cheap buy-in into the lives of these users. For some people that’s a big thing. Just as they would not want to be followed around in the real world, they don’t want to be followed around on web.

Bad news first

If you use retargeting in your marketing efforts, or advertise through networks that do serve third-party advertisements, many of your targets could potentially disappear from sight.

The block will prevent any third-party advertising networks (like Google Adsense) from placing cookies on users computers and following then around the net.

Advertising networks clearly aren’t happy about the switch. The advertising space with which retargeting campaigns run has come at bottom prices. Because retargeting doesn’t target content on the site but instead user behavior, the context of the site mattered less for the success of the campaign.

This bottom-dollar advertising will largely disappear from the web. Only sites where the users have a first-party cookie (usually planted by getting a user to login or register) will be able to run retargeting campaigns, squeezing out the small business and the small web-store.

And the good news?

On the bright side, third party cookies aren’t going away. Advertising on Google.com specifically (and any of its child websites) will be less affected than other corners of the web. If a user is logged in with their account on Google, the site will be able to follow them around in their search, through Google Shopping, Google+ and any other Google properties.

But on any site that isn’t controlled by Google, well, you’re going to be less effective. Unless users communicate with your website through logging in or by submitting information, it won’t be as easy to leave a cookie on their computer.

Luckily, Mozilla’s web influence has been dwindling. After being used by nearly half of the web traffic during late 2009, its web share has been dropping. As high as 47.9 percent in July 2009, it slipped to 46.4 percent in 2010, 42 percent in 2011, and plunged to 33.7 percent in July 2012 and 29.6 percent in February 2013.

And who has been there to pick up the slack? Google Chrome. While Google could adopt the same measures, it’s largely not in their interest. Google owns the largest ad networks on the web, and survives off of the ability to track as much information about users as possible.

Web share for Chrome broke 50.0 percent – the highest for any single browser since Internet Explorer held the crown in August 2008 – and continues to climb each month. If blocking third-party cookies makes users feel like they’re missing something, it could cause that percentage to skew further and faster.

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