5 Best Alternatives to Third-party Cookies

Brock Munro
February 1, 2023
June 14, 2024
5 Best Alternatives to Third-party Cookies

Third-party cookies have been vital to digital advertising ever since they were first introduced in the mid-1990s. Advertisers and publishers have been publishing highly targeted ads through cookie syncing and sharing user information across different websites, platforms, and tools. 

However, privacy concerns arising out of increased user awareness about the way their data is collected by businesses has led to third-party cookies being the subject of stringent privacy legislation. As a result, major internet browsers don't support them anymore, and Google is set to completely phase them out by the end of 2024.

At first glance, publishers may find this cause for alarm. And justifiably so. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), publishers are set to lose more than $10 billion once the days of easily available user data enabled by third-party cookies come to an end. 

However, a number of third-party cookie alternatives have emerged in recent years that offer publishers the ability to accurately target consumers with tailored advertising without compromising on privacy.

In this article, we discuss the five best third-party cookie alternatives you can begin testing and incorporating in your plan to transition to a cookieless digital world. 

5 Best Alternatives to Third-party Cookies

1. First-party Cookies

2. Device Fingerprints

3. Contextual Targeting

4. Mobile Advertising IDs

5. Universal IDs

1. First-party Cookies

First-party cookies are the most obvious third party cookie alternative. They were the first kind of cookies to be used for the purpose of remembering user information on the internet, and they are still around. 

The major difference between first-party and third-party cookies is that third-party cookies are set by external trackers (or advertisers) on a website while a first-party cookie is set by the website itself. First-party cookies are only active when users visit a particular site. It stores information about the user's preferences and browsing history within the website and can only be accessed by the website that set them.

One of the benefits of first-party data is that they are generally less of a privacy risk compared to third-party data. First-party cookies are also essential for a smooth browsing experience. For instance, every time we visit our favorite website, first-party cookies enable the website to remember our settings, preferences, log-in information, shopping cart, etc. 

First-party cookies can also be highly useful for publishers. For instance, as they track a user’s browsing history and preferences, they can help site owners create personalized advertising campaigns for particular visitors accordingly. 

Since they track user behavior and engagement for a website, first-party cookies help publishers understand how to optimize their content and ads. 

Browsers do not block first-party cookies although most don't entertain third-party trackers anymore. It makes first-party data one of the most reliable alternatives to third-party cookies for targeting audiences through ads.

However, you should keep in mind that first-party cookies still rely on the user's personal data, and it is thus a good idea to be transparent about its collection and usage policies with your visitors. Many publishers provide users the option to deny tracking, and it is also legally mandatory in many regions across the globe.

2. Device Fingerprints 

A device fingerprint is a set of information about a user's device including device model, fonts, screen resolution, user's IP address, browser settings, etc. It is used to create a unique "fingerprint" of the device and hence identify a specific user.

A subset of the technique of device fingerprinting is browser fingerprinting, in which information generated by the interaction of a device with a specific browser is collected and used for the purpose of tracking.

Publishers can use device fingerprints for targeted advertising as it provides useful insights about consumer behavior and consumer journeys.

A great thing about device fingerprinting is that since it doesn’t depend on cookies, it doesn't matter if a user chooses to accept or enable cookies. Device fingerprints won’t be deleted if users clear their cookies. Furthermore, disabling tracking doesn't disable device fingerprints.

What makes device fingerprinting interesting is that publishers can use it to gather user information even when they enable privacy-enhancing tools like (virtual private networks) VPNs or use incognito mode on their devices. Device fingerprinting is a great way to boost targeted advertising. 

However, device fingerprinting is not completely beyond the purview of privacy concerns as users may still find it invasive. It can track users across different websites and devices and build a detailed profile of a user without their knowledge. That’s why some browsers such as Tor and Brave are trying to obscure browser fingerprints by randomizing data points to make device fingerprinting more difficult. Mozilla Firefox already blocks attempts at fingerprinting.

Nevertheless, device fingerprinting can be a great tool for online publishers as long as they use personal data responsibly. 

3. Contextual Targeting 

Contextual targeting refers to showing ads to users based on the content of the webpage they are currently visiting. To do this, it does not need to track users' online behavior or their personal data.

Contextual advertising uses algorithms to analyze the site content and determine the topic and display an ad that matches the content. For instance, if a user is visiting a fashion blog, an ad for shoes or winter coats would be considered contextually relevant and displayed on the site.

Advertisers and publishers can implement contextual advertising through keywords, video content, and web page content.  Contextual targeting doesn’t need personal data but may need first-party website cookies to target specific audiences. 

Contextual advertising can be an excellent replacement for programmatic advertising enabled by third party cookie data as it’s an effective way to reach a target audience interested in a specific topic or product. It allows you to more accurately target users who are likely to make a purchase. Additionally, contextual ads have a higher likelihood of being viewed by interested users, leading to higher click-through rates.

One of the limitations of contextual advertising is that it has limited targeting options and the algorithms it uses to determine the webpage content may not always be accurate. As a result, some users may come across non-relevant ads.

Additionally, though web browsers allow first-party data, it may limit the effectiveness of contextual ads if a user chooses to turn off cookies. As a result, contextual targeting may not meet rising consumer expectations in digital marketing if not implemented diligently.

4. Mobile Advertising IDs 

Over the last decade, mobile advertising has truly come of age as the number of people accessing the internet through their mobile devices has risen sharply. Therefore, if you’re looking for third-party cookie alternatives, you may want to find one for mobile advertising too. This is where mobile advertising IDs come in. 

Typically managed by mobile operating system providers in their customer data platforms, mobile advertising IDs are unique identifiers assigned to each mobile device. You can use them to identify users and target them on mobile websites and apps. Mobile Advertising IDs can also be used to understand users’ behavior and create personalized content based on that. You can also use the data to improve user experience.

Mobile advertising IDs are specific to mobile devices, and therefore, provide more accurate targeting than cookies. This means that mobile advertising IDs can be a very effective tool in creating highly-targeted marketing campaigns.

Mobile Advertising IDs are not completely free from user privacy concerns either. Users aren’t always aware of them being tracked for targeting and advertising reasons, which can raise ethical concerns around tracking transparency. Some users may not want to be tracked by a random advertiser or publisher at all, and might thus want an option to opt out of such tracking.

5. Universal IDs

A Universal ID is a digitally created unique user ID you can use to identify users based on their digital profile and track them across different devices and platforms including apps, websites, social media platforms, forums, and more.

It is created by combining a user’s information such as an email address, mobile number, social media ID, browsing behavior, etc. This combination of information helps create a unique identifier for a specific individual. It can be used to track user interests and possible future decisions using predictive modeling techniques. This way publishers can provide each user with more relevant ads. 

Universal identifiers allow marketers to understand their customers more intimately and help them create more targeted ads. It can also be useful in cross-platform information exchange, enabling marketers to measure the effectiveness of their campaigns and make data-driven decisions. 

Honorable Mentions

Google's Privacy Sandbox as well as email marketing can also be considered as possible third-party cookie alternatives. 

Privacy sandbox is an initiative being developed by Google that groups users based on the topics that interest them, as determined by their browsing history over a three-week period. This, in turn, makes interest-based advertising possible.

The user is allowed full transparency and control during the process to view this set of topics, delete one or more of them, or opt out of the sandbox completely. The privacy sandbox is still a work in progress and has not been implemented yet. It does, however, present interesting possibilities for the future of targeted advertising.

Email marketing is one of the oldest forms of digital marketing, and it remains quite effective. You may still be tracking users through their emails in the future, long after third-party cookies retire.

Final Thoughts

Although third-party cookies have been providing advertisers with one of the most effective digital advertising solutions for nearly three decades, heightened concerns about privacy and private data security mean their time is finally up. 

If you have been relying on third-party cookies and programmatic advertising for your publishing business, now is the perfect time to analyze the alternatives. There are new alternatives that can be incredibly useful in ad targeting and growing ad revenue.

The best part is that although they still track users in different ways, the possible alternatives to third-party cookies are much safer when it comes to privacy and data security. They are based on the principles of data minimization, which is to say, they only collect data which is absolutely necessary. Most of them don’t share user data with external tools. However, there are still a few disadvantages with these systems, and you must test them well before incorporating them into your publishing plans. 

Publift helps digital publishers get the most out of the ads on their websites. Publift has helped its clients realize an average 55% uplift in ad revenue since 2015, through the use of cutting-edge programmatic advertising technology paired with impartial and ethical guidance.

Contact us today to learn more about how Publift can help boost your ad revenue and grow your business!   

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the Best Alternatives to Third-party Cookies?

First-party data, device fingerprints, contextual targeting, mobile advertising IDs, and Universal IDs are some of the best alternatives to third-party cookies. Choosing the right one from among these depends on your business needs and publishing strategy.

Why Are Third-party Cookies Being Blocked?

Third-party cookies pose a significant data security risk, besides raising ethical and privacy concerns among users whose online behavior was being tracked by such cookies.

As the data collected by third-party cookies can be accessed by external parties without the knowledge of the owner, there’s a risk of personal data being compromised. That’s why some leading browsers, such as Safari and Firefox, block third-party trackers. Chrome will soon follow suit by the end of 2024. 

What Technology Will Replace Cookies?

There are many technologies emerging around to help advertisers find appropriate audiences and improve ad targeting.

Some tools that are likely to replace third-party cookies include contextual targeting, device fingerprinting, device IDs, Universal IDs, etc. However, since it doesn’t pose as much of a data security concern, publishers can still benefit from first-party data.

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