What Does a Cookieless Future Look Like?

Cookies have remained a point of controversy for several years, with people questioning whether collecting this data is ethical from a privacy point of view.

Multiple regulations have been adopted to limit their use, and some experts believe that cookies may be phased out completely in the future.

In this article, we’ll consider what a cookieless future might look like. We discuss the methods that might replace cookies and the implications this major change to Internet browsing may have.

What are cookies and how do they work? 

Cookies enable web browsers to track, record, and personalize each user session (i.e. the time spent on a website). Simply put, cookies identify a user and recall settings from a previous session.

Cookies are stored locally on a user’s browser and help streamline web browsing. Their three main purposes are:

  1. Tracking: Websites such as online stores use cookies to remember what items a user has previously viewed or placed in their basket, so they do not have to repeatedly find and add items. However, tracking can work in other ways too, depending on the website.
  2. Recording/session management: Cookies recognize users and recall their activities, information, and website preferences. For instance, a website might learn which topics an individual is interested in and prioritize similar content the next time they visit.
  3. Personalization: Cookies can help online advertisers focus their promotions on users who have previously shown an interest in the topic.

When putting your organization’s website together, you can look for website builders that provide ready-made cookie banners and other security features.

This can be essential for organizations concerned about their regulatory requirements. In particular, EU GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) compliance may prove challenging for those uncertain about collecting EU residents’ personal data.

What might replace cookies?

Although cookies are becoming increasingly controversial and might one day be phased out, it’s unlikely that organizations will cease tracking online browsing habits altogether. As we’ve established, this activity can benefit the user experience as well as organizations and advertisers.

Instead of cookies, we may see similar – but less intrusive technologies – being adopted. Here are a few that are being touted as possible replacements:

  • Device fingerprinting, which analyzes users’ software and hardware configuration settings. Each device configuration is then given a unique ID, known as a ‘device hash,’ which distinguishes between different users and identifies logins from new or suspicious devices.
  • Browser fingerprinting, which also gathers software and hardware configurations. However, they are gathered from the user’s web browser rather than from their device. Like with device fingerprinting, each user configuration is given its unique identity.
  • User-based tracking, which collects data on the pages and features a user interacts with. This can also help identify problems such as slow loading times or broken page elements, so developers know what issues need to be fixed to create a better user experience.

The challenges of a cookieless future

There are a couple of obstacles that organizations must overcome if faced with a cookieless future. The first is a lack of attribution and tracking. The second is the loss of valuable third-party data.

Attribution is the process of identifying and tracking user actions and journeys on a website to determine whether web pages are effective at achieving their intended goal.

Without cookies, it would be difficult to gather this information, which could result in a poorer web experience.

Marketing campaigns would also have little direction, with organizations displaying adverts to increasing numbers of people for whom the product isn’t relevant.

Meanwhile, the collection of third-party data – although controversial due to the potential of data breaches and the misuse of personal information – provides valuable insights and intelligence that can enrich online environments.

This data helps organizations understand their customers so that they can tailor websites and applications to better cater to their needs.

Without this data, web and app developers, marketers, and business leaders would have to rely on guesswork to improve their digital offerings.

Preparing for a cookieless future

Eradicating cookies will have major consequences for both organizations and individuals.

The main benefits for consumers, who are leading the charge to remove cookies, are to bolster individuals’ privacy and reduce the possibility of data breaches.

However, it would come with positives for organizations too. Less data processing reduces their regulatory compliance requirements, and mitigates the financial and reputational cost of a security breach.

Indeed, as data privacy becomes an increasingly mainstream concern, organizations that can demonstrate their ability to operate without processing vast amounts of personal data will gain a competitive advantage.

Individuals prefer websites that they can browse without the risk of handing over their information to unknown third parties.

But for all these possibilities, organizations must still address the business reasons for collecting this information. In a cookieless world, there is no competitive advantage, as all organizations are playing by the same rules.

So, what can organizations do to stay one step ahead? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Adopt a back-to-basics approach

Some experts have suggested that, with cookies, marketers no longer need to complete fundamental tasks, such as researching their audience. Instead, they can rely on the data and metrics automatically collected.

The removal of cookies would require marketers to become more engaging, speaking directly with customers through surveys, feedback forms, social media, and chatbots.

  • Experimentation

The method for building user profiles isn’t set in stone, as one approach may be effective for one company but useless for another.

This is why each organization must be prepared to experiment with data processing practices. They can use research, supported by trial and error, to devise a formula that works. This might be targeting specific social media channels, using different types of media in content campaigns, or trying a more direct email strategy.

  • Better content to collect first-party data

Having little to no access to third-party data will make it imperative that organizations gather information directly.

This will require creative and innovative content strategies. The goal is to make something that will incentivize users to provide their information. This could be by making the process more engaging, or by explaining the mutual benefits of information sharing.

  • Better data

Collecting greater volumes of first-party data is one thing, but organizations must ensure the quality and relevance of this data is also appropriate.

Feedback forms and surveys are a great way of collecting valuable information. However, the right questions need to be asked. Collecting basic information such as a name, phone number, and email address is only part of the puzzle.

This is why questions need to be asked to get an idea of the user’s overall satisfaction when using a product, or their genuine feelings toward a brand. This is the information that can boost conversions and profits.

  • Regulatory compliance

When processing personal data, organizations must always acknowledge and meet their regulatory requirements.

This is a particular problem for organizations that are subject to the GDPR, as the Regulation contains strict rules on data processing and tough penalties for those that do not comply.

Under previous rules, data processing would usually be permissible provided the organization obtained the individual’s consent.

However, the rules for consent are becoming more complex, as regulators try to push organizations away from it and instead ask them to justify the reason the information is necessary.