Shifting sands in data privacy: how major web browsers are changing consumer journey measurement

by Maigari Jinkiri, Chief Revenue Officer
Thursday, August 1, 2019

The arc of the data universe is long and it bends towards privacy. Continents, nations, states and technologies have taken their own views on consumer privacy and data, and have used their industry position to deliver their own flavor of privacy. The change people have been talking about recently, beyond the looming California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), is a change that Apple has made to how it handles personal data, or the  new Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) framework.

Apple made a significant change to the ITP framework in its Safari browser in March. For the techies amongst us, this means capping javascript-generated first-party cookie life at seven days. This shrunken cookie duration directly affects data collection in market-leading analytics platforms like Adobe Analytics and Google Analytics 360, whose cookies have a default two-year lifetime.

Here are a few of the biggest consequences of Apple’s changes:

• Attribution windows are shortened to seven days, so an audience segment relying on a campaign tracking code with a 30-day life (many organizations use this configuration) may be altered drastically

• Unique visitor counts will increase preventing accurate year-over-year analysis

• Cross-device visitor tracking will become unreliable, since visitors who wait more than seven days to return look like new visitors, and their cross-property journey begins again with a blank slate (strengthening the value proposition of larger tech companies like Google who can fingerprint across more varied datasets)

While Apple's intent is noble -- protecting users from being tracked across multiple domains and the insecure cookie implementations that can accompany such tracking -- it requires data technologists and analysts to reconfigure their data platforms to return to accurate visitor counts and attribution windows.

Few companies will notice significant changes to their data at a glance, cookies with a lifetime shorter than that of a common housefly can have subtle yet profound effects on not only organizations ability to track consumer journeys, but also in their ability to provide a relevant and personal experience.

ITP only affects browsers and is not an issue on apps or browsers embedded within apps. However, since Safari browser traffic comprises more than half of all mobile traffic in North America and a lesser but still significant percentage worldwide, the newly abridged cookie lifetime hits mobile data hard. Also note that Firefox announced similar security updates, making ITP more of an issue for desktop browsers in short order. Worldwide, Safari and Firefox combined comprise about 17 percent of all desktop browser traffic.  There is an unspoken expectation that the ‘next-wave’ of ITP adjustments may include shortening the cookie window life to 24 hours.

Google is taking a bit of a different approach with Chrome focused on transparency. They will be adding a browser extension that will showcase the names of the AdTech providers on each page and the personalization factors associated with each cookie. They will also provide user-level cookie control for third party cookies. None of these have been implemented yet so we await the final implementation.

There are several technical ways to close this data gap. Updating to the latest version of Adobe Analytics' visitor ID script fixes cross-device tracking issues. Most fixes, however, require generating server-level analytics cookies, which are unaffected by ITP. Those solutions are not difficult to implement, and they restore lost data while maintaining browser security for all visitors.

To learn more about what analytics platforms are affected, how they are impacted and learn more about our approach to how we can help you fix this, please feel free to contact us here.