Cookies are important tools in online marketing and advertising. Websites use them to save information about a user’s browsing activity, tailor services to that individual, and increase the likelihood that they will engage with the website’s content.
Third-party cookies are created by domains outside the website you’re browsing. They’re placed on that site by adding scripts or tags, and are accessible on any website that loads the third-party server’s code. Unlike first-party cookies that save information about the site you’re visiting, third-party cookies follow you around the internet and allow companies to send you targeted ads.
Third-party cookies can collect a variety of data from users, including age, gender, location, websites and subpages visited, and the time spent on those pages. This fact gives you yet another reason to stay up-to-date on web technologies so you can be a safe and savvy consumer.
How do third party cookies work?
A website first sends a request to the third party’s server – often in the form of a pop-up advertisement – and after you grant access to it, the company behind the ad can then track your browsing across the internet. It's why some of the same ads seem to pop up regardless of the site you visit.
As a result, you create a kind of “trail” for third-party cookies to follow you on. Many consumers don’t realize that a cookie can track multiple tabs in a single browser; as you move from tab to tab, you are unintentionally relaying information about your browsing history to other sites and advertisers. Closing the browser after a session doesn’t always eliminate the cookies stored on your computer, either. Depending on the browser you use, you may have to take this step manually by clearing your history at the end of a browsing session.
You can easily adjust your preferred browser’s settings to eliminate cookies; if you don’t, the browser may continue to retain cookie data from every session.
To disable or not to disable? That is the question
Many consumers are uncomfortable with the concept of third-party cookies because they’re concerned about an invasion of privacy. Some software may allow outside parties access to sensitive data that was collected and stored in the browser – such as full names and credit card information. For this reason, many people find it valuable to disable cookies as they surf the web.
Most social media companies, advertisers and other operators store third-party cookies and consumers can disable them to prevent these sites from tracking their activity. As a result, they won’t see ads tailored to their individual browsing history. If you’re concerned about your activity being tracked and shared, it may be worth the extra step it takes to disable third-party cookies.
On the flip side, disabling cookies may also result in a less optimized and less efficient web experience, which can be a hindrance to companies and an inconvenience to consumers. For example, you probably won’t receive weather forecasts, retail promotions, or news updates that are relevant to you because the disabled cookies can’t pinpoint your location. That’s why advertisers find third-party cookies especially helpful in getting users to engage with their content; one study found that 90% of consumers find it annoying when they receive messaging that’s irrelevant to them. And 67% of Millennial and Gen Z consumers said that they expect online offers to always be personalized.
It’s worth noting that installing an ad blocker on your browser typically prevents advertisers from generating third-party cookies on your device. However, these ad blockers may also disrupt your browsing experience on certain sites.
What’s next for third-party cookies?
In recent years, governments have enacted data privacy legislation to protect consumers from less-than-transparent cookie practices. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to enact a law that requires data brokers to disclose collected data to consumers as well as allow them to opt out of collection. The same year, California’s Consumer Privacy Act required businesses to disclose data collection to consumers, as well as give consumers the right to request what personal information was collected and how it’s being used.
In July 2021, Google announced that it would phase out third-party cookie usage on Chrome by the end of 2023. In the company’s original phase-out announcement last year, the tech giant said:
Users are demanding greater privacy--including transparency, choice, and control over how their data is used--and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands.
However, that does not mean the end of data tracking; Google is already exploring alternative methods to cookies that could be equally efficient in collecting information.
Whatever technologies may come next, implementing the highest settings on your preferred browser and investing in a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can give you more privacy and peace of mind online.