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Google’s third-party cookie saga: theories, hot takes and controversies unveiled

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Looks like those third-party cookies aren’t going anywhere just yet. And you know what that means: cue the flood of theories and hot takes about what Google is really up to.

Digiday has gathered up some of the juiciest theories and added a bit of extra context for good measure.

The third (and final?) delay to third-party cookies in Chrome came because Google read the tea leaves

The latest delay in the demise of third-party cookies has tongues wagging. Some speculate that Google hit the brakes because it sensed the U.K. regulator overseeing its plan — the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) — had some serious reservations. By announcing the delay preemptively, Google maintains control of the narrative. If it was confident the CMA was on board with its plans, the tech giant would’ve stayed mum.

As Mark McEachran, vp of product for Platform at Yieldmo, put it: “The industry realized this solution was not ready for primetime.”

Google isn’t really ending third-party cookies in the Chrome browser so much as it is delaying the end of them

According to this theory, all these delays were bound to happen, and they’ll keep happening until Google’s sure that ditching cookies won’t dent its profits or draw the ire of regulators. To make this dream a reality, Google needs the green light from a major regulator to shift its ad business from ad tech to the browser.

If Google’s browser plan is green lit then its ad tech business could be a sacrificial lamb to regulators

For years, Google has held the reins as the world’s top media seller, while also dominating as the largest buy-side ad server and demand-side platform. All of this, bundled with analytics and measurement, essentially positions Google as the prosecutor, the defense and the jury in the realm of advertising and media. Unsurprisingly, such consolidated power was bound to attract regulatory scrutiny at some point.

That moment arrives this September, as the Department of Justice aims to prove in court that Google has leveraged its ad tech dominance to monopolize the digital advertising market and stifle competition. If the DoJ is successful, Google may face the prospect of divesting its ad tech arm — a move that would have once dealt a severe blow, but now may be more about appearances. After all, Google has already set its sights on the future of its ads business, centered on its Chrome browser and the cloud.

It’s the classic “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario.

What Google is doing is degrading the open web

This one is akin to something straight out of a James Bond flick, with Google playing the role of the villainous Auric Goldfinger. Just like Goldfinger made Fort Knox’s gold radioactive to boost his own stash’s value, some folks believe Google’s tinkering with online advertising to prop up its own empire. By making advertising outside its ecosystem trickier and pricier, Google is making its own platforms — like search, YouTube and Gmail — more attractive because that’s where advertisers can find richer data to target.

Google’s Privacy Sandbox is nothing more than a point solution

Some skeptics believe that marketers don’t really need Google’s alternatives to third-party cookies to thrive. They might choose to invest in them, but not because they have to — it’s because they outperform other options. However, initial tests haven’t been too promising. Yet, with Google’s aggressive marketing of the Sandbox, it might eventually convince marketers that they’re missing out on something extraordinary. Only time will tell.

Ad tech isn’t exactly cheering for Google’s Privacy Sandbox — and probably never will

The gist of this argument is that ad tech vendors are reluctant to fully support the sandbox because they don’t want it to thrive. They’re not keen on hitching their wagons to Google’s browser, nor are they eager to relinquish even more control over their futures to it.

If third-party, cross-domain cookies are deemed unacceptable from a privacy standpoint, then why should their replacements be any different?

This question has been making the rounds for quite some time now, serving as the inconvenient truth that won’t be brushed aside. Essentially, proponents of this argument are questioning the inconsistency in the privacy narrative. They argue that cross-domain tracking at a user level is either acceptable or it isn’t — there are valid arguments for both sides. What’s truly baffling, though, is the notion that while free, third-party cookies are vilified, paid alternatives that essentially serve the same purpose and may even employ questionable tactics like fingerprinting are somehow seen as superior.

Whenever third-party cookies go away in Chrome it won’t make much difference to users

If what users dislike is being tracked and served with behaviorally targeted advertising, then they’re going to be in for a whole world of hurt once those cookies are nixed. They will still be tracked and targeted based on their online behaviors.

Google’s contentious, drawn-out crusade to eliminate third-party cookies in its browser may have surreptitiously slipped into ad industry purgatory

This hot take has gained traction recently, particularly over the last quarter. The idea is that Google’s proposed alternatives to third-party cookies are considered so lackluster that they’re viewed as worse than sticking with the current limbo of partially deprecated cookies.

Google plans to use its Privacy Sandbox as a way to stunt the growth of Amazon’s ads business

While it’s best to approach this idea with caution — even the executives discussing it aren’t entirely convinced — history has shown that unexpected twists aren’t uncommon, especially in Google’s playbook. (Remember Jedi Blue?) This theory hinges on the idea that increased competition and adherence to new privacy standards could force Amazon to adjust its tactics, potentially putting a damper on its growth trajectory.

Google built the Sandbox for the ad industry to play in while it built a sprawling AI-driven identity play

This is definitely one for the conspiracy theorists — for now.

Privacy will win this fight eventually, no matter how much independent media providers try to argue unfair practices by Google

It’s the hope that kills you.

Isn’t the cookie soggy at this point?

Credit to Lance Wolder, head of strategy and marketing at PadSquad for this analogy. Essentially, what he and others are pointing out is that the uproar over third-party cookies should be a non-issue, considering similar limitations already exist in Safari and Firefox browsers. However, the fact that there’s still so much panic over the issue speaks volumes about how marketers heavily relied on Chrome and neglected to adapt to previous changes.

Speaking of cookies … they’re a hell of a drug

This tends to come from those prepared to say the quiet part out loud. Maybe it’s time to face reality and go cold turkey.

Marketers don’t care about the end of third-party cookies

Ah, the cynic’s go-to hot take. And in reality, there is a grain of truth to it. The apathy among marketers toward this issue is undeniable. However, the reality is likely more complex. While it’s true that there may not be as many visible actions from marketers on the surface, there are undoubtedly tests, backup plans and collaborations underway behind closed doors. It’s just that investing in something uncertain is a tough sell.

Have we missed any? Drop seb@digiday.com a line if so. 

https://digiday.com/?p=542681

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