Going on a Cookie Diet

The life of recruitment marketers is going to become a lot more difficult over the coming years. All of that is because of massive changes to an invention stemming from 1984: the cookie. In the current day and age, cookies get a bad rep: they are used primarily for tracking by companies like Facebook, Google and LinkedIn. I’ll tell you all about it and what to change in your diet.

Background

Let’s start with a little bit of technical background on what cookies are. They are basically very small bits of data that a web server places on your local browser. Cookies are essential for your browsing the web; they keep us logged in to YouTube, store the products in your Zalando shopping card and store your preferences when using DuckDuckGo.

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That is because cookies have a unique element: they are persistent. That means they remain active browsing different pages of a website or even across the web. There are a few different types of cookies, depending on where they are used for:

  • Session management, used for keeping the items in your online shopping basket and staying logged in to websites. This is the type of usage cookies were originally invented for.
  • Personalisation. Although the name gives this away slightly, this is used for tailoring a website to a specific user. It enables practices like showing recently viewed articles.
  • Tracking. This is the topic we’ll be covering in this blog post, but it enabled companies like Facebook to become huge.

Those tracking cookies are what you call third-party cookies. Those cookies are set by other parties than the site you’re browsing. That means that one single party can place their tracking cookies, usually using pixels, on domains they don’t actually own and thus track users across multiple sites. And browsers have for a long time been in favor of advertisers, as they defaulted to always allow third-party cookies.

Very practically speaking; it’s the backbone of the technology that powers the ads in your Facebook Stories for the shoes you’ve just checked out on Zalando. And that is the exact same technology that powers running recruitment marketing campaigns.

The end of third-party cookies

There has been a heated debate over the usage of third-party cookies, which has gotten more intense over the last few years. Legalisations like the e-Privacy Directive and the GDPR, which brought the utterly annoying cookie banner, are trying to give more control about cookies to users.

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And that is very needed. A recent (2020) found that only 11.8% of sites adhered to minimal legal requirements. The pressure on Facebook to change its data collection on its users has skyrocketed after Cambridge Analytica scandal. All in all, it means that third-party cookies are getting a negative image.

Companies that build browsers have taken notice. Apple, the creator of the second biggest browser Safari, has declared the war on tracking. One of their initiatives is that Safari is blocking third-party cookies by default in newer versions. Firefox is doing the same.

That is posing challenges for companies like Facebook and specifically Google. The latter is the creator of Chrome, which is by far the most used browser. That means there is a huge internal discussion. On the one hand, Google makes billions with online ads every year and everything that helps them sell more is being better at online targeting and tracking, on the other there is a growing concern with privacy which begins with the way third-party cookies are used. It must have caused a lot of internal discussions, but ultimately they’ve made a decision: they will no longer default to always allow third-party trackers. Initially, that change would be rolled out at the end of 2022 but has now been postponed by a year.

In those cookies’ place, Google is betting on a bunch of technical solutions. It has proposed a set of new technologies (as have other browser makers) that may be less invasive and annoying than tracking cookies have become.

For recruitment marketers, it is vital companies like Facebook, Google and LinkedIn find a good solution in time. If not, the ability to precisely target the right talent and measure the effectiveness of your campaigns will be diminished.

What can you do in the meantime?

Now that you understand what cookies are, what purpose they currently serve and how that will change in the future, let’s look at what you can do now.

Cookies live on your browser and can thus be blocked by your browser. So what if you can track and measure user behaviour directly in a different place than the browser, like your server? That is where server-side tracking comes into play.

In the current solution, your browser (using information stored in cookies) sent tracking data directly to its destination (the advertising party). With server-side tracking, all information is first sent to an intermediate place (a server), which in its turn sends the data to its destination. That server usually runs within the domain of the company, meaning first-party cookies can be used to track users and thus obsoleting third-party cookies.

To make sure you don’t fall asleep while reading this, I’ll skip the technical details of how server-side tracking works (but please do reach out if you’d like to have a nerdy discussion on it).

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Image comes from Simo Ahava

This technology is still somewhat new. The biggest player on the tag-manager market, Google Tag Manager, has released a public beta of GTM Server Side in August 2020. Facebook just recently released their official GTM template for integrating their Conversion API. It shows just how much the world of server-side tracking is still in development.

However, this is your time to start investigating that world. It is certain that tracking using the browser has become less and less reliable, so you need to invest in other ways of achieving the same. Server-side tracking is the solution.

It might sound daunting and it somewhat still is, but companies are working hard on lowering the threshold to move to server-side tracking. I’ve set up the Facebook Conversion API with server-side GTM last week in roughly two hours, using this great guide. If you’d like to dive into this and you think I can help, please reach out!

Closing

Cookies are going to be taken away from our diet completely pretty soon and you should find ways to achieve the same tracking in other ways. One of those is using server-side tracking. That might sound daunting, but companies are lowering the barrier to entry quickly. So if you want to keep running great recruitment marketing, this is your time to change your diet.

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