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Recent Safari Changes Disrupt Attribution

Now and then, companies make updates that put marketers in a tough spot. Google did it when they stopped sharing the bulk of organic search term data with Google Analytics users, switching out the numbers with a “Not Provided” message and making it much harder for marketers to perform an SEO analysis. Now it’s Apple’s turn to make marketers worry. Their recent iOS and macOS updates change how Safari treats cookies, potentially causing some real consequences for marketers.

How Cookies Work

To understand why the update matters to marketers, you first have to understand how web cookies usually work. As you’ve surely noticed when browsing the web, some of the sites you visit remember you. If you return to an e-commerce website after a few days, you may find that you’re still logged in or that the website displays products related to the ones you’ve recently viewed.

Websites are able to do that because of browser cookies. Cookies are pieces of data that are shared between websites and browsers that track and store information on how you browse the web. First-party cookies are the ones that allow websites to remember you when you come back so you don’t have to log in again, assuming you return within a certain amount of time.

How Browser Cookies Work

Where things get a little more complicated are with third-party cookies. These come from anything you include on your website that is hosted on another domain. That could include images that are stored elsewhere on the web that you use, your Google Analytics tracking code, or cookies that are included in website plug-ins you have installed, to name a few of many examples.

Third-party cookies send data back to the original application they’re hosted on about your visit to the site. These are what make retargeting possible – they allow websites, programs, and marketing tools to draw connections between how users behave on one site and the next in order to provide better ad targeting.

Most people aren’t too bothered by first-party cookies. They provide a clear benefit by making it easier to get into your favorite websites each time you visit without having to remember a bunch of passwords. Some consumers see third-party cookies as a threat to their privacy – the idea of companies tracking their browsing behavior seems invasive. It’s those sorts of concerns that are behind Apple’s recent decision.

How the Update Affects Marketers

Both the iOS 11 update for mobile devices and the High Sierra update for macOS include Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which severely limits the use of cookies on websites visited through Safari. For any cookies that Safari determines can track users across different websites, the browser sets them to expire within 24 hours of a visit. Any cookies that make it easier for users to log into a site are safer, they last 30 days from the last visit before the browser purges them.

For advertisers and many ad tech companies that enable online marketing, this causes two main issues:

  • Retargeting ads become nearly impossible on Safari – at least beyond that first 24 hours.
  • Attribution becomes much trickier. If a visitor doesn’t turn into a conversion within 24 hours, you lose out on the ability to match their later actions to their earlier visit.

Browser Cookie Tracking

As marketing technology has grown more sophisticated over the years, marketers have had a greater ability than ever before to track precisely which online marketing activities contribute in the lead up to a sale. For any customer that spends time researching or thinking about a product before buying, this is invaluable to being able to measure the success of marketing activities.

This Safari update throws a wrench in marketers’ ability to perform accurate attribution. While that wasn’t Apple’s main goal – they want to improve the user experience by responding to privacy concerns –it still has the online marketing world concerned about losing valuable data that makes it possible to serve up more useful, relevant ads to people and track which ones lead to conversion.

What Can You Do About It?

To start, don’t panic.

The first thing to do is recognize that, while this change will have consequences for marketers, it’s not a catastrophe. Most browsers already offered consumers the chance to disable third-party cookies, so marketers were already losing the ability to target ads and track attribution with the portion of the browsing populace that Safari’s seeking to appease with this move.

On top of that, Safari only claims a certain portion of browser use. According to the Digital Analytics Program, they account for about 25% of all web browser use. That’s not an inconsequential amount, but none of these changes will affect your ability to do retargeting and track attribution for users on Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, or any other browser. You’ll still have access to a decent amount of data from other sources.

And companies are already making moves to minimize the effects the update will have on the analytics marketers have access to. Google was quick to announce an update to Google Analytics and AdWords tracking that will minimize any effect the Apple update would have on the data their tools provide to marketers.

Analyze how you’ll be affected.

One thing you can do right now is considering which tools and products you use that rely on third-party cookies. Any advertising platforms, analytics products, or retargeting programs that are a part of your marketing strategy are likely to fall into this category. Reach out to your contact at each company to ask them what they’re doing to respond to the Safari update, and what changes, if any, you should anticipate in the meantime.

Many affected companies are scrambling to figure out how to adapt. It will take some time for them to work out solutions (not everyone has the means to move as fast as Google), but you can expect that they’ll try and do what they can to take care of their customers and minimize damage in the meantime.

Don’t discount mobile.

While Safari lags behind Chrome in overall web browser use, due to Apple’s share of the mobile market, the browser dominates mobile use. They claim over 53% of all mobile browsing in the United States, meaning that the place where you’re likely to see the biggest effect on your attribution is when it comes to interactions and conversions on mobile.

Americas Web browsers Graph

If you see your numbers drop on mobile, that doesn’t necessarily mean your efforts are worthless there, more than they’ve become harder to accurately track. Continue to invest in mobile marketing and do your best to adapt to the change in the available analytics and reach you have on the platform.

Keep working with what you have.

Google’s switch to “not provided” for their keywords seemed catastrophic for marketers – and it definitely wasn’t good – but the industry didn’t fall apart. Companies have continued to develop SEO campaigns and measure results with the analytics they can still access ever since.

Intelligent Tracking Prevention will probably cause you some setbacks, but you’ll still be able to collect a wealth of marketing analytics that allows you to gain insights and draw conclusions about what’s working. You’ll still be able to perform some level of attribution, even if you don’t know with total certainty the marketing activities that contributed to every single sale (you already didn’t have 100% of the information, after all). It’s not a good situation, but it’s manageable.

As long as companies like Apple and Google value customer experience over keeping advertisers happy, they’re likely to continue making updates that pose challenges for the marketing industry. As always, marketers must adapt and continue doing the best we can with what we have.

Kristen Hicks