Apple Safari Update Adds Ad-Tracking Limits: What Does This Mean for Marketers?

Web advertising industry groups were in an uproar when they learned Apple's latest Safari browser update contained limitations on tracking from 1st and 3rd party cookies. In an effort to protect consumer privacy, Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which Apple announced back in June, limits 1st and 3rd party cookies from tracking user activity as they navigate site to site on the web. ITP allows for a 24-hour window in which the cookies will remain available for ad targeting or conversion attribution purposes. Once that 24-hour lifespan expires, the cookie can no longer be used in a 3rd party context and is only available for users to stay logged into a site. The biggest challenge for marketers will be around conversion tracking and retargeting or behavioral targeting with regard to display advertising - particularly on sites not frequented on a daily basis. Because of the 24-hour window restriction, marketers will lose attribution data on users that take a particular action, such as making a purchase on an advertiser’s website, more than 24 hours after viewing or clicking on an ad, when done so using a Safari browser.

In addition, marketers utilize retargeting to re-engage users who have shown interest in their brand, exhibited by the user visiting or engaging with their website. ITP will only allow retargeting ads to be shown to users within 24 hours of visiting the advertiser’s website - rather than a look-back window being set by the marketer, which can be up to 60 days or more.

Major advertising industry groups are fighting back. ANA (Association of National Advertisers), IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau), AAF (American Advertising Federation), the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies), and others united together to draft an open letter warning Apple's unilateral approach would "change the rules on how cookies are set and recognized by browsers."

The letter stated, "The infrastructure of the modern internet depends on consistent and generally applicable standards for cookies, so digital companies can innovate to build content, services, and advertising that are personalized for users and remember their visits. Apple's Safari move breaks those standards and replaces them with an amorphous set of shifting rules that will hurt the user experience and sabotage the economic model for the internet."

The ad groups conclude that Apple's decision is "bad for consumer choice and bad for the ad-supported online content and services consumers love." They see ITP as likely to diminish online ad conversions and knock down CPMs of publishers that have grown to understand third-party data from ad buyers.

While this change does impose some challenges, the real impact may actually be somewhat isolated. With this new release, Safari will also block 1st party cookies; however, Safari has always made it challenging to target and measure due to their default settings which have previously blocked 3rd party cookies. Consequently, some marketers had already begun to exclude Safari browsers from their ad targeting to not waste money on untrackable users. In addition, while Safari accounts for 29% of mobile and tablet traffic and 4% of desktop traffic (Source: NetMarketShare), Adtaxi delivers only 5% of our total retargeting impressions each month via Safari. Around ⅕ of those impression are served within the first 24 hours of a user visiting the advertiser’s website, so this impacts only 4% of our total retargeting impressions.  

As with any big change, the industry adjusts, which generally results in improved experiences for advertisers and consumers. Advertising supports a robust digital ecosystem of quality journalism, social networks, and free content; however, some ad experiences are leaving users frustrated and turning to ad blockers. The Coalition for Better Ads, a member group of trade associations and companies involved in online media, is working to set and implement new standards for online advertising that enhance the user experience. While this doesn’t directly address Apple’s release, it will have an impact on the types of advertising experiences consumers receive online.

Right now, the industry relies heavily on the cookie; but with smartphones and tablets, Device ID - or something similar, will likely become the ubiquitous identifier that can identify users across browsers and apps, making cookies a thing of the past. Utilizing device ID could have numerous implications for marketers such as improved understanding of user behavior, combatting ad fraud, and delivering a more personalized, relevant ad experience.

It’s important for marketers to be able to make data-driven decisions and have an accurate view into which ads are providing the most value for their business. To prepare for this change, marketers should work with their agency or internal team to understand how each of their campaigns is set up, how the platforms they are using will be impacted, and what workarounds may be necessary to access the data they require.

For example, those advertising via paid search on Google should ensure their AdWords and Google Analytics accounts are linked. If AdWords campaigns are using imported goals from Google Analytics and auto-tagging is enabled, conversion tracking will remain intact under this change. Those without a Google Analytics account or without them linked, will see a drop in reported conversions; however, Google is meeting with Apple later this month to discuss their predictive model for the missing conversions, which should be similar to their model for in-store conversion tracking.

The industry always has a way of balancing itself with these changes. They have an impact initially, but generally results aren’t as dire as people prognosticate in the early stages. As long as marketers find ways to provide increasing value to users, heavy-handed shifts won’t be needed to course-correct.