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The Most Important Differences Between First-Party vs Third-Party Cookies

Marketers have used both first- and third-party cookies to track user behavior for a very long time now. But with a genuine cookieless future on the horizon, what types of cookies are used (and how) may change soon. Here’s what you need to know.

The Most Important Differences Between First-Party vs Third-Party Cookies

Here in the internet age, cookies are more than just part of how data-driven digital marketing works. 

They’re easily the most popular, widely used method of collecting user data out there. However, online privacy becomes a more significant issue every day.

Consumers are increasingly concerned with how their sensitive information might be used (and by whom). 

In addition, multiple laws have redefined what it does and doesn’t mean to use consumer data ethically. 

That’s made people more aware of what cookies can do and what types of information they could be collecting without people’s knowledge or explicit say-so.

Naturally, digital marketers are worried about what moving into a cookieless era might mean for their future ad campaigns, and rightly so. 

So here’s a closer look at everything you need to know to understand the differences between first-party vs third-party cookies.

    What are First-Party Cookies?

    In essence, first-party and third-party cookies are pretty similar. 

    Both are small files housed on a user’s computer that allow host domains to collect and utilize specific information about that user. 

    The difference between the two lies primarily in who developed them and how they’re put to use when a given user visits a website.

    First-party cookies are developed by the same host domain the user expressly chooses to visit, browse, and interact with. 

    In almost every instance, first-party cookies are as helpful to the user as they are to the host domain, as they greatly enhance the experience of using the website.

    For example, picture your last shopping session on Amazon or a similar website. Chances are, your browser remembered your password for you. 

    If you left items in your cart the last time you shopped there, they were likely still in there when you returned, awaiting your final decision as to whether or not to purchase them. 

    The Amazon web experience probably seemed to recall a lot about your past visits and your typical shopping habits, as well.

    First-party cookies passed to you from Amazon make all that happen. 

    They’re the reason Amazon is such a fun, convenient place to shop and why the experience of using the site often feels so personal. 

    Those same first-party cookies are the reason why you might see ads for items you browsed on Amazon the next time you scroll through Facebook or Instagram, as well.

    What are Third-Party Cookies?

    Third-party cookies find their way onto your computer in much the same way first-party cookies do. 

    However, they’re placed by a domain other than the one you’re deliberately choosing to visit — associates of the first-party website. 

    This often occurs through tags or scripts. 

    Third-party cookies can also be accessed via any other website that runs the associated code from the third party’s server.

    While first-party cookies are primarily there in the first place to improve user experience, third-party cookies are mostly about collecting user data to be leveraged for advertising purposes. 

    They’re also designed to track users as they surf their way around the internet, perform various actions, search for information, and show interest in different kinds of products or services. 

    Some on-site applications — like chatbots — rely on third-party cookies to function correctly, as well.

    Information collected and conveyed by third-party cookies is how marketers know how and when to serve a user ads relevant to their behavior, interests, and web history. 

    That same information is further analyzed and used to construct future advertising campaigns. 

    The data types collected are diverse, can be very detailed, and include metrics like engagement rates and click-through rates (CTRs).

    Do Second-Party Cookies Exist?

    Although you may occasionally run into people who don’t believe in the existence of second-party cookies at all, they do indeed exist. 

    They’re also pretty unpopular among consumers in the know, as they play a crucial part in how data is acquired and transferred online from one set of hands to another.

    In fact, second-party cookies (and the data partnerships they represent) are directly responsible for passing first-party data on to other parties. 

    They’re prevalent ways for large companies and websites to share the data they collect with other entities that occupy the same niche (or a similar one). 

    So when you hear talk of companies selling user data they collect, this is often how it’s happening.

    First-Party vs Third-Party Cookies: A Closer Look at the Important Differences

    Again, first-party and third-party cookies are really pretty similar from a data standpoint. 

    However, first-party cookies are placed on your computer directly by domains you choose to visit and interact with, while third-party cookies come to you via other domains through scripts and tags.

    They’re also used differently, with first-party cookies being about streamlining user experiences and third-party cookies being used almost entirely for marketing purposes. 

    Here’s a closer look at some more critical differences between the two.

    Who created the cookie?

    First-party cookies always originate from the same domain a user is browsing. 

    For instance, you acquire first-party cookies from Amazon when you visit the Amazon site and start your next browsing session. 

    The website of origin sets the cookies using JavaScript or via their web server.

    Third-party cookies, on the other hand, do not originate on the domain you actually have open on your browser. 

    Instead, they are set by third-party servers via codes present on the publisher’s website. Examples of third-party servers include various AdTech vendors.

    From where is the cookie accessible?

    First-party cookies will only work on the website of origin, which makes sense since they’re about supporting a positive user experience. 

    Think back to the example of the first-party Amazon cookies that allow your browser to remember your username and password, as well as save your shopping cart as you navigate around the website.

    Third-party cookies can potentially be accessed from anywhere and on any website. 

    If another website you visit loads the code attached to the corresponding third party, it can activate the cookie.

    Do browsers support the cookie?

    First-party cookies are supported by all browsers across any device and are automatically accepted when you visit the associated websites. 

    Users are, of course, free to alter their browser settings so that no cookies are accepted, but this could negatively impact user experience. 

    Users can and do often clear out all of their cookies from time to time and start fresh.

    Third-party cookies were once also accepted by all browsers by default, just like their first-party counterparts. 

    However, the rising concern over data breaches and user privacy issues means many browsers now automatically block third-party cookies

    Your browser will also refuse to load third-party cookies if you surf in incognito mode.

    Are Third-Party Cookies on Their Way Out?

    Although third-party cookies haven’t left the scene entirely yet, they’re very definitely on their way out. 

    Today’s consumers and web users are no longer in the dark about what cookies are and how they’re used. 

    They’re deeply concerned about their privacy, and they’re not happy with the potential amount of their information marketers have access to. They’re demanding change, and they’re close to getting it.

    Google, the undisputed king of web browsers, has already released a statement detailing its pledge to phase out third-party cookies on Chrome by the end of 2022. 

    And the upcoming Chrome restrictions aren’t even the first to grab headlines. (Safari and Mozilla have initiated similar changes in recent years.)

    With the world’s most popular browser that commands the largest share of the users out there on board with the end of third-party cookies, it’s only a matter of time before they’re truly a thing of the past. 

    That means it’s officially time for digital marketers to start preparing for the shift and looking for ways to make their first-party cookies count:

    Be aware

    Stay in the know as to third-party cookie news that could affect how you market and manage your business, both now and in the future.

    Use interactive content

    Explore practical, creative ways to leverage the potential of first-party data, like interactive content. It is not only helpful for data collection purposes, but it encourages solid relationships with consumers by giving them experiences they love.

    Forge alliances

    Especially with partners that can support you in your quest to make more of your first-party data.

    Be transparent

    Adopt a transparent approach to marketing that puts people first. You’ll not only be well in compliance with existing and potential marketing regulations, but you’ll be showing your customers they can trust you in a compelling way. People are more likely to openly share data when companies are transparent, as well.

    Wrap Up: Adaptation is the Key to Effective Ongoing Marketing Efforts

    Although rising privacy concerns and pending changes to how marketers will and won’t be able to use cookies in the future can feel overwhelming, they’re not the end of the world.

    The key to success in the future lies in cultivating trust-driven relationships with your customers and learning all that you can about contemporary digital marketing tactics.

    Take the next step when you download this issue of Rock Content Magazine on the pillars of data-driven marketing

    Discover the power of storytelling in advertising, the emerging role of AI in marketing, the ins and outs of data visualization, and much more!

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    Shannon Hilson Rock author vector
    Rock Content Writer

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