What’s the Difference Between First-Party and Third-Party Cookies?

Both Google and Apple are phasing out the use of third-party tracking cookies in their Chrome and Safari browsers. Though cookies have been used in digital advertising to track web activity since the early days of the internet, the desire for greater user privacy is forcing marketers to change the ways they’ve identified their audience. Users are increasingly concerned with how their information might be used, and new legislation that governs how advertisers can and can’t use this data ethically is becoming law in more places.

After nearly 30 years of using cookie-based tracking, advertisers are naturally worried about what this future looks like for their campaigns. But fear not. We’re here to help explain what this all means, and how marketers can take control of this data to win trust and build better, personalized experiences for their users.

First, What Is a Cookie?

A cookie is a small text file stored on a user’s computer that allows websites to collect and then reference specific details about that user. This functionality is exactly the same for both first-party and third-party cookies. The difference between the two lies in who is developing the cookie and how it’s used when a user visits a specific website.

What Are First-party Cookies?

These are cookies that are developed by the same domain a user is visiting. They are generally helpful cookies for users. They add functionality and improve the user experience by remembering a user’s password or the items they left in their shopping cart since their last site visit. These cookies can also be used to show ads on Instagram or Facebook for products a user previously browsed on an e-commerce website.

What Are Third-Party Cookies?

These are very similar to first-party cookies, with one key difference: Instead of being placed on your computer by the site you’re visiting, they’re placed by a separate site via a marketing tag or script. For example, if you’re visiting ShoeStore.com, a cookie from AdNetwork.com could be placed on your computer. Cookies like this are typically designed to collect user data for advertising purposes. In our ShoeStore.com example, this cookie can track a user across different websites to understand their interest in various products and services. Using this information, marketers have a better understanding of when to serve relevant ads to users based on their web behavior and product interest.

Third-party cookies are not just used for advertising. They can also be used for separate applications on a specific website. For example, ShoeStore.com may use an external service for live chat, which would place a LiveChat.com cookie on a user’s computer to remember the state of their conversation. Or they may use a separate web analytics tool to get a better understanding of how users come to their site and navigate through the content.

What About Second-Party Cookies?

These aren’t as well-known as first- or third-party cookies, but second-party cookies do exist, and are typically used by large companies to share data with other organizations.

Which Browsers Support Cookies?

All modern browsers on any device support first-party cookies because these play such a crucial role in delivering a positive user experience on the internet. Users can disable these cookies from their preferred browser, but this loss of functionality will generally result in a lousy web experience.

As for third-party cookies, many browsers now automatically block these due to the increase in privacy concerns. And if your browser is in incognito mode, it won’t accept third-party cookies then either.

What Do Cookies Mean for Marketers?

Third-party cookies are definitely on their way out. Safari and Mozilla/Firefox have blocked them for years, and Google recently announced they will phase out third-party cookies in Chrome by the end of 2023.

As marketers know well, when it comes to new techniques and web technologies, the only constant is change. So now’s the time to prepare for this new future by putting your users first. Develop a powerful first-party data strategy to win the trust and loyalty of your site visitors, and be transparent with how you use cookies.

Take this moment as an opportunity to better personalize your programs and deliver higher privacy standards for your users. This will benefit both your business as well as your users’ experience with your brand.

If you’d like to talk about setting up a world-class data strategy, we’re here for it! Get in touch with VSSL today.