1st VS 3rd Party Cookies Explained (The Real Cookie Problem)

No browser cookies, no marketing party and… no privacy issues. At least, that’s the impression you may get from popular headlines in the press. But every story has two sides, and so do cookies. One side tastes sweet, the other bitter. Let’s take a bite and see if we can debunk the most persistent cookie myth: they are evil.

This article covers the following cooke toppings topics:

If you’d rather watch than read, you can check out our video on the subject:

What are browser cookies?

Cookies are tiny files, A web server creates them and stores them on your device. Cookies contain information for 3 purposes: session management (like login), personalization (e.g. language settings) and tracking (user behavior). When you later visit a website, the web server uses the cookie to improve your user experience.

This is similar to what happens with oven-fresh cookies.

  • You add the ingredients (-> collect information)
  • Bake them (-> create the cookie file)
  • Store them in a box (-> put them on your device)
  • When you are hungry, you grab the box and devour the delicacies (-> re-use the information from the cookie)

You are not the only one in the room whose mouth is watering. Advertising platforms are greedy for your personal data, and, if it may be of any comfort to you, my data too.

They satisfy their hunger with cookies. No surprise that this has led to the most persistent cookie myth:

All cookies are monstrous.

Advertising platforms are believed to be evil cookie monsters

Only, they're not. Not all cookies are created equal.

Let’s first have a closer look at the harmless version of the cookie twins: 1st party cookies.

What are first-party cookies?

First-party cookies are small files generated by the website, e-commerce site or app you visit. They make your journey from the next visit onwards smoother. 1st party cookies can only be accessed by the domain that places the cookies on your device.

There are two parties involved here: you and the domain you visit. To illustrate that everybody profits from 1st party cookies, let me give you 3 different examples.

1st party cookies for publishers

The Data Driven U team puts a lot of effort into providing correct and complete information to you. So do many other bloggers and publishers. Some of them monetize their content and traffic with advertisements and links to affiliate sites. Cookies help them achieve this.

But there is more.

To find out which content is valuable for you, websites need to track user behavior. Which pages do you like? What topics do you want to know more about?

First-party cookies give publishers create insights in the content you like

Without first-party cookies, content marketers would be blind. You would have to do all the research yourself because nobody would know what you actually wanted to know.

1st party cookies for e-commerce

First-party cookies are crucial to both shoppers, and ecommerce stores because they eliminate the friction in shopping.

Cookies remember, for instance, your login information and the items you put in your shopping cart.

No cookies, no shopping cart on ecommerce sites

Imagine you had to remember all of this yourself and with every visit to an online store had to enter your data. Every. Single. Time. Again. And again.

1st party cookies for apps

Cookies are important to mobile device users and app developers because they allow for an easy hand-off between devices. They also keep track of progress as we watch videos, browse the web, and more.

App cookies send data to Google Analytics

Without cookies you would have to watch a movie from the beginning every time you paused it. Does this sound like fun to you?

First-party cookies have shaped the internet as we know it. The question is then…

Are 1st party cookies safe?

All major browsers support them. They are safe because nobody but the website can access them.

So, cookies can make your life as a surfer, online shopper or app user more pleasant?

Absolutely yes.

But as in everything in life, there is no win-win without “give and take”. This is where the other cookies enter the stage.

What’s the difference between 1st party and 3rd party cookies?

In contrast to first-party cookies, third-party cookies are placed by platforms on your device and not by the website, app, or ecommerce store you visit. These cookies are hard to remove and they can be accessed by other domains. The mainly exist for marketing and advertising purposes.

You can easily spot 3rd party cookies on websites.

A Facebook like button indicates the presence of 3rd party cookies

And you know for sure you visited a website with 3rd party cookies when you see an ad of a certain brand on every website you visit.

Third party cookies give advertising platforms the power to follow you across websites and devices.

Dogs like cookies, cats don’t

It’s not a secret that the internet was created to share and view pictures and videos of cats.

Cats rule the internet

According to a study from the University of Texas, “cat people” have a more open personality than “dog people”. This conclusion was based on an online survey with a couple of thousand participants. The scientific research took place in 2010…

“Thanks to” 3rd party cookies, advertising platforms can collect every single step you make on the internet. They can connect zillions of data points of billions of people.

Can you imagine what big data companies know about you when you do something seemingly innocent as sharing or liking a picture of a cat or a dog?

Your personal data is gold and sold to anybody who wants to advertise on the big platforms. True, the information is shared “anonymously”.

But it is creepy and crazy.

No wonder that privacy advocates, governments, and tech savvy web users portray cookies as bad, evil and sometimes even diabolic.

What is the solution for the browser cookie problem?

The above question is misleading. As you understand now, not all cookies are problematic. Without first-party cookies, you and I would have a much bigger problem.

Would you want to enter your login credentials every time you wanted to check your email? I don’t have telepathic superpowers, but I bet your answer is “Thanks, but no thanks”.

First-party cookies can store login credentials

Punishing everybody by banning cookies completely is not a solution. So what are the other options?

Give users more control over their data

The EU made an attempt by introducing the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018. It led to a wild growth of cookie pop-up banners that… decreased the user experience.

Accept all cookies or take hours to configure them

Adapt browsers

Browsers offer you more control too nowadays. Besides, you can always choose to switch to a more privacy friendly browser.

Raise awareness in apps

And then, there are apps. When Apple released iOS 14.5, they finally took a stand against the widespread use of third-party cookies tracking everything you do inside of apps and sharing with the highest bidder.

You install or update an app and get a warning like this:

Third-party cookies track your behavior on other websites too

That’s an excellent step in the right direction, but it’s not a coincidence that Apple is not an advertising platform.

Regulating cookies

Relying on commercial companies to set ethical standards of privacy feels weird. To protect non-technical internet users, regulating seems a more effective way. The problem is that the law drives on a different highway than technology. It can hardly catch up with the speed of technological evolution.

New tech.

Technology itself can’t catch up with its own speed. It is impossible to predict which technology will exist in, let’s say, 2 years from now.

Conclusion: are cookies good or evil?

Despite the much ado, a part of the cookie fuss is really about nothing.

First-party cookies are sweet for the internet and its users. But they got a bitter taste in general because advertising platforms have abused third-party cookies way too often.

As a marketer, data analyst, or website owner, you cannot afford to wait until there are stable solutions that will fix this severe problem once and for all.

You also can’t risk sharing or exposing sensitive personal data of your visitors and customers.

And not measuring and avoiding laser focusing advertising and marketing is not an option either.

That doesn’t leave you with a lot of options. The best you can do now is

And then treat yourself on a delicious, sweet cookie. Enjoy!

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