How Does Cookie-Less Tracking Work in Google Analytics 4

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There are so many changes that come along with Google Analytics 4. From relatively small things like the loss of bounce rate to big changes like the introduction of data streams, GA4 is a whole new beast.

But what's all this about cookieless tracking in Google Analytics 4? GA4 is promoted as privacy-centric and has been designed to work with or without cookies. By leveraging machine learning and statistical modeling, GA4 can fill in data gaps as the world becomes less and less dependent on cookies. 

Let’s discuss how Google Analytics has shifted to meet the needs of an increasingly cookieless world and what you should do when setting up your GA4 property.

What Are Cookies?

A cookie is a file that stores a small piece of data about a user and they can trace their origins all the way back to 1994 when they were first used to make shopping carts on e-commerce websites possible.

Cookies can save all kinds of different information, depending on what the website wants to track.

Cookies also allow remarketing campaigns that follow you across the internet. And that's where things can get a little dicey. As more and more websites cookie users, they can begin to paint a more detailed picture of who you are, what you like, and what you're likely to do.

That obviously has a lot of value for marketing but also potential for abuse which leads us to an age-old question…

Are Cookies Bad?

Cookies aren’t inherently bad, and in a lot of ways, they’re quite useful. They can help create a personalized experience for you and make things easier. That auto-fill option is quite helpful, after all. So, for trustworthy sites, there’s nothing wrong with allowing cookies.

But it's very difficult to figure out where to draw the line with cookies.

The main issue many people have with cookies is that they want to protect their personal information and privacy. Because this has become such an important point in today’s data-driven world, the EU passed a law in 2018 to require websites to give their users the freedom to accept or reject cookies.

But not all cookies are created equal.

First Party Cookies Vs Third Party Cookies

The issue isn't when websites use cookies to remember the contents of your cart- instead, things quickly become problematic when websites track you across multiple websites. Over time, they can learn a lot about you and piece together your personal data.

When cookies track users across multiple domains, they're called third-party cookies. Third-party cookies are where most people have a problem and these are used for things like remarketing campaigns.

On the other hand, when cookies are only used by the website that the user is actually visiting they're called first-party cookies. First-party cookies are generally considered more acceptable and these are what help keep your password stored or your cart contents active- they're also what allows Google Analytics 4 to track data.

How Does Google Analytics 4 Avoid Cookies?

Google Analytics 4 relies on first-party cookies which keeps them compliant with new privacy laws like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act.

But Google also wanted to be ahead of the curve when it comes to new privacy developments and they're definitely on the right track. Changes like Apple's iOS14 confirm that the future is likely cookieless and folks need to get on board.

Google Analytics is also designed to leverage machine learning and other protocols to fill in data gaps. They call this “blended data” and in the Google blog they explain:

“Because the technology landscape continues to evolve, the new Analytics is designed to adapt to a future with or without cookies or identifiers. It uses a flexible approach to measurement, and in the future, will include modeling to fill in the gaps where the data may be incomplete. This means that you can rely on Google Analytics to help you measure your marketing results and meet customer needs now as you navigate the recovery and as you face uncertainty in the future.”

What About FloC?

FLoC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts and it's a work in progress but it's a big part of the cookieless future. With this approach, Google simulates user data rather than using third-party cookies. They’re confident in this new technique, stating in their blog:

“When it comes to generating interest-based audiences, FLoC can provide an effective replacement signal for third-party cookies. Our test of FLoC to reach in-market affinity and affinity Google Audiences show that advertisers can expect to see at least 95% of conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising. The specific result depends on the strength of the clustering algorithm that FLoC uses and the type of audience being reached.”

FLoC is designed to protect a user's privacy while still making interest-based ad selection possible. As a user travels throughout the internet, their browser (more specifically Chrome) will use the FLoC algorithm to assign them to an “interest cohort” along with many other users who have a similar history.

Problems with FLoC

While FLoC works to solve the privacy problem, and it's an interesting solution, it's far from perfect and generally lacks the precision we've come to expect in the world of digital marketing.

For example, the interest-based cohorts are defined by Google and not the advertiser. That means you have to fit your product or service into Google's pre-made buckets so you're immediately losing a lot of specificity- but it doesn't end there.

You're also going to lose a great deal of clarity when it comes to attribution and this something we're already seeing with the rollout of iOS 14 and Facebook Ads. Not just because you're unable to track users across different websites but also because you can't track them between devices.

Finally, FLoC puts a lot of the power into Google's hands. It's unlikely that we'll have a good understanding of exactly what goes into these interest cohorts which not only reduces transparency, but by extension, further reduces precision.

So is FLoC a perfect solution?

No, but despite its flaws, it's still a good start as we enter a cookieless world.

How Can I Adapt?

Okay, so you’re likely wondering what you can do on your end. Since the regulations involving cookies are still evolving, it can be tricky thinking about how to best collect your user data.

To deal with this issue, GA4 is centered on the idea of tracking User ID instead of cookies. You can help Analytics out by using a script in a tag management system. The most popular way to do this is by using Google Tag Manager. GTM can create a random clientID on every page unload. This means the user will be anonymous for all intents and purposes, but GA4 can still track their behavior on your site.

To learn more about using Google Tag Manager, check out our previous post on GTM.

Another thing you can do is keep your existing Universal Analytics properties along with your new GA4 property. By doing this, you’ll get a better understanding of your data. GA4 has a lot to offer on its own, but keeping your UA account will make sure you’re still tracking users to the best of your ability.

Closing Thoughts

The world of digital marketing is always changing but it really feels like we're entering a new era with things like cookieless Google Analytics, iOS 14, and ever-increasing concerns about privacy.

While some folks may find it stressful, with change always comes opportunity.

So what do you think? Do you think the cookie-free world of Google Analytics 4 and FLoC will be all it's cracked up to be?

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