First-Party Cookies and Third-Party Cookies: All You Need to Know 

Laura Caveney
13th May 2021

Wondering about the future of third-party cookies? With Google announcing changes we explore how marketers can best plan for a cookieless era.

For years, the third-party cookie has been the workhorse of tracking website visitors across the internet.

But in January 2020, Google announced plans to phase out third-party cookies by 2022. And in March 2021, Google made clear that once third-party cookies have been phased out, they won’t introduce any alternative trackers.

So what does this mean for marketers who rely on cookies to better understand how website visitors are engaging with their content?

In this blog, we’re going to go through:

Let’s get stuck in.

What are cookies?

Cookies are smart tools that remember things like login details and products in a shopping cart. Given their nature, marketers can use them to create targeted advertising.

As such, a world without cookies could mean an upheaval to how we currently do online advertising as Google strives to create a privacy-first web.

What are first-party cookies

First-party cookies are created by the domain that the user is visiting, aka the host domain. This cookie type is “good cookies”. You can use them to provide a better user experience and keep the session going.

First-party cookies allow the browser to remember key pieces of information such as your shopping cart items, your login details and language preferences.

What are third-party cookies

Third-party cookies are created by domains that are not the website you’re visiting. They are often used for advertising and are placed on a website with scripts or tags. A third-party cookie is accessible on any website that loads the third-party server’s code.

Facebook, for example, uses its pixel (which is powered by third-party cookies) to track how users engage with paid ads on other websites.

Given the increase in awareness of privacy issues and GDPR, third-party cookies are now considered less favourable as users aren’t aware they’re being tracked and retargeted.

What is considered a third-party cookie?

There are a few third-party services providers that use third-party cookies.

Ad retargeting services

Ad retargeting literally means following previous website visitors around the web and showing them ads for the products or services they’ve viewed previously. Retargeting mainly occurs across social, display and email.

Live chat pop-ups

Live chat services leave a cookie in your browser to streamline user experience. But, it means the live chat pop-up can identify you every time you visit. It allows the live chat software to track your name and details along with previous conversation history.

Social buttons

Social media plugins on your website allow users to login, share and like content. But these also use third-party cookies.

As such the social channels track the sites you visit and then share relevant ads when you revisit those social media sites. Even logged out, the cookies follow you as you browse.

🍪 Note

Not only do you have cookies to contend with, but the iOS update has shaken things up for advertisers too. In this blog, we look at what changes came into place and how you can get around them to ensure you can still get oversight of the performance of your ads.

What’s the difference between first-party cookies and third-party cookies?

So, now we know there are two main types of cookies, first-party and third-party. And, from a technical perspective, there’s not any major difference between the two types of tracking cookies.

Both cookies contain the same pieces of information and can perform similar functions. The real difference between these two cookie types is how they’re created and used.

The differences are:

First-party cookies are stored by the domain you’re visiting directly. They allow website owners to collect analytics, remember settings and carry out other functions to support a good user experience

Third-party cookies are created by domains other than the one you’re actually visiting. They’re used for cross-site tracking, retargeting and advert positioning.


Future of third-party cookies

For years now, third-party cookies have been the cornerstone of paid advertising online, but their days are numbered.

🍪 Pro Tip

It’s not all about cookies. Here’s how you can improve your ROAS by using Ruler.

There has been significant growth in users wanting control of their data.

This started with ad blockers and questions that led to GDPR regulations. Now, advertisers and marketers have to battle the complete removal of third-party cookies. So, in essence, what they use to track users from paid advertising and how they retarget audiences.

What does the death of third-party cookies mean?

Are you panicking about the death of third-party cookies? Don’t!

There are already solutions in place. Solutions like Ruler could ultimately replace the need for 3rd party cookies.

And remember, third-party cookies were already becoming redundant thanks to Safari and Firefox ad blocking.

What to do if you rely on third-party cookies for cross-site tracking

Online advertisers have to contend with cross-site tracking when it comes to analysing their paid efforts. Third-party cookies have been instrumental in making that job a little easier.

But the death of third-party cookies doesn’t mean you can’t track website visitors.

Marketing attribution tools allow you to track users regardless of ad blocking and third-party cookies. Ruler Analytics allows you to create your own first-party cookies directly on your own domain.

🍪 Pro Tip

Heard of attribution but not 100% sure what it can do for you or your business? Download our guide to marketing attribution and see how you can track, evidence and optimise your marketing impact.

It means you can track users through every session and engagement. Plus, even better, it allows you to track your lead sources and attribute your closed sales back to your marketing.

Let’s use a quick example.

First-party cookie strategy in action with Ruler

Sara visits your site for the first time via a PPC ad campaign. Ruler begins to track her, noting her source and interactions on your website.

She revisits your site via a Facebook advertising campaign. Again, Ruler tracks her source and her session information thanks to its first-party cookie solution.

tracking customer journeys with Ruler

Sara visits again via an organic session and converts into a lead via a form fill. She converts, so Ruler fires all of the data on Sara over to your CRM so you can see key marketing details.

lead source data with ruler analytics

Sara submitted a form requesting a demo of your product, which she sits two weeks later. There, she closes into £3,000 of revenue. Once the salesperson updates this in your CRM, Ruler fires again, splitting that revenue and attributing it (according to your chosen attribution model) both in Ruler and in your analytics tools.

That means you can log into Google Analytics and see that your PPC ad and Facebook ad both drove revenue.

What to do if you rely on third-party cookies for retargeting

If you’re used to leveraging third-party data, then switching to a first-party cookie only strategy may feel daunting. But, there are instances where first-party cookie data can help you to retarget your most valuable customers.

Integrate your ad tools with Ruler and you’ll be able to attribute your revenue back to your retargeting campaigns. You can use this function to serve ads to a laser-focused group of customers. Perhaps those who only purchase at seasonal times of the year, or those who require renewals on existing contracts.

Make sure to check out Google’s Privacy Sandbox for more information.

Wrapping up

And there you have it… An intro to first and third-party cookies, plus how to tackle the phase-out of third-party cookies that have been an instrumental part of online advertising.

Remember, you can close the loop between your sales and your marketing by using a marketing attribution tool.

As we move away from third-party cookies, we suggest integrating a marketing attribution tool like Ruler to track and measure the impact of your marketing.

Find out more about how Ruler Analytics works by booking a demo with our team. We’ll show you how Ruler can automatically create first-party cookies to track your website users with no need for third-party cookies.

revenue attribution marketing attribution - ruler analytics

Cookie data FAQs

First-party cookies aren't going anywhere. However, third-party cookies will be gone by summer 2023. So, you need to ensure you move your tracking over to first-party as soon as possible.
Google Analytics uses first-party cookies in a piece of Javascript that is added to every page in your website. This allows you to track behaviours on your site, however it relies on third-party cookies from third-party sites to scrape referral data.
Google is phasing out third-party cookies by summer 2023. While you will still be able to create first-party tracking cookie, you will no longer be able to use third-party cookies to track user behaviour.
Third-party cookies provided advertisers with information on user behaviour. This allowed marketers to optimise their ad campaigns to drive more success.
Cookies play an essential role in marketing as it allows businesses to better understand the users engaging with their site and content. Without user data via cookies, you will struggle to track and target specific audiences.