Guide to Cookieless Attribution

by Sara Vicioso   |   Jun 24, 2024   |   Clock Icon 11 min read

Third-party cookies have long been a cornerstone of digital marketing, offering valuable insights for informed decision-making and enabling personalized campaigns. However, privacy concerns and regulations have created a need to shift away from reliance on third-party cookies. While browsers like Firefox and Safari have already phased out third-party cookies, Google has announced plans to do the same by 2025, having extended their original deadline from the end of 2024.

To truly understand your marketing effectiveness, ensuring comprehensive data tracking is crucial. Equally important is selecting the right attribution model that aligns with your business objectives. Without an appropriate attribution model, you may struggle to answer a fundamental question: are your marketing investments effectively driving ROI?

💡 Learn more about GA4 tracking in a cookieless world here. This guide will also dig into the difference between first and third-party cookies if you’re not sure of the differentiation.

As we move closer to a cookieless future, it's important to begin internal discussions now to establish proper tracking and attribution systems. Being proactive will prevent you from scrambling once Google fully implements its cookie phase-out.

In this post, I’ll provide an overview of cookieless attribution, along with recommendations and tips to consider as we approach the second half of the year.

Table of Contents

What are Cookies in Tracking?

What is Cookieless Attribution?

Common Attribution Models

The Challenges of Attribution in a Cookieless World

Challenges with Marketing Attribution

Attribution Solutions in a Cookieless World

6 Tips to Consider When Thinking About Cookieless Attribution

Enhance Your Marketing Efforts with Cookieless Attribution

What Are Cookies in Tracking?

Cookies are small snippets of code placed on your browser when you visit a website. These cookies gather information about your online activities, such as IP address, websites visited, location, device type, and more. Tracking cookies are useful for personalized marketing strategies, ensuring that the ads you see are relevant to your interests. Ever received an ad for baby cribs when you were not expecting? These cookies analyze your browsing behavior to display highly relevant ads based on historical browsing data. With this shift, the marketing strategies have to shift with it.

With the deprecation of third-party cookies, marketers will need to rethink traditional methods of attribution and adapt their strategies to ensure their data analytics are set up effectively. The loss of these cookies will diminish the ability to track cross-channel user journeys and create highly personalized ad campaigns. Additionally, this shift is likely to result in a reduction in data accuracy, making it more challenging to understand customer behavior and measure the true impact of marketing efforts.

To navigate this transition, marketers must invest in alternative data collection methods and leverage first-party data, server-side tracking, and customer data platforms (CDPs). This proactive approach will help maintain the ability to deliver relevant ads and accurately attribute conversions, even in a cookieless world.

💡 If you’re unsure of channel impact due to third-party cookie deprecation, we have a resource (with videos!) here.

What is Cookieless Attribution?

Knowing how to approach cookieless attribution begins with a clear understanding of the various attribution models available. In marketing, attribution is the process of assigning value to specific channels throughout a consumer's journey. For instance, if a consumer initially engages through a display ad, returns via paid search, and finally converts directly, it wouldn't entirely be fair to attribute 100% of the credit to the direct channel (though, if that’s your selected model and it makes sense for your business is another story). Each touchpoint played a role in the conversion, and it's crucial to recognize the contribution of each.

Selecting the right attribution model depends on your business objectives and strategies. It's also beneficial to consult with your marketing agency or analytics experts to ensure the chosen model aligns with your brand's goals. These experts can provide data-driven insights from platforms like GA4 or Adobe Analytics, helping you make informed decisions about your cookieless attribution strategy.

Common Attribution Models

First-click attribution:

  • This model assigns all the credit to the first touchpoint. In the example provided, the display ad would receive all the credit for the conversion.

Last-click attribution:

  • This model gives credit solely to the last touchpoint that led to the conversion. In the example, the direct channel would receive all the credit for the conversion.

Linear attribution:

  • This model distributes the credit equally across all touchpoints within the consumer's journey. In the example, display, paid search, and direct would each share the credit for the conversion.

Time decay attribution:

  • This model assigns more credit to touchpoints that are closer in time to the conversion or sale. In the example, direct and paid search would receive more credit than the initial touchpoint of display.

Position-based attribution:

  • This model allocates 40% of the credit to both the first and last touchpoints, with the remaining 20% distributed evenly among the middle touchpoints. In the example, display would receive 40%, paid search 20%, and direct 40%.

Data-driven attribution:

  • This advanced model uses data from your account to determine which channels, keywords, ads, or campaigns should receive the most credit based on engagement. If available, data-driven attribution is generally recommended for its accuracy and insight.

More information on Attribution Modeling from Google is here.

The Challenges of Attribution in a Cookieless World

It can be challenging to figure out the right marketing attribution strategy in the first place that fits your business model, let alone when the landscape is shifting toward a cookieless future. However, it does not have to be intimidating.

Challenges with Marketing Attribution:

Navigating the complexities of marketing attribution can be daunting due to a suite of challenges. Accurately attributing conversions to the appropriate marketing channels is essential for understanding the effectiveness of your campaigns. However, several obstacles can hinder this process, from data integration issues to evolving consumer behaviors.

  • Privacy Regulations: Regulations such as GDPR and CCPA impose strict requirements for data collection and user consent. Compliance with these regulations can limit the amount of data available for attribution.

  • Cross-device Tracking: It becomes increasingly difficult to measure how a consumer interacts with your brand across multiple devices, leading to attribution issues. It requires sophisticated tracking to measure touchpoints across devices. The best cookieless solution here would be to implement user ID tracking. The user IDs would be consistent across devices, which would allow you to attribute the data to the same user across multiple devices.

  • Data Silos: There are generally multiple places businesses are collecting data, such as a CRM, Google Analytics, Google Ads, etc. Integrating data from multiple sources to create a unified dataset for attribution can be complex and time-consuming. Closed-loop reporting becomes increasingly important.

  • Attribution Model Selection: Choosing the right attribution model that aligns with business goals and objectives can be a difficult task. Each model has its strengths and weaknesses. Selecting the wrong attribution model can lead to misleading insights.

Budget and Resource Constraints: Implementing advanced attribution models and technologies can be costly and resource-intensive. Smaller businesses may struggle with the costs and expertise required to deploy and maintain the attribution system.

Attribution Solutions in a Cookieless World

As we transition to a cookieless future, marketers must explore innovative solutions to maintain effective attribution. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Enhanced Conversions and First-party Data Integration: Enhanced conversions is a Google Ads feature that supplements your existing conversion tags by sending hashed first-party conversion data from your website to Google Ads in a privacy-safe way. This approach ensures that you can continue to track and measure conversions accurately, even without third-party cookies. By leveraging first-party data, you can gain deeper insights into customer behavior and maintain the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns.

  • Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning: There are many benefits to leveraging AI and ML in marketing attribution, which include:
    • Advanced Data Analysis: AI can process data much faster and more efficiently than humans. By utilizing AI, you can identify patterns and trends in your data, providing a comprehensive understanding of user journey trends, for instance.

    • Real-time Measurement and Optimization: Machine learning enables marketers to gain quicker insights into campaign performance, allowing for faster optimization and improved ROI. With real-time data analysis, you can make informed decisions and adjust your strategies more efficiently.

    • Smart Bidding in Google Ads or Microsoft Advertising: Smart bidding is a type of machine learning used in platforms like Google Ads and Microsoft Advertising. By analyzing data trends over time and aligning with your selected objectives, these platforms can optimize bids in real time. This results in better alignment with your campaign goals and improved overall account efficiency.

  • Server-side Tagging: Implementing server-side tagging can be a valuable solution for addressing attribution concerns. This approach involves sending data to a server rather than relying on the browser, allowing data to be collected in a first-party context. The primary advantage of server-side tagging for attribution is the significant improvement in data quality.

6 Tips to Consider When Thinking About Cookieless Attribution

  1. Make sure your first-party data is clean and accurate. With the shift towards a cookieless future, first-party data will become even more critical for personalized marketing strategies. Ensure that your first-party data is clean, accurate, and well-maintained. This will allow you to continue delivering relevant and personalized experiences to your current and potential customers.

  2. Get proficient with GA4! It's important to familiarize yourself with Google Analytics 4 (GA4), as it represents the future of analytics in a cookieless world. While GA4 differs significantly from Universal Analytics, investing time in learning this new tool is crucial. Google's shift to GA4 aligns with the broader move away from third-party cookies, so mastering it will be vital for maintaining effective tracking and attribution.

  3. Seriously consider getting server-side tagging set up, if it makes sense for your business. Implementing server-side tagging can improve the accuracy and reliability of your data collection. By sending data to your server instead of relying on the browser, you can maintain control over your data in a first-party context.

  4. Consider using a Customer Data Platform (CDP) to unify your customer data from various sources. CDPs help create a single, comprehensive view of each customer, enabling more accurate attribution and stronger personalization.

  5. Explore the use of Universal IDs as an alternative to third-party cookies. These identifiers can provide consistent tracking across different platforms and devices, helping maintain effective attribution in a cookieless environment.

  6. Embrace AI and Machine Learning! Incorporate AI and machine learning technologies to enhance your attribution models. These tools can analyze large datasets more efficiently, identify patterns, and provide real-time insights for better decision-making and optimization.

Enhance Your Marketing Efforts with Cookieless Attribution

Marketing without cookies may seem daunting, as it’s been the foundation for so many years. But rest assured, we’re all in this together (as my friends in High School Musical would say). By utilizing the tips above and starting to implement these strategies sooner rather than later, you’ll be well-prepared to stay ahead of the curve when the full deprecation of cookies takes place.

Not sure where or how to begin with attribution in a cookieless world? Our analytics experts are here to help. We can evaluate your current tracking solutions and provide a comprehensive measurement strategy and roadmap, ensuring your tracking strategy is advanced and effective. Let’s chat and see how to get you started.

Portrait of Sara Vicioso

Sara Vicioso

Sara brings over 10 years of experience in the digital marketing space, having spent a large portion of her career focused on Paid Media strategy for her clients. However, paid media wasn't enough. Sara is passionate about audience-first marketing strategies, finding customers where they are regardless of channel (which may be heavily driven by her background in Sociology) which led to the desire to build multichannel marketing strategies for her clients.

She brings a wealth of knowledge in industries such as manufacturing, industrial, SaaS, healthcare, education, e-commerce, & more.

Originally from San Diego, California, Sara found her new home in Austin, Texas, a city that captured her heart with its BBQ scene, country music, paddleboarding scene, and welcoming community. Outside the office, Sara is a DIY enthusiast, a lover of dogs (particularly her shih-tzu, Peanut), and will never turn away from the next travel adventure.