Read Time: 11 minutes

Social Advertising Without Cookies: What You Need to Know


With search engine users demanding greater privacy and transparency, third-party cookies have started to crumble. In January 2020, Google announced it would remove third-party cookies from its search engine, Google Chrome, by the end of 2023. However, that’s already been pushed to the second half of 2024.


Google follows in the footsteps of Firefox and Apple, who blocked third-party cookies by default in 2019 and 2020. However, since Google Chrome owns an estimated 64 percent of the global search engine market share, they’re who advertisers are most concerned about.


For any multi-location business doing social or search advertising, the removal of third-party cookies from search engines and operating system (OS) platforms can feel unsettling, but we’re here to help! 


Within this blog, we’ll: 

  • Define what social advertising is and how it differs from search advertising
  • Explain what first and third-party cookies are and their relevance to social advertising
  • Clarify the timeline of cookies and where we are today
  • Cover alternatives to third-party cookies


Hopefully, this information will help you feel better about no longer using third-party cookies, and offer useful insight into alternatives for social advertising without cookies.


What is Social Advertising?


Social advertising, commonly referred to as “social media advertising” or “paid social,” is the activity of creating and positioning clickable ads on social media platforms to reach a target audience. Businesses often run targeted advertisements on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to increase brand awareness and gain new customers. 


There is also search advertising or “paid search,” which are ads run on the search engine results page (SERP).  For instance, if there’s enough interest in a specific search term, you’ll likely see three search ads before the organic search results. Here’s an example of search advertising on Google’s SERP:

Screenshot of search advertisements for the keyword search advertising on a computer monitor

Throughout this blog, we’ll primarily focus on social advertising or “paid social” as it pertains to third-party cookies. However, it’s worth knowing what search advertising is since third-party cookies will also affect it. 


What Are Cookies?


So, what are cookies anyway? Cookies, specifically known as HTTP cookies, are small text files or blocks of data used to identify your computer or electronic device. When your computer connects with a network server, the server stores data about your computer in a “cookie.”  


When the data-filled cookie is exchanged between your computer and the web server, the server reads an ID and has information that helps the server better serve you. For instance, cookies enable web servers to store and retrieve information about you, such as your browsing activity or personal information entered into form fields (name, addresses, passwords).


The two main cookies that concern social advertising are first-party and third-party cookies. These cookie types help marketers and advertisers better understand who is searching for their product and where they are searching from.


First-Party Cookies


First-party cookies are created and used by a single domain — they aren’t shared with other websites or advertisers. For example, when visiting a multi-location restaurant’s landing page, first-party cookies might remember your personal data like your email address, phone number, or password. 


First-party cookies aim to help to improve a user’s experience by remembering what’s in your online cart, which language you speak, or your personal information when filling out a form.


Third-Party Cookies


Like first-party cookies, third-party cookies are created on one domain. However, unlike first-party cookie data, the cookie data from third-party cookies is shared across other third-party domains via a tracking code. Frequently, the third party who employed the cookie is a social media platform, online advertiser, or an advertising tech (adtech) company.


Third-party cookie data allows advertisers to learn more about web visitors’ general online behaviors, such as which sites they visit, who they frequently purchase from, and their general interests. Third-party cookies lead to more targeted advertising and retargeting data.


Where We Are Today With Cookies


There’s been growing pressure by internet users and national and international government agencies to protect individuals’ personal data. Individuals and governments have already and will continue to try and give users more control over how their data is used. 


Data from cookies, specifically third-party cookies, has come to the forefront of these data privacy issues. Over the past four years and heading into 2023, search engines and mobile OS platforms have implemented tracking restrictions. Here’s a timeline of significant changes and their impacts:


  • May 2018: The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect, which mandates that EU site visitors must have the option to consent to information-collecting on sites and be notified if their data is ever breached. 


  • August 2019: Google announces its Privacy Sandbox, an initiative to facilitate online advertising without third-party cookies.


  • September 2019: Firefox blocks third-party cookies by default.


  • January 2020: The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) gives Californians the right to opt out of third-party cookies and delete personal information a business collects from them.


  • July 2020: Safari blocks third-party cookies by default.


  • April 2020: Apple’s iOS 14.5 includes IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) opt out, where mobile iOS users can opt out from apps tracking their phone.


  • Late 2021/April 2022: Android rolls out the ability to opt out of AAID (Android Advertising ID), which is Android’s equivalent to Apple’s IDFA. The initial restriction in late 2021 only applied to apps running on Android 12. The April 2022 update supports all other versions of Android.


  • January 2023: Virginia’s new Consumer Data Protection Act (CDPA) goes into effect on January 1, 2023, after being signed in March 2021. Virginia consumers can opt out of targeted advertising and the sale of their personal data.


  • Late 2022 and 2023: Google announced it would phase out cookies in late 2022 over a nine-month period. Afterward, stage two will begin, where Chrome will phase out third-party cookies for a three-month period ending in the second half of 2024.


As you can see, opting out of and removing third-party cookies is occurring due to society’s increasing sentiment to protect consumers’ data and privacy. This sentiment has and will continue to push technology companies and regulators to protect consumers’ privacy. 


Marketing and advertising companies will need to get creative in their tracking and advertising schemes, which is why we’ve provided a few alternatives to third-party cookies.


Alternatives and Solutions to Third-Party Cookies


Finding and installing alternatives to third-party cookies for social advertising doesn’t have to be overwhelming. In fact, third-party cookies don’t provide the most accuracy since people search on different devices at home and work. As mentioned previously, third-party cookies were and are a significant privacy concern, and it’s unclear to users what data is stored and where it’s being stored. 


Below are seven alternatives to third-party cookies that multi-location businesses should monitor and consider implementing as a part of their paid social strategy:


1. First-Party Data


First-party data is king. First-party data is information your multi-location business collects directly from its target audience, customers, and social media followers. It’s proprietary data that your multi-location business has collected and now owns. Because you often have complete control over your own first-party data, it’s much more accurate than third-party data.


Below are a few examples of ways to gain first-party data and apply it to your social advertising strategy:


Email marketing: Email is an opt-in channel, so consumers choose to give their email addresses. You can collect email addresses via subscription memberships, newsletter signups, or gated content. Then, you can create targeted email groups and segment your emails to create more personalized conversations. 


Surveys: Sending surveys via email or chatbot is another way to get unique feedback from potential and current customers. Quantitative and qualitative data from surveys is categorized as first-party data and is critical for getting key feedback and insight from consumers.


UTM Parameters: Create and use UTM parameters to better track how site visitors get to a specific landing page or your domain. You’ll discover how well your social advertisement’s call to action (CTAs) work.  You’ll also better understand your customer journey and can optimize your marketing funnel with UTM parameters.


2. Google’s Privacy Sandbox


As a replacement for third-party cookies, Google started its umbrella initiative, the Privacy Sandbox. Google is creating two Privacy Sandboxes — one for the web and one for their Android OS. 


In short, Google’s Privacy Sandbox is a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow advertisers to use behavioral targeting while providing more anonymity to users and their data. A few APIs aim to protect users’ privacy as they surf the web. Other APIs’ goals are to help targeted advertising while removing invasive tracking. 


On March 31, 2022, Google started its first trial for the Privacy Sandbox’s ads relevance and measurement proposals APIs (Topics, FLEDGE, and Attribution Reporting) for a limited number of Chrome Beta users. So, as you can see, the Privacy Sandbox is still very much in infancy but growing rapidly.


Note that it’s worth familiarizing yourself with Google’s Privacy Sandbox, but there isn’t much you can do right now unless you’re a developer wanting to be part of the trial tests. It’ll be important to track what’s happening with the Privacy Sandbox throughout 2022 as continual testing and updates occur. 


3. Topics API


One of Google Sandbox’s first APIs was FloC  (Federated Learning of Cohorts). FLoC was a custom-API cohort that allowed advertisers to target a “cohort” or interest-based groups without accessing a specific user’s browsing history. 


Google released FLoC in March 2021, but by July 2021, Google had quietly suspended the development of FloC. Six months later, on January 25, 2022, Google announced they ended the development of FLoC — primarily due to antitrust issues and GDPR compliance. 


Despite its short-lived life, FLoC is worth discussing because out of it came Google Topics. Topics is Google’s most-recent API in their Sandbox initiative and is an interest-based form of advertising. Here’s how Topics works:


A browser determines a handful of topics you’re interested in based on your browsing history. For example, if you’ve been searching gyms or at-home workouts, one of your topics might be “fitness.” Then, when you visit a participating site, Google Topics picks three “topics” (one from each of the past three weeks) to share on the site as an advertisement. So, you’ll then see fitness-related ads on your browser.


How is Google Topics separate from third-party cookies?

Three cookie codes compared to Google’s new API Topics

Image courtesy of Google


Your topics are only kept for three weeks and then deleted. Also, sites won’t need to know who you are, as they did with a cookie ID, to show you relevant ads based on your topics. Similarly, specific sites you’ve visited are no longer shared across the web. Topics also gives user’s more control. You can see and remove specific topics in your browser or turn them off altogether.


It’s worth staying up to date on Google’s Topics throughout 2022 and 2023 to see how further trials and testing compare to third-party cookies advertising.


4. Universal ID Solutions


A popular alternative to help replace third-party cookies are universal IDs (UIDs). UIDs are a single ID for each online user that’s shared across a group of adtech companies and publishers. UIDs rely on first-party data such as encrypted and anonymized email addresses and will act as a master first-party cookie. Other UIDs rely on other offline sources like customer management software (CMS) databases.


Essentially, UIDs help advertisers and publishers to identify targeted users without syncing cookies.  In general, UIDs are more privacy-safe for users than third-party cookies.


However, to be compliant with current and future data-privacy and protection laws, UIDs will likely need to ensure that users have data privacy choices, including the ability to opt in or out. 


There are dozens of UID variations already in existence, and more are being built. It’s important to keep an eye on UID frameworks to see what Google does with its Privacy Sandbox in 2022, 2023, and 2024. Google could potentially accept or deny UIDs on Chrome and Android or work to create their own UID. 


If UIDs are accepted, your multi-location business can continue to leverage them to effectively advertise to those interested in products or services related to your industry. 


5. Contextual Advertising 


Contextual advertising, often called contextual targeting, is when Google pay-per-click (PPC) ads are placed on web pages according to a website’s content. 

Contextual advertising relies on the type of content and keywords on web pages for its data, taking third-party cookies and individual data out of the picture. Google’s machine learning algorithms analyze a web page’s keywords, images, topics, and location and match your ad based on those factors.


For example, if you’re a fitness brand and someone is reading a local health and fitness blog, your contextual advertisement might show up on that blog. Similarly, a food blog may display ads about local restaurants.


Multi-location businesses can help match their ads with their targeted audience by selecting a topic in Google Display Network. To be more precise with your advertising, select sub-topics or sub-categories relevant to your product or services. For instance, you can select the topic “men’s fashion” and then select sub-categories like dress shoes, outerwear, pants, and more. 


Companies can also use keywords to their advantage. Sticking with the men’s fashion example, you could include the keywords like “men’s wedding attire,” “men’s summer fashion tips,” or “men’s fashion guide.”


It’s worth noting that contextual advertising is used more in search and display advertising than social advertising since these contextual PPC ads exist on web pages and not social media platforms. 


6. Facebook and Instagram Target Advertising


For now, Facebook and Instagram (under Meta) still offer a plethora of ad targeting within Meta Ads Manager. Facebook specifically uses their Core, Customer, and Lookalike Audiences to help businesses better target their ads. For instance, the Core Audiences targeting option considers a Facebook user’s location, behavior, connections, interests, and demographics (age, gender, education). Knowing a Core Audience’s information helps businesses run better-targeted ads. Moreover, since this data is within Meta’s Conversions API, it’s less vulnerable to third-party data privacy issues. 


Note that Facebook users can choose what information they want to share with advertisers. However, enough Facebook users don’t hide their information from advertisers that it’s worth targeting them.


Leveraging the targeting options included on local social platforms is an excellent way for your business to optimize its campaigns while ensuring you’re respecting your target audience’s privacy. 


7. Local Advertising


Part of social advertising means going local. For multi-location businesses, it’s not always practical to run nationwide advertising campaigns. Instead, it can often be more cost-effective to go local. In fact, 75 percent of consumers say they’ve discovered a new local offering based on recommendations and posts on social media. Being more granular with your local targeting and advertising is another way to counteract the loss of third-party cookies.


Within Meta Ads Manager and other social media platforms, you can run an ad and target specific locations. However, Meta Ads Manager is limited in its capabilities for multi-location businesses because it doesn’t offer the ability to distribute an ad across multiple local Facebook pages.


It can be challenging to run localized ads at scale if you’re a multi-location business, but SOCi can help! SOCi’s Ads PLUS enables you to run localized ads across 100s or 1,000s of local brand locations on Facebook. Ads PLUS allows corporate to pre-set ad content and create custom targeting, geofencing, and other time-consuming aspects of social advertising. Then, local managers can log in and schedule corporate suggested ad campaigns or create their own ad campaigns.


Read our Localized Social Content Guide for more insight into what it takes to create impactful local social content.


Green, black, and white download button for SOCi’s Localized Social Content Guide Description: Green, black, and white download button for SOCi’s Localized Social Content Guide


With the end of third-party cookies comes the emergence of new technologies and trends. Without third-party cookies, your multi-location business has the opportunity to obtain better data and rethink your tracking and targeting strategies. It’s essential to find and test viable options for your social advertising strategy before the cookie is completely gone.


Social advertising is still important to conduct even without third-party cookies. The topics and strategies covered in this blog can make social advertising just as, if not more effective than relying on third-party cookies. For instance, multi-location businesses can use SOCi’s Ads PLUS to geotarget users based on a 10-50 mile radius based on a location’s address or by targeting a fixed area (city, region, state, country). 


What are you waiting for? Request a demo today for more information on how Ads PLUS can be a helpful alternative to third-party cookies for multi-location businesses!


CTA Button - Request Demo

Chi Whitley

Chi Whitley is a content marketer who specializes in local SEO. He’s passionate about helping multi-location businesses grow their brands and online presence in the ever-changing world of localized marketing.