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What Are Universal IDs Or Unified IDs And What Happens When Cookies Go Away?

Cookies, line of code used to track users across the internet and target ads to them, are going away. Apple’s Safari browser already uses Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) to limit companies’ abilities to track users by blocking third-party cookies that collect this type of data. Mozilla’s Firefox browser has “Enhanced Tracking Protection” set on as default, blocking all “known third-party tracking cookies.” And Google has announced that it will block third party cookies on Chrome by 2022. Firefox and Safari together have about 21% market share and Chrome has 61%.

Why does this matter? Cookies allow advertisers to target specific people based on behaviors and show them ads they hope the users will be interested in seeing.

Should I go run and hide under my bed now if I’m a digital advertiser? No, not yet. Here’s a couple of things you should know. Google, Facebook and Amazon are unaffected by this issue because they are “walled gardens.” This means they don’t have to use cookies because they already collect vast amount of information about their visitors because you login to use their products. So they have what is referred to as “first party” data.

Secondly, this issue doesn’t affect contextual targeting or what we would call Keyword Targeting. That is, targeting specific webpages because the content matches up with the type of person you want to reach (i.e., showing an ad on a fishing article for a fishing retailer).

So what is the solution in a cookie-less world? There are many solutions in the mix but the one gaining the most traction as a replacement for cookies is called Universal IDs. The Trade Desk, the largest demand side platform (DSP) is spearheading this technology and their version of it is called Unified IDs.

Universal IDs use hashed and encrypted email addresses for opted in users as the basis for identity and as a replacement for third-party cookies. This is similar to what Facebook, Google and Amazon do. For example, when you go to website or app and have to login to access the content, your collected email is anonymized and encrypted as an ID. This ID is shared across the network of publishers (websites and apps) that have adopted the solution. Advertisers can use this ID to target advertising but crucially, from a privacy perspective, this ID is never transmitted.

Email addresses themselves are considered personally identifiable information (PII), which means they can’t just be freely traded between and ad tech companies without consent. To solve this, the Universal ID technology uses hashed emails which have been passed through an algorithm which converts them from a readable email address to a 32-digit long string of numbers called a hexadecimal string (feel free to trot out that term at your next company meeting!).

Email-based identifiers also have one big advantage over cookies – they work across multiple devices and browsers. Cookies only sit within one web browser on one device, meaning advertisers can’t use cookies to identify the same user on their laptop and on their phone. Hashed emails can link up any devices and browsers where users are signed on via email.

The bigger issue is whether consent to use email addresses can be achieved at large enough scale to meet demand for advertising inventory. Email will have a role in the post-cookie world, probably a significant one. However, it will also coexist with other solutions, such as first-party data, opted-in GPS location tracking, and contextual (keyword) targeting.

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