Google Implements Adwords Tracking Changes In Response to Apple’s “Intelligent Tracking Prevention”

In response to Apple’s Safari browser updates coming this fall, Google this month is changing how it collects and reports on conversions.

Apple announced in June that the newest version of Safari will use “intelligent tracking prevention” (ITP). With ITP, third-party cookies that track users across sites can only be used for 24 hours from when a user visits a site using Safari.  After 24 hours, these cookies can only be used for login purposes. After 30 days, all cookies (first and third party) are removed completely.

The purpose of ITP isn’t to disrupt advertisers’ ability to track data per se, but rather to protect user privacy and limit intrusive retargeting, behavioral, and interest targeting practices.

Why does this matter?

This means that unless a user converts within 24 hours of last visiting an advertiser’s site after clicking an ad in Safari, the conversion attribution data will be lost if the advertiser uses third-party cookies. Given that for many advertisers, a significant portion of users convert after 24 hours, this is a pretty big deal. Not to mention, nearly 50% of mobile web traffic in North America originates from Safari – so for most advertisers a sizable percentage of conversions comes through this browser as well. Knowing this, one can see how the update could cause major issues with reporting conversions.

So what is Google doing?

To mitigate the issue, Google has created a new Google Analytics Cookie (the “_gac cookie”). Essentially, it extends Google Analytics tracking to include AdWords conversion tracking. According to Google, “Analytics writes campaign information to the _gac cookie when a user opens a page on your site via a URL that employs AdWords auto-tagging.”

This new cookie is considered a first-party cookie, which renders it acceptable to ITP. (As it stands now, the current conversion cookie is considered a third-party cookie because it’s set on the domain – but the new _gac cookie is set on the advertiser’s domain, making it a first-party cookie).

So what does this mean for me, the advertiser?

It depends on your implementation. Either way, there’s no action you necessarily need to take – but a few things to be aware of.

1. If your AdWords account is linked to Analytics, Google will set the new cookie automatically on your site’s domain and will store information about the ad click that brought the user to your site. The AdWords conversion tracking will be able to use that information. There will be no change in terms of reporting. Google will simply report conversions from Safari via the new cookie.

2. If you don’t have AdWords linked to Analytics or if you disable the new cookie, AdWords will use statistical modeling (based on historic conversion data) to estimate the number of conversions that occur 24 hours after a user visits a site from an ad via Safari. Google will include the estimated conversions in AdWords conversion columns (it’s not clear, however, if there will be any way to segment or gauge how many of these conversions are “modeled” conversions). Google says it may take a few days before you start seeing the conversions in AdWords. Of course, since these are modeled and not actual conversions, accuracy is always a slight concern.

As always, be sure to monitor your conversion data and consider adjustments to bid strategy where necessary.

  • Updated January 23, 2018