The Cookies are Almost Gone and It’s Google’s Fault
September 12, 2022 | Written by Rachel Reynolds
Missing the sriracha with your pho? Find yourself trading a favorite child for the last bag of coffee? Worried the new car you just ordered will arrive in time for Christmas 2024? It’s not failing supply chains causing the demise of cookies, but Google’s decision to let the cookie crumble. Thankfully, this is the third-party cookie variety, but I, for one, don’t take lightly the willful phasing out of any type of cookie. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls – it Tollhouses for thee!
What’s Really Going on Here?
Last year Google announced that their ad networks and Chrome browser would stop supporting third-party cookies in 2022; this has been extended to a rollout in early 2023; scratch that, Google has now announced that the death of cookies will happen in 2024.
How will your advertising be affected, and what can you do now to plan for the cookie apocalypse?
This ability for ad tech platforms to gather vast amounts of data of individuals’ online behavior has resulted in privacy concerns that encouraged the EU’s GDPR regulations (2018) and the phase-out of third-party cookies by Safari and Firefox. Google’s announcement that it, too, has become anti-cookie is consequential because of the sheer scale of Google’s Content/Display Ad Network. About 80% of online advertisers use third-party cookies.
With a cookie-less future ahead, is this Doomsday for advertisers?
Where do Attorney-Advertisers Use Third-Party Cookies?
The most important point for lawyers to understand is that IF the cookie apocalypse impacts your PPC advertising, this change affects ONLY Google Ads Display/Content Network and third-party ad networks – NOT the Google Search Ads that appear at the top of Google searches. For most law firms, the grand majority of their PPC ad budget is spent on Google’s Search Ad Network, which will be unaffected by this change. If you are unsure whether your PPC advertising uses display/banner ads that rely on cookies, ask your advertising agency for specific guidance.
Where might attorney-advertisers be using third-party cookies? There are some PPC ad strategies that a law firm might be accustomed to utilizing that will be negatively affected by Google’s phase-out of third-party cookies. These include:
Retargeting / Remarketing Google Ads: For many years, PPC advertisers have used retargeting/remarketing campaigns that rely on third-party cookies to serve banner advertisements to your website visitors when they are on other websites. This allowed your law firm to maintain brand-awareness to potential clients after they left your website. You were essentially tracking individuals to serve banner ads to them. This type of retargeting/remarketing will cease with Google’s phase-out of cookies. This change will affect both Google Ads Remarketing/Retargeting and similar ad types on social media platforms.
Frequency Capping: If your firm runs banner advertising through ad platforms other than Google Ads, frequency capping in a post-cookie world will be challenging, at best, for these ad providers. Currently, a lawyer-advertiser would place a cap on how many times their banner ad is shown to a single user in a defined amount of time. This helps preserve ad budget, manage spend appropriately and keep users from feeling bombarded by a single ad. Without Google’s support of third-party cookies, this common utility will be degraded.
Diminished Returns from Lead Brokers: Individual law firms may indirectly rely on third-party cookies if they are accustomed to purchasing leads from lead-gen providers. These brokers often run highly targeted PPC ad campaigns (including on ad tech platforms and/or retargeting techniques) that will be negatively impacted by the phase-out of cookies. The volume of leads they generate will likely decline while their costs increase. Law firms who purchase leads can expect higher prices and low(er) volume.
AVVO Advertising: While AVVO hasn’t directly addressed the cookie apocalypse, it appears that their advertising platform may be directly affected. AVVO’s website specifically mentions the use of third-party cookies for use in advertising and ad targeting. Without further guidance from AVVO, it is reasonable to assume their ad network will be negatively affected, resulting in diminished returns for attorney-advertisers.
Google’s recent stay of execution for cookie demise until 2024 gives your law firm time to prepare.
What is a Lawyer To Do?
Understand Your Exposure. Your first step is to determine the extent to which your online advertising utilizes third-party cookies. Do you run retargeting/remarketing ads on Google Ads and/or via social media platforms? If so, you have exposure. Do you pay for advertising on AVVO? Ask for more detailed information on their use of third-party cookies and their plan in response to the phase-out of third-party cookies. Does your firm run banner advertisements on other website networks (e.g., banner ads on local news channels or other online publications)? You need to speak with those agencies about how you can expect this to impact their ad management (e.g., frequency capping, activity tracking and reporting). Start asking questions now so that you can understand your exposure and plan accordingly.
Replace Retargeting/Remarketing with Branded Display Ads. Many firms already run Branded Ads on Google’s Search Network. Since the cookie apocalypse will result in the elimination of retargeting/remarketing capabilities, you should replace these efforts with broad-spectrum, highly localized branded display advertising. While you won’t be able to retarget groups of your online audience anymore, you should at least introduce strategies to promote your brand widely within your geographic market to help stay top-of-mind within your community.
Consider Ad Exposure Using Google’s Topics. “Topics” is Google’s “replacement” for third-party cookies; online advertisers are nonplussed by this option. In brief, Google Topics allow advertisers to gear display ads toward groups of users based on categories. Rather than allow advertising to target individual users, Google Topics assigns individuals to broad categories based on their browsing history. Google reassigns every user to five new categories on a weekly basis plus one false flag category randomly assigned by the system. Advertisers can select categories (i.e., “Topics”) of users they want their display ads shown to. There are currently ~350 topical categories Google Ads allows you to target, including “women’s clothing,” “basketball,” “news,” “travel,” and so forth (Full List: https://github.com/patcg-individual-drafts/topics/blob/main/taxonomy_v1.md). The attorney-advertiser would rightly assume diminished results from advertising that targets groups of users by topic rather than individual-targeted advertising. This is a glimpse at the post-cookie ad environment, and you’ll need to use the tools that are available – in this case, Google Topics.
Ensure Your Search Ads are Strategically Targeted & Tighten Performance. While the phase-out of third-party cookies will not directly affect the primary Search Ad Network, this is the opportune time to ensure your search ads are performing well. PPC ad costs will continue to rise in the upcoming years, and the cookie apocalypse will further pressure ad spend. Your primary Search Ad campaigns may have performance gaps that need to be tightened. Make certain your Search Ad Campaigns are narrowly targeted by (i) geographic location; (ii) practice area(s); (iii) keywords. Google Ads has introduced several AI-driven utilities in the last few years that have encouraged many ad management agencies to become complacent. Google sells their automated bidding and targeting tools as “smarter” and “conversion focused,” but our data shows mixed results, at best. For example, does your firm want quality conversions or quantity of conversions? Google’s AI tools only optimize for quantity, and the quality of those inquiries can be poor – and come with higher costs. There is currently no replacement for the eagle eye and elbow grease of an experienced PPC ad manager. Now is the time to ensure your Search Ads are highly targeted and keep your firm competitive.
Plan for Increased Ad Costs. GetApp – which provides exclusive data to Hubspot – reported that surveyed advertisers expected they would have to increase PPC ad budgets by 5-25% to generate the same results as in 2021 (https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/third-party-cookie-phase-out).
As third-party cookies negatively impact other ad tech companies and platforms, advertisers will be redirecting ad dollars back to Google Ads. Increased competition, with more money flowing into Google Ads, will drive costs up. Additionally, fewer niche-targeting options for display ads mean more advertisers bidding for the same real estate, further pressuring costs.
Lawyer-advertisers need to plan now to increase ad budgets in the year(s) ahead just to tread water. To reiterate, make sure your existing Search Ad campaigns do not have performance gaps that need to be tightened. This effort can improve overall performance, increasing cost efficiency, allowing your ad spend to go further and generate more despite the cookie depression!
Focus on Google Ads and ditch third-party advertisers. While Google said this was about privacy, the change has the handy side effect of further monopolizing the PPC market. Not surprisingly, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft have massive content networks on which they can continue offering advertising using first-party cookies. Their decision to eliminate third-party cookie support will likely only grow advertisers’ reliance on their ad network(s) and drive more profit as advertisers have to spend more.
Strengthen your Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO is an investment in evergreen visibility for your firm that builds on its own success over time and pays ongoing dividends. For most law firms, having a well-optimized search presence is the foundational cornerstone that provides long-term stability. Regardless of the coming cookie apocalypse or tomorrow’s dawning of the metaverse, SEO is the ballast that steadies your firm’s marketing ship.
Up Your Email Marketing Game to Stay Connected with Your Target Audience. With the phasing out of remarketing/retargeting capabilities, look for tools that can help you stay top-of-mind with your client base. An active, robust email marketing strategy can support your brand and referral strategies. Email marketing initiatives can take months to years to take shape – now may be the time to get started, if you haven’t already. And for firms with email marketing in place, the elimination of third-party cookies should serve to reaffirm your efforts.
Strengthen your Use of “First-Party Data”. In short, this is the Know-Your-Customer concept. Stay in contact with them directly since you can’t rely on cookie-based advertising (e.g., retargeting) to help pull the weight. Double-down on your client loyalty/referral network. Look for ways to keep relationships authentically and creatively with your client base. This may be the perfect time to rediscover those traditional, offline marketing approaches so many firms let wither away. Consider follow-up calls with your client base to ask how they are doing. Does your firm have a regular direct-mail marketing strategy (e.g., birthday/holiday cards; magnet mailers; etc.)? Are individual attorneys maximizing community-oriented outreach that could include serving on boards, promoting and participating in local charitable causes, coaching a sports team, and other ways of engaging with your community? While digital marketing and advertising are crucial for your firm’s success, so too are the old-school reputation and relationship with those you want to serve.
Getting Ready & Moving Ahead
The death of the third-party cookie will bring many changes. With Google’s postponement of the death knell until 2024, you have time to plan and get ahead. If your law firm uses third-party cookies the above strategies should help you clear a path forward. If your law firm does not use third-party cookies, use this seismic shift in the landscape to understand how the aftershocks from the quake might offer both challenges and opportunities for your marketing strategy.