Cookieless Tracking in Google Analytics 4: Strategies and Best Practices

To promote more responsible and transparent management of personal information, governments are introducing new laws to protect consumers' privacy rights. Technology companies are also embracing the ethical management of personal data, which has led to some changes.

In its iOS 14 update, Apple has taken steps to protect the privacy of its users. Google followed the trend by removing third-party cookies from Google Chrome. Certain applications enable site visitors to control the data tracked by Google Analytics as they browse websites.

From a digital marketing perspective, improved privacy settings mean that there are fewer ways for marketing specialists to track user activity on the website. Without cookies, it can be difficult to get large amounts of data, making it harder to optimize the performance of ad campaigns.

In light of these changes, it is important for marketers to quickly adapt and adjust their workflows with advertising systems. In this post, I will give you some tips on how to use Google Analytics 4 effectively in a cookieless world of marketing.

What are cookies, and what do they do?

Cookies are small files that a website places on a user's device. They are commonly used to improve the website’s functionality. For example, cookies can help users stay logged into an account, remember their preferences, and keep track of items in their shopping cart.

Cookies are categorized as follows:

  1. First-party cookies are created by the website visited by the user, and they aim to improve the user experience.
  2. Third-party cookies are created by domains other than the one visited by the user through the use of external elements, such as chatbots, social plug-ins, or website advertising. Third-party cookies allow programmatic advertising to be implemented.
  3. Session cookies are used by e-commerce websites to remember items added to a shopping cart or to help users log in to an account. These disappear immediately or a few seconds after the user closes the browser.
  4. Persistent cookies remain in the browser to track an individual user and their interaction with the website.
  5. Secure cookies are created as encrypted data for specific applications, such as the payment page on e-commerce sites, to ensure a secure transaction.

Retargeting ads often use third-party cookies, as these allow marketers to track potential customers as they move from page to page. However, they are considered problematic from a privacy perspective because they are more intrusive than first-party cookies. 

Due to privacy violations by some companies, advertising giants are giving up using third-party cookies. To adjust to the change, marketers have already started using Google Analytics for marketing without third-party cookies.

Depending on the traffic source, advertising specialists need to know how to obtain customer data without overstepping the bounds of national laws.

Facebook cookieless advertising

Facebook (Meta) redirects users to its Conversions API. This allows users to receive data from the server hosting the website. Conversions API data goes directly to Facebook and is processed the same as pixel events, allowing advertisers to track conversions and make changes in Ads Manager.

Instead of sharing data through a browser, marketers can use the Conversions API to pull data directly from their servers.

Cookieless advertising in Google Ads

Google Ads enables targeting across search and media networks (including YouTube).

The search network is not affected because it is keyword-based, and cookies are not the primary way to target users in search results.

On the media network, advertisers use cookies to target consumers across thousands of connected websites and video channels. These advertising channels will need to rely on more contextual targeting, proprietary data, and machine learning.

Server-side tracking without cookies

Server-side tracking is one of the most reliable and privacy-safe methods of tracking user behavior without using cookies.

With server-side tracking, the tracking code is executed on the server rather than in the user's browser. With the help of developers, this method can be implemented in several ways, including:

  1. Event tracking. Events such as page views, clicks, and form submissions can be tracked on the server side.
  2. Server log analysis. Server logs contain information about each request made to the website, including the user's IP address, user agent, and other data.
  3. API tracking. APIs can be used to track user behavior on third-party platforms, such as social media or mobile apps.

Now that we have discussed cookies let’s go over a few practices for using Google Analytics in cookie-free marketing.

Using Google Analytics for cookieless marketing

Google Analytics 4 is a brand new version of Google Analytics that is designed to meet the needs of a cookieless future. It rejects third-party cookies and relies solely on first-party cookies to track data, making it compliant with privacy laws.

1. Use Google Analytics 4 (GA4) to collect data.

This version of Google Analytics tracks events rather than sessions and page views. While there are fewer reports in GA4, they contain detailed information that covers all key metrics.

In GA4, the individual data that was provided by third-party cookies has been replaced with several alternatives:

  1. User ID. This is a unique User ID that tracks individual users across different devices and channels. For more information about tracking cross-platform activity with User ID, please see Google Help.
  2. Events. Event tracking includes page views, clicks, form submissions, and other user actions. These events can be triggered by server-side code or client-side JavaScript, and they can be sent to GA4 servers using the Measurement Protocol. 
  3. User properties. GA4 allows you to collect user properties such as age, gender, interests, and other demographic data. This data can be used to create audience segments for targeting and personalization.
  4. Consent Management. GA4 provides tools to manage user consent and privacy compliance. This gives users control over their personal data, and they have the ability to opt out of data collection while preserving cookie functionality for advertisers who use them.

GA4 relies on machine learning to predict user behavior and provide specific targeting. Its features include:

  • user engagement by creating audiences based on churn probability;
  • conversion modeling based on machine learning to provide data where it is not available for a subset of conversions;
  • tracking of user behavior across devices and platforms using machine learning; 
  • automated highlights of relevant changes, such as a sharp increase or decrease in demand for a particular product or category.

2. Configure event tracking.

In Google Analytics, an event refers to any form of user interaction with the content on your page. Since GA4 provides you with data based on events, you need to set up event tracking.

There are many different events you can track on your website. If you use videos on your site, you can track how many times a single video is played. You can even go further and see how many times a video is viewed after a certain point.

For example, if site visitors don't watch a video to the end, you can check if there's room for improvement. Based on the data from GA4, you can adjust the video and run an A/B test to see if the improved version works.

For published content such as long reads and landing pages, you may want to know how well users interact with the content on the page. GA4 allows you to measure this by tracking how far the user scrolls down the page. By default, this feature is only triggered when the user scrolls at least 90% down the page.

3. Collect first-party data.

A good practice is to collect your own data about your customers. The information you already have is important for understanding your customers and prospects, and it will help you find similar audiences with GA4.

Building your own database is a process that requires discipline and dedication, but having this data in your system is worth the effort. To begin, identify what you need to know to better understand and connect with your customers. Based on this, you can make changes to the way you collect and organize data to create a better-segmented audience.

For example, ask for more than just an email address in email signup forms. Add lines to collect names, zip codes, and phone numbers, and let users choose the type of information they would like to receive from your newsletter.

Additionally, you can use lead generation campaigns, both paid and organic. Encourage users to sign up by creating offers, discounts, loyalty programs, free content, collaborations, or digital exclusives that you can promote to get more email addresses.

To learn more about the needs of your audience, consider sending out surveys.

4. Analyze website content.

In addition to tracking events, you can also see how often people visit specific pages on your site. This data allows you to identify the content that is most appealing to your customers.

For example, you can examine the pages on your site that get the most traffic and determine what they have in common:

  1. If you run an e-commerce store, you may find that there is a particular product category or brand that attracts your customers the most. 
  2. If you manage a blog, there may be a particular type of content that your audience is most interested in.

Over time, you can also spot trends. Some products and services are seasonal, and knowing when your users are most likely to buy them can help you plan your advertising or content strategy accordingly.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies will not change, so stay dedicated to creating useful, relevant, timely, and audience-focused content.

Read more about the useful features of GA4 in our Journal:

Conclusions

The move to cookieless marketing is a significant change, but it won't necessarily have a negative impact on your business's revenue. By taking steps to change how you collect and manage analytics data, you can still use Google Analytics to make data-driven decisions about your marketing strategy.

To sum it all up, here are my tips on how you can best adjust to this change:

  1. Use Google Analytics 4 (GA4) to collect data.
  2. Set up event tracking.
  3. Collect first-party data.
  4. Analyze your website content.
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