By Ruaridh Stewart

This blog will provide a recap of what Apple Intelligent Tracking Protection actually is, discuss how it will affect our advertising platform partners and address any longer term industry implications. Disclaimer: Initial information up to date as of 28/09/2017. Updated 30/11/2017

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Apple’s recent roll-out of their Intelligent Tracking Protection, or ITP, has been a source of growing anxiety and concern within the digital marketing and advertising industry. The stance has sparked criticism and backlash from numerous advertising trade groups, claiming that the move will negatively impact end user experience and consumer choice, in addition to the alarming precedent that could be set for future iterations of web economics and infrastructure that largely rely on universal standards of tracking across websites.

Conversely, Apple’s stance has remained firm in highlighting the privacy and trust issues that are being addressed by the move. With more and more data being made available to 3rd parties without specific user knowledge or explicit consent, is Apple’s move a genuinely sincere one? Has putting the user first and offering a level of privacy and protection been overlooked by advertising authorities for too long?

As a data-driven performance marketing agency, we naturally rely on the plethora of trackable data points that are afforded to us via 3rd party cookies, informing our optimisations, strategies and visions for delivering award-winning marketing campaigns. Data is at the heart of what we do, so it is fair to argue that any major disruption to the current trackable ecosystem could have a negative impact on our ability to deliver the same level of truly data-driven performance. Thankfully however, we are all in the same boat – and it is most certainly not sinking, as is clearly demonstrated by our platform partners’ reaction to Apple’s move as outlined below.

Regardless of where you sit in this wide-ranging debate, there are obviously a number of immediate concerns which still need to be addressed so we felt it necessary to lay down the facts and discuss the implications with a channel by channel, platform by platform dissection.

Recap: What is Apple ITP?

Intelligent Tracking Prevention is Apple’s initiative designed to limit third-party trackers and cookies from collecting cross-site browsing behaviour – essentially, preventing cookies from following users around the internet. Specifically, the Safari operating system update will limit 3rd party cookies to a 24 hour trackable time frame, after which the cookies will only be usable for log-in purposes. The cookies will then be removed in full after 30 days.

Apple ITP

For instance, if a user were to click a paid search ad and not convert within 24 hours, any resulting conversion would not be attributable back to the initial paid search click. Whilst a large proportion of conversions are expected to fall within this one day window, conversion journeys with typically longer lead times will potentially note a drop in volume, particularly due to the strong market share of the Safari browser on mobile devices. 

So, what are our advertising partners and platforms doing about this? Well, thankfully – a lot! Most have already been quick to implement varying safeguards against any notable detrimental impact in the performance of trackable advertising activity. Additionally, according to recent data, Apple Safari market share is still relatively low on desktop (where we still see the highest conversion rates) in comparison to Google Chrome’s continued dominance, however mobile presents a different landscape.

Looking into a sample of nearly 50m website users from our client portfolio via GA confirms this, with only 10% of desktop users opting for Safari:

Desktop Users by Browser

desktop users by browser

Mobile traffic however reflects Apple's current dominance in the smartphone industry, particularly in the UK where a large proportion of our client sample is based:

Mobile Users by Browser

mobile users by browser

And due to the huge rise in overall traffic now coming through mobile (51% of our entire sample, vs. 32% for desktop), we can see that Safari just edges out Chrome as the overall browser of choice in our sample with 39%:

All Users by Browser

all users by browser

Whilst this figure appears proportionally high as a segment of total trackable activity, it is worth highlighting that the majority of this traffic is mobile, and thus likely to be predominantly classed as a research platform and an upper-funnel touchpoint. Conversion volume therefore is unlikely to take a huge hit from a last click perspective, but those using a more sophisticated attribution model may need to pay close attention to upper-funnel activity. It is also worth noting that in-app volume is still relatively small for Safari; a segment that typically observes higher conversion propensity versus regular mobile browsing, again suggesting that the actual impact of the browser changes will be limited, at least from a conversion volume perspective.

So in short, we don’t expect a sudden doomsday scenario whereby 80% of all our conversions will no longer be trackable. Yes, we can expect drops on specific platforms but it should not require a total rethink of our strategies. A simple approach to validate any concerns would be to look into your own GA data and isolate your Safari conversions. How many users are converting on your website via this browser and of those users, how many do so within 24 hours? This should give you a ball-park figure as to how much of an impact this may have on your attributable marketing activity.

Let’s find out what each of our partners has said, and what solutions they have in place (so far):

Google AdWords & Google Analytics

Google has been swift to combat any concerns over the potential impact of it’s native advertising and web analytics platforms – specifically Google AdWords and Google Analytics. Both have released material outlining the immediate impacts on reporting, measurement and optimisation – in addition to having already implemented several tailored solutions and platform updates designed to alleviate any initial concerns surrounding data loss:

Google AdWords

How is it affected?

  • AdWords will not be able to track conversions off the back of clicks made in Safari more than 24 hours previously.
  • Click-through conversions on search, shopping and YouTube should be largely unaffected by the cookie changes.
  • Click-through conversions on display and AFS networks may encounter a drop in volume.
  • View-through and cross-device conversions may encounter a drop in volume across all networks.

What is the solution?

  • AdWords will begin to use statistical modelling (via historical data and machine learning) to account for data that can’t be directly measured.
  • It is currently unclear as to whether it will be possible to exclude these statistically modelled conversions from regular reporting.
  • Modelled conversions will not be applicable for display, video, AdSense, view-through or cross-device conversions.
  • It is recommended that conversion volume is monitored over the coming months, particularly for activity that is being optimised by an AdWords bid strategy. It may be necessary to adjust your targets to compensate for the underreported conversions.
  • There is an additional solution that makes use of a new GA cookie (below).

Google Analytics

How is it affected?

  • GA Data should not be affected due to the use of a first party cookie – thus compliant with the updated ITP policy.

What is the solution?

  • Google have released a new GA cookie, which houses the GCLID from PPC clicks.
  • This means that if an AdWords account is linked to GA (and Auto-tagging is enabled, which it should be), then Google will be able to track AdWords activity much more accurately.
  • This solution will be automatically pushed out to all advertisers, although there is an option to opt-out.

Updated:

  • AdWords are pushing two primary solutions:
    • For those users with an account linked to GA, simply enabling auto-tagging will ensure that your conversion measurement remains unaffected by the Safari updates.
    • For everybody else (or if you want to wholly upgrade your tagging solution), it is recommended that you install the Global Site Tag across all of your website pages, and create Event Snippets for your conversion actions.

DoubleClick Search

DoubleClick Search have been similarly prompt in rolling out a platform update, altering the way in which conversions based on it’s native Floodlight tag will be reported:

How is it affected?

  • DS won’t be able to track conversions off the back of clicks made in Safari more than 24 hours previously.

What is the solution?

  • DS will use statistical modelling (via historical data and machine learning) to account for data that can’t be directly measured.
  • By default, all floodlight columns will include ‘scaled’ (those that are determined via statistical modelling) conversions, but there will be the ability to exclude them.
  • There will be a new attribution model created in DS to account for the ‘scaled’ conversions.
  • It is recommended that conversion volume is monitored over the coming months, particularly for activity that is being optimised by a DS portfolio bid strategy. It may be necessary to adjust your targets to compensate for the underreported conversions.

Updated:

  • DS have rolled out new official recommendations relating to tag updates & implementation solutions that will navigate the ITP issue.
  • For those users with a GTM integration, it is recommended that you enable the Conversion Linker Tag in the GTM platform, and specify it to fire on All Pages.
  • For those using iframes/image tags, the process is slightly more involved and involves two main steps:
    • Generate a new Global Site Tag from within DCM & apply to all pages across your website.
    • Update your existing Floodlight tags in DCM to the new Event Snippet format, and replace your existing Floodlights on site with these new Event Snippets
  • Safari conversion data will continue to be statistically modelled until either of the two solutions above are implemented.

Bing Ads

No official word yet from Bing, but we expect tracking to be impacted in a similar manner to AdWords.


Updated:

  • Bing are officially recommending that you enable auto-tagging within the platform to ensure that your conversion measurement remains unaffected by the Sarafi changes.

Yahoo

The impact on Yahoo is relatively similar to that of AdWords, with the subtle benefit of an extended window subject to users landing on a Yahoo domain. An official solution or workaround however is yet to have been communicated:

How is it affected?

  • A user who converts after seeing an ad on a Yahoo site will not be affected as long as the conversion occurs within 24 hours.
  • If they convert after this, they will also need to have visited a website ending in Yahoo.com within a 24 hour period.

Programmatic (DBM/DCM)

How is it affected?

  • DBM will not be able to track conversions off impression or clicks that happened in Safari over 24 hours previously.
  • No ability to retarget users more than 24 hours after their last site interaction on Safari.

What is the solution?

  • DBM/DCM are currently working on platform updates.

Amazon

How is it affected?

  • Amazon won’t be able to track conversions off impressions or clicks that happened in Safari over 24 hours previously on non-Amazon sites.
  • No ability to retarget users more than 24 hours after their last site interaction on Safari.
  • Should not affect Amazon as much for on-Amazon conversions, as users visit Amazon regularly, thus refreshing the 24 hour window.

What is the solution?

  • Nothing official yet, but likely working on platform updates.

What Next?

So where does this all leave us? Well, from a search perspective things look to remain relatively business-as-usual. The platform updates rolled out across AdWords, GA and DS appear to be alleviating the main concerns that were raised when the ITP initiative was announced. Programmatic activity however appears to be operating in an increasingly challenging environment, with repercussions and limitations most notably affecting retargeting activity. An announcement will likely be made by Google in the coming weeks regarding DCM and DCM platform updates to address these issues once the impact has been fully assessed. In the meantime, we’ll be keeping an ear out for any further updates and will communicate these as necessary.

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