The Future of Attribution Modeling – Attribution without cookies

Last Updated: August 20, 2022

In case you haven’t noticed, analytics platforms (esp. the free one) are not becoming smarter in tracking customers’ purchase journey anonymously. But they are deliberately and actively being dumbified in the name of protecting users’ privacy.

Every couple of months or so we lose some tracking tool or capability because of some new privacy update like IOS 14.5 or Apple Mail privacy protection.

Apple IOS 14.5+ update

Apple released IOS 14.5 on April 26, 2021. This update requires all mobile apps in the App Store to show a prompt to users on IOS 14 (and higher versions) devices that ask them whether they want the app to track them.

ask app not to track 1

As you would guess, most users said NO.

Apple IOS 14.5 update has hurt Facebook advertisers really bad. As a result of this update, the advertisers lost access to 28 days click/view attribution windows, Facebook Attribution toolFacebook analytics tool and Facebook Audience Insights tool.

The Facebook ad manager now underreports on events, custom conversions, ROAS and results. The reported CPA is no longer reliable and the cost controls (cost cap, minimum ROAS, Bid cap) are no longer effective because of underreporting of conversions.

You need to be a marketer in order to understand the true negative impact of IOS 14.5 update on Facebook ads.

To learn more about the important negative impacts of the IOS 14.5 update on Facebook ads, check out this article: The impact of Apple IOS 14.5 update on Facebook Ads

Apple Mail Privacy Protection

Apple Mail Privacy Protection

After ruining Facebook Ads, Apple is now after email marketing with its new ‘Mail privacy protection’ update that lets users decide what data is shared when using a mail app.

This includes IP address, location and the time in which email was opened.

How will this update impact Email Marketing?

In short, it ruins your email marketing stats for good. You won’t know whether people are opening your emails or engaging with them in any other way.

So you do the email broadcast then you just hope for the best.

Multiple court rulings in the US have stated categorically that IP addresses do not identify a person, with one ruling going so far as saying it can’t even be tied to a state, let alone an individual.

Moreover, most IP addresses are dynamic. So they keep changing. But all of this doesn’t matter to Apple because this does not hurt their business interest.

After IP addresses Apple may go after user agents. I won’t be surprised if tomorrow Safari starts hiding its user agent like the ‘Brave’ browser is currently doing.

I don’t know where and when this dumbification of analytics platforms would end. But one thing is for sure. It would be disastrous for countless small online businesses.

When small businesses lose the ability to advertise profitably because of a lack of accurate conversion attribution data they will eventually cease to exist.

And when they cease to exist they will take away all of the jobs and other work opportunities along with them. So all these optimization and marketing jobs they currently support will go away along with them.

The e-commerce space would only be ruled by the likes of Amazon. But let’s just hope and pray that doesn’t happen.

Conversion Attribution is going to get worse

Following factors have introduced data gaps in the users’ conversion paths:

  1. Restriction on third party cookies.
  2. Asking for users’ consent for every action (because of GDPR).
  3. Browser restrictions on users tracking.
  4. Ad blockers disabling third-party JavaScript from being executed.
  5. Web browsers like ‘Brave’ disabling GA and GTM by default.

And these data gaps are getting wider over time as browsers implement more restrictions on users’ tracking.

The progressively stringent privacy regulations are making it increasingly difficult to advertise profitably and to track conversion attribution accurately.

In order to mitigate the negative effects of data gaps, Google introduced ‘Modelled Conversions’ for Google Ads and Facebook came up with Aggregated Event Measurement‘.

However, these statistical models tend to produce optimal results only when consistently fed with a large volume of conversion data. A privilege which many small business owners don’t have.

As a result, businesses that are already processing hundreds or thousands of transactions a week are less likely to deal with the negative impact of data gaps than small businesses.

Machine learning, the ad pixel that powers the advertising of big businesses is already quite mature. They can even get away with zero targeting. Small businesses on the other hand do not get any such privilege.

Browser-Based Tracking and Cookies will be gone soon

You probably know that the ‘Brave’ web browser blocks both Google Analytics and GTM by default.

An increasing number of users are now using ad blockers.

Then we have Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) from Safari browser and ‘Enhanced Tracking Protection’ (ETP) from firefox which greatly limits the ability to track users correctly.

To make the matter worse, Google also announced a plan to end the support of third-party cookies in the near future.

It is safe to say that the browser-based tracking and cookies will be gone soon. It is just a matter of time.

Privacy profiteering and competition to provide better privacy

In case you are wondering, why have Apple and web browsers lately become so obsessed with protecting their users’ privacy, what is in it for them?

The short answer to these questions is privacy profiteering.

Whenever a commercial or for-profit entity talks about doing something good for the general public, I always try to find the real intent, the commercial intent.

For Apple and web browsers the commercial intent seems to be retaining and increasing ‘market share’.

For example, no web browser can directly compete with Google Chrome in terms of market share, extensions, add-ons and overall compatibility with different platforms and other Google products.

The only way they can compete now and capture and retain some market share is by positioning themselves as privacy-focused web browsers. By providing more and better privacy options.

There seems to be fierce competition among different non-Google web browsers on which can provide better privacy options. DuckDuckGo and Apple are also playing the same game.

DuckDuckGo can never directly compete with Google Search. So they have positioned themselves as a privacy-focused search engine.

Ever since the death of Steve Jobs, Apple seems to have run out of innovation. They continue to lose market share.

One of the best ways Apple can compete now and capture and retain some market share is by positioning itself as a privacy-focused platform.

By creating this mass hysteria that Google and Facebook are evil, they are stealing all your data and Apple is innocent and your saviour they aim to retain and increase their market share.

They aim to convert more android users into iPhone users. Eventually, it is all about controlling the market share. Protecting users’ privacy is just a means to an end.

Users’ privacy will get worse

You may be under the impression that progressively stringent privacy regulations and GDPR are improving users privacy but they are in fact destroying the very foundation of privacy.

Both server side tracking and cookieless technology are the direct results of stringent privacy regulations imposed by GDPR and web browsers.

In the case of client side tracking, literally, any person can checkout via developer console or some browser extension, what data a website is collecting, sending and where.

This is not the case anymore with server side tracking. It’s like a black box. So you are just expected to use it responsibly and not break any rules.

Now how many will use it responsibly when nobody is looking around?

What these privacy regulations and restrictions are really doing is creating a market for new tools and technologies where businesses can go to extreme lengths to track users’ activities like tracking them by their PII.

It is just like the war on illegal drugs. You can not win. The more restrictions you put on the usage of these drugs, the more you facilitate crime, violence and corruption.

There is an old saying ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Collecting accurate data will become progressively more expensive

Excessive privacy comes at a cost.

For advertisers, this cost is losing the ability to advertise profitably unless they invest in more powerful but expensive tracking solutions like server-side tracking. For the end-users, they could end up paying money for every internet service they use.

It is the advertisers who keep the internet largely free to use for all users. When they are gone, then the only way left for website owners to make money and pay the bills is to charge their users.

I hope you can see as far ahead as I can and where we are all heading.

There are advanced attribution tools out there that charge thousands of dollars a month but can fill many data gaps which traditional free to use analytics tools can not.

If you are a big business you can easily afford to pay the monthly server-side tracking bill. You can easily afford to use expensive attribution modelling tools. If nothing else, you can create your own proprietary tracking systems in-house.

However small businesses would probably need to sacrifice a lot of their profit on paying for such tracking solutions.

Otherwise, they are most likely to lose the ability to advertise profitably and may even go out of business.

Server-side tracking is the future

The Future of Attribution Modeling - Attribution without cookies

Browser-based tracking and cookies (esp. third-party cookies) won’t last for very long. The server-side tracking is the future.

The progressively stringent privacy regulations and the ever-increasing tracking restrictions from web browsers and ad blockers have made browser-based tracking very unreliable. And it is only going to get worse.

If you want to run profitable advertising for the foreseeable future then you have to switch to server-side tracking. There is no other alternative.

To learn more about server side tracking check out this article: GTM Server Side Tagging Tutorial

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