Cookieless Tracking - How to collect user data correctly?

Jannis Wagner
Jannis Wagner

With the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018, the concept of cookieless tracking has received more and more attention. The measurement methods for recording user behavior are largely based on cookies. Many users reject the extended collection of user data and browser providers such as Apple (Safari) or Google (Chrome) even block browser-based cookie tracking.

GDPR - What users should know and what they need to consent to? 

In any case, website providers are obliged to request the specific consent of the users of a website via so-called cookie consents. According to an ECJ ruling, users must be informed and give their consent to at least the following points:

  • Type and function of the cookies (which data is processed for which purpose)
  • Lifetime of the cookies 
  • Identity of the service providers (Google, AdServer etc.)

The submission of the consent must clearly present the options equally. A link to the privacy policy and a precise listing of the cookies and providers used is mandatory. There have already been warnings because of the often misleading designs of the consents (design of the cookie banner). ‍

‍What are first party cookies?

Are usually cookies for analysis tools that evaluate the user's behavior on a website.

What are third party cookies? 

These are cookies that are usually used by third-party providers, in particular by programmatic advertising platforms. They are usually used for tracking systems of online advertising, the OutReach.

Depending on which third-party tools are to be used on a website or even as part of a wider campaign effort, analysis is more or less critical to a legally compliant platform design. 

Recently, for example, Apple announced that new measures for the Safari browser will significantly increase user privacy and security. One of these new measures is the so-called "Intelligent Tracking Prevention", which automatically blocks cookies from third-party providers and thus makes tracking of user data much more difficult. Google is also following suit and will ban third-party cookies from the Chrome browser from 2024. In combination with data protection regulations and other restrictions, more and more website operators will be forced to look for alternatives.

How can you collect meaningful usage data from your own website without cookies? When is consent necessary and when is it not?

Cookieless tracking is a technical solution that makes it possible to track the behavior of users on a website without using cookies. This is important because more and more users disable or block cookies to protect their privacy. However, compliance with the necessary data protection guidelines also applies here, of course.

One option for cookieless tracking is to use fingerprinting technologies. This uses certain characteristics of the device, such as the IP address, browser type, and fonts installed, to create a unique profile of the user called a fingerprint. This fingerprint can then be used to track the user's behavior on a website. This technology works without placing a cookie on the end-device. However, the legal framework is formulated in a technology-neutral way. Since fingerprint tracking generally accesses data stored on the user's end device, consent is therefore also required.

Legally compliant consent is also required when using ETags. ETags are small files that are stored by the browser on the user's computer and enable the user to be recognized when he or she visits the page again. It is therefore crucial which data is analyzed and how - whether through cookie technology or cookieless tracking is not decisive for the user's obligation to consent. 

Analysis tools such as Matomo or Etracker also enable the collection of data that is supplied by the end device when the page is called up. This includes referrals or user agent, for example. Depending on whether personal or only statistical data is collected, consent banners are then not absolutely necessary. It would also be possible to recognize returning users this way.

How does cookieless tracking through URL extensions work?

Usually, though, the appetite comes with eating. Many marketing campaigns and frameworks rely on the collection of accurate data, for example, to better track conversions and measure and optimize the effectiveness of ads (such as Google Ads). 

Conceivable would be the use of special IDs that are docked to the target URL per ad. This way, correlations between the ad used and a possible turnover can be established without any dispute under data protection law, even without consent. However, this is only valid as long as there is no assignment to purchases or target customers, i.e. a personal reference.

What needs to be considered in the future?

Users are becoming increasingly sensitive about their data. Data protection regulations are also being introduced and continued worldwide. Anonymized targeting will become unproblematic. Advertising platforms will find and develop cookieless tactics in order to continue to segment target groups and to offer them a response. However, the amount of personal data will certainly decrease. For the B2B sector, where the most specific possible identification of target groups is more necessary, a precise analysis of the company's goals and the technologies and metrics required as a result will remain important and the Consent will remain in most cases.  

How does Uhura Digital support its clients with the right tracking strategies and tactics? 

As a first step, Uhura Digital develops a comprehensive picture of the current state of the measurement processes and necessities. In doing so, it is important to identify which KPIs and marketing goals are really required and need to be achieved. Based on this analysis and requirements, Uhura Digital then develops a coordinated marketing setup, identifies relevant tools and suitable measurement processes. 

Uhura leverages years of experience and expertise on processes, tools, risks and upcoming trends to achieve optimal results for each customer requirement. 

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