Explaining Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (And Why Advertisers Hate It)


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Apple’s new release of iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra came with a new browser feature called “Intelligent Tracking Prevention” that has the digital advertising industry in an uproar. The latest version of Apple’s operating system, iOS 11, hit Apple smartphones and tablets on September 19 while macOS High Sierra is set to hit September 25.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s VP of software engineering announced Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention back in June at Apple’s WWDC developer conference. Intelligent Tracking Prevention is a privacy-protecting anti-tracking feature in the Safari web browser that prevents sites from cross-site tracking users by limiting cookies and other website data.

Six major ad industry groups wrote to Apple stating that Safari 11’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature will “sabotage the economic model for the internet.”

In the letter, they stated “Apple’s unilateral and heavy-handed approach is bad for consumer choice and bad for the ad-supported online content and services consumers love. Blocking cookies in this manner will drive a wedge between brands and their customers, and it will make advertising more generic and less timely and useful. Put simply, machine-driven cookie choices do not represent user choice; they represent browser-manufacturer choice.”

In response, Apple rejected to comply, saying “forget it. Online ads are violating our privacy, and Apple isn’t going to disable Intelligent Tracking Prevention.”

Apple stated that it believes that users have a right to privacy and released a statement saying “ad tracking technology has become so pervasive that it is possible for ad tracking companies to recreate the majority of a person’s web browsing history. This information is collected without permission and is used for ad re-targeting, which is how ads follow people around the Internet.”

How Intelligent Tracking Prevention Works

As any online media buyer or search engine marketer will tell you, cookies help businesses and other organizations track what websites people have visited and how they behave on different sites. The data derived from cookies is used by advertisers to track their audience, serve them customized messages, optimize when and where their ads are viewed, and for retargeting purposes.

The Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature works by allowing Safari to “automatically delete cookies its software determines are used to track you from one site to another and delete first-party cookies from websites you haven’t visited for more than 30 days.” The feature will identify tools that are used to track users, including cookies, and allow businesses to track them for up to 24 hours after visiting their sites.

John Wilander, part of Apple’s WebKit team, released in a post that Intelligent Tracking Prevention “reduces cross-site tracking by further limiting cookies and other website data.”

Intelligent Tracking Prevention collects data on user interactions such as taps, clicks, and text entries, and collects statistics on resource loads. Intelligent Tracking Prevention prevents the collected data into buckets for each top-level domain (TLD) or TLD+1. A machine learning model is then used to classify which top privately-controlled domains have the power to conduct cross-site tracking.

If Intelligent Tracking Prevention determines that a site has the ability to track users cross-site, the site data and cookies are purged and will continue to be if the user hasn’t interacted with the site over the past 30 days.

However, if the user interacts with a specific site as the first-party domain, the prevention tool uses that as a signal verifying the user has interest in the site and temporarily adjusts its behavior as so:
Image Source: Apple

This is the timeline for how long a cookie can be tracked. Apple also allows a little wiggle room for third-party “’sign in with my X account on Y’ login scenarios.”

Wilander says that “this means users only have long-term persistent cookies and website data from the sites they actually interact with and tracking data is removed proactively as they browse the web.”

How It Affects Advertisers

Over the last few years digital marketers and advertisers have had increasing access to users’ behavior online, allowing them to optimize and customize their messaging and advertising strategy toward their targeted audience. Online ad spending is projected to grow nearly 40% over the next two years, hitting $247 billion by the end of 2019.

Businesses use data collected by cookies and online tracking tools to understand their customer’s buying habits, needs, and what they’re looking for. Major players in the digital space like Google and Facebook use data tracking to fuel their advertising efforts and bring in most of their revenue.

Given all that, it’s understandable why the move would make digital advertisers nervous. According to W3Counter, Safari accounts for about 13% of web browsing.
Image from W3Counter

That’s a substantial amount in and of itself. But the bigger concern is what could come next. What if other browsers and web platforms begin to follow suit? Apple could well be opening the floodgates to greater public awareness to cookie control and prompt Safari competitors to offer similar, or even more strict, settings by default.

While cookies and other tracking tools make it easier for users to customize their browsing experiences, the lack of privacy and control over confidential information has given way to the rise of ad blocking tools. The growing prevalence of ad blocking tools is already gashing online ad visibility and ROI; what do digital marketers need to be doing in response to these trends to keep their brands relevant?

Apple is implementing Intelligent Tracking Prevention to help users build more trust in web browsing and feel more comfortable knowing their privacy-sensitive data isn’t quietly being acquired by websites. However the ad groups argue in their letter to Apple that “blocking cookies in this manner will drive a wedge between brands and their customers, and it will make advertising more generic and less timely and useful.”

There’s much discussion on how it will affect major advertising companies and platforms. Some think free platforms like YouTube and Facebook will have to start finding alternative ways to bring in revenue if advertisers can’t personalize and target ads. However, others think this major shift may actually help major advertising platforms like Google and Facebook, but hurt the smaller ad tech companies.

Apple states Intelligent Tracking Prevention won’t completely prevent users from seeing ads and it “does not block ads or interfere with legitimate tracking on the sites that people actually click on and visit. Cookies for sites that you interact with function as designed, and ads placed by web publishers will appear normally.” Thus, users will still see ads but just won’t see the same one over and over again.

How Advertisers Can Combat the Invasion of Technology

While the total impact of Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention on online advertising is still a bit uncertain and unpredictable, marketers and advertisers will need to figure out ways to cut through the disruption and effectively reach their audience. It’s unclear to see how it will play out, but companies across all industries need to keep a close eye on their digital advertising behavior and track their performance to accurately attribute their advertising efforts.

So how do marketers and advertisers adapt to a world where browsers might be limiting cookie data? As mentioned before, the Intelligent Tracking Prevention is similar to ad blocking technology, which has risen tremendously over the recent years. Thus, advertisers can generally follow the same tactics that are used to fight ad blocking technology and apply them to Apple’s new cookie-blocking feature.

Create Substantial Content

Remember that content is the core foundation of successful marketing for any business. And regardless of any cookie or ad blocking tool, if your content or ad isn’t valuable, it’s going to be deemed as intrusive and obnoxious for your audience.

It’s always been a bad practice of implementing disruptive advertising and promotional tactics such as spam, clickbait, and popups as a way of advertising your business. These are the type of ads that have paved the way for the rise of ad blocking technology.

Marketers need to hone in on crafting messages and content that are memorable, informative, and relevant enough, that they are ingrained in their intended audience’s minds. Essentially, make your content to support your brand – whether it be through social media or your website – so good that people are willing to come to you.

Using social media and analytical tools to gauge what type of consumers engage and interact with what type of content your brand pushes on social is a great way to accurately assess who you should be targeting.

Don’t Neglect SEO

As an extension to content marketing, ensure that your content on your website is fully optimized for SEO. Integrating relevant keywords will help to make sure your brand gets enough exposure if Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention tool gets in the way.

Pick Your Channels Wisely

Strategically choosing your channels you reach your audience through organically can help minimize the effects of Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention from disrupting your ability to reach them.

Focusing on social media to push your content and engage with your audiences is a great way to drive brand awareness. Pushing ads on YouTube videos or any other major platform that your audience is most likely on and that has access to a wide audience can be a great way to promote your brand effectively.

Partner With Influencers

Partnering with influencers that resonate with the audience you’re targeting is a great way to ensure cookie-blocking tools don’t have an impact on your strategy.

Relationships with influencers can be extremely valuable for connecting with highly niche, target audiences. As long as you have a clear and comprehensive understanding of who your audience is and what their needs are, you can go after the right influencers to promote your brand.


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