How Google Analytics 4 will change browser cookies

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the latest version of Google’s popular web analytics platform.

It represents a significant shift in how user data is collected and processed, and one of the key changes is how it handles cookies.

Cookies are small files that are stored on a user’s device when they visit a website. They contain information about the user’s browsing history and are often used by websites to track user behaviour, personalize content, and provide targeted advertising.

However, cookies have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years due to concerns around privacy and data protection.

GA4 is designed to be more privacy-centric than its predecessor, Universal Analytics. This includes changes to how cookies are used.

The key changes can be summarized as follows:

Moving away from third-party cookies

GA4 moves away from the use of third-party cookies, which are cookies set by a domain other than the one the user is visiting.

Third-party cookies are often used by advertisers and ad networks to track user behaviour across multiple websites. But they have come under increasing scrutiny due to their potential impact on user privacy.

GA4 instead uses first-party cookies, which are set by the website the user is visiting.

Google did say it would move away from cookies in Chrome altogether this year but has put that back until at least 2024.

While the end is in sight for cookies, we’re not there yet.

Where Chrome leads, other browsers will follow. That’s especially true as Firefox, Brave and Microsoft Edge are all Chromium browsers that use the same codebase as Chrome.

With all that in mind, how will Google Analytics 4 impact cookies and cookie use?

Enhanced consent management

In order to comply with data protection regulations such as GDPR and CCPA, GA4 includes enhanced consent management features.

These allow website owners to obtain explicit consent from users before collecting and processing data, including cookies.

Users can also be given the option to opt out of specific types of tracking.

European users are already familiar with the cookie consent form when visiting a website. This will build on that.

Customizable cookie settings

GA4 allows website owners to customize their cookie settings, including the ability to disable certain types of tracking by default.

This gives users more control over their data and helps to ensure that websites are collecting only the data they need.

Event-based tracking

One of the key changes in GA4 is the move towards event-based tracking. This tracks specific actions taken by users on a website rather than just page views.

This allows for more accurate and detailed tracking, as well as greater flexibility in how data is collected and analysed.

It also means that cookies are no longer needed to track user behaviour across multiple pages.

User-centric measurement

GA4 is designed to be more user-centric than its predecessor.

There is much more focus on understanding user behaviour and engagement rather than just pageviews and sessions.

This includes the ability to track user interactions across multiple devices and platforms, as well as the use of machine learning to identify patterns and trends in user behaviour.

Overall, the changes to cookies in GA4 represent a move towards greater transparency, control, and privacy.

Website owners will need to be aware of these changes and take steps to ensure that their websites are fully compliant with data protection regulations.

This includes obtaining explicit consent from users for the use of cookies and other tracking technologies, as well as ensuring that cookie settings are fully customizable and aligned with user preferences.

If you operate a website with an EU audience, you’ll have the mechanisms in place already for this.

It’s also worth noting that these changes are part of a wider trend towards increased privacy and data protection online.

As more users become aware of the potential risks of online tracking, it’s likely that we’ll see further changes to the way cookies and other tracking technologies are used in the future. In the meantime, GA4 represents a significant step forward in terms of privacy and user-centric measurement, and website owners should be prepared to adapt accordingly.

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