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How does ITP in Safari affect performance marketing and what can we do about it?

How does ITP in Safari affect performance marketing and what can we do about it?

In this article, we explore what Apple's Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) is, how it alters marketing measurement and influence ad optimisation, and more importantly – what we can do about it.
How does ITP in Safari affect performance marketing and what can we do about it? Eva Khayrullina
How does ITP in Safari affect performance marketing and what can we do about it?
4 min read

Table of contents:

  1. What is Intelligent Tracking Prevention in Safari
  2. Why do we need ITP?
  3. How ITP works
  4. Apple ITP’s effect on performance marketing
  5. What can marketers do about ITP?

It all started in 2017…

Apple caused disruption in the AdTech world, pioneering privacy features in browsers by introducing ITP (Intelligent Tracking Prevention) in September 2017. 

It not only made Safari the most restrictive browser in terms of tracking but paved the way for others like Google and Mozilla.

Five years and five releases later, the dust has settled, but the challenges remain. 

In this article, we explore what ITP is, how it alters marketing measurement and influence ad optimisation, and more importantly – what we can do about it.  

Apple breaks cross-site tracking not to break users’ trust

Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) is a feature in Safari that prevents cross-site tracking in order to deliver a more privacy-focused experience for its users by automatically blocking third-party cookies. 

Safari is the first popular browser to entirely block third-party cookies by default. There are also Tor Browser and Brave that have been blocking third-party cookies for years, but they are way less mainstream, so the impact just cannot be compared.

ITP limits the lifespan of first-party cookies (expire after 1 or 7 days in some cases) and sets a 7-day limit on all non-cookie storage data, which includes Local Storage. It’s a web storage method that allows sites to store data directly in the browser, usually with no expiration date. 

Before jumping straight to ITP, let’s do a quick recap on what we know about cookies.

A web cookie is a small file, stored in your device’s hard drive or a mobile browser. It basically represents our online footprint, as it stores the visitor’s data on preferred language or location and remembers pages you’ve visited.

We can divide cookies into first- and third-party, based on the context they’re used. 

Let’s take a closer look at both. 

Third-party cookies

This type of cookie is set when you’re on a site with an embedded ad block, a chat, or an image that is pulled from another domain. You’ve probably seen Facebook’s share button down many articles – this is it. 

Third-party cookies allow collecting data about users’ interests and behaviour on external websites. Then publishers use this information to run more relevant advertising and retarget users.

They’re also used for tracking view-through conversions – when a user sees an ad, doesn’t click on it, but converts on the advertiser’s website. Using 3rd-party cookies, marketers can confirm that the conversion took place.

First-party cookies

First-party cookies are responsible for recognising you as a returning visitor and remembering data you shared with that website, e.g.: location, language preferences, logins and passwords. 

If you return to a website that you buy plane tickets on and wonder how it knows your language or guesses the city you’re flying from – these are first-party cookies at work.  

They also are a great help to web analytics, as they allow website owners to analyse site traffic using external vendors such as Google Analytics.

How first-party cookies work

If you would like to learn more about cookies, read my latest article on cookies, online tracking & privacy.

How does ITP work?

According to WebKit, at the core of ITP lies a Machine Learning Classifier. The goal of this Classifier is in assessing domains that can be used to perform cross-site tracking. It concerns all major AdTech players such as Facebook and Google.

When the algorithm finds a domain that “has cross-site tracking capabilities”, the limitations described below are placed: 

  • The lifespan of first-party cookies is capped to 7 days. Example: cookies set by analytics tools like Google Analytics or Adobe. 
  • In cases when the link decoration is used, first-party cookies expire in 24 hours when the link that led users to your website contains decorations. Link decoration is a method of passing information from one site to another by adding a query string or fragment ID to the URL.
  • All non-cookie storage data, including LocalStorage, is also capped to a  7-day limit. LocalStorage is a method that allows storing data directly in the browser with no expiration date.

As for third-party cookies, Safari blocks them by default.

ITP was developed by WebKit – an open-source browser engine behind Safari. So if you want to find answers to some technical questions, WebKit’s blog is the right source to dig in. 

How Apple’s ITP affects performance marketing

While early versions of ITP (1.0–2.0) were focused on limiting the tracking capabilities of AdTech companies, releases after ITP 2.1 caused a massive disruption in web analytics, marketing attribution and ad optimisation. 

1. How ITP affects web analytics

Analytical tools such as Google Analytics or Adobe heavily rely on first-party cookies to identify returning users. With first-party cookies lasting only for 7 days, those Safari users who return to a site a week after, will be recognised as new visitors. 

Only in case, Safari users revisit your site before the seven-day limit, their cookie will be updated with a new 7-day lifespan.

All of this leads to incorrect marketing attribution.

Imagine a user lands on your website from a Facebook campaign on Day 1, chooses an item, wants to buy, but just needs to sleep on it. A week later, this user returns to a website directly and buys. 

Due to ITP 2.1+, a cookie set by your tracking tool will be capped to a 7-day lifespan. As a result, it will not be able to attribute this Purchase to the initial source (Facebook Ads). 

How ITP affects digital marketing

Meanwhile, for businesses with a short sales cycle, this could be not as much of an issue. However, if your users’ consideration period is longer than 7 days, it’s highly likely that your attribution will be affected. 

What exactly does it mean for your performance marketing analytics? It means that in your reports you will not see a clear picture of the true value of your traffic sources. Thus hindering your ability to make efficient budget allocation decisions.

2. Performance marketing optimisation

Ad platforms’ algorithms learn and communicate by the means of Conversions. When you want more sales, you choose to optimise towards a particular Conversion – i.e. Purchase. The ad platform shows your ad to many groups of people and based on whether their interaction with your ad result in a Conversion (Purchase), it learns to select the right ad for the right audience. 

Meaning that conversions play a role of feedback signals for the ad platforms’ algorithms.

As a result of ITP, if a user lands on your website from a Facebook ad, for example, and converts after 7 days, Facebook will not see this conversion. 

Hence, the publishers often don’t receive enough of those signals (conversions) for accurate learning and optimisation. Which results in slowed algorithms’ training, lower performance and sometimes “limited learning” status.

What’s the solution to ITP limitations? 

What marketers need now is not to keep pace with constantly changing rules, but to stay ahead of the curve. This is exactly why we at SegmentStream help to tackle ITP fallouts by looking at things differently. 

We use Conversion Modelling – a next-generation solution to outdated attribution and conversion tracking tools that are no longer suitable for modern cookie restrictions. 

Here’s an example. 

Imagine a user coming to a website from your Facebook prospecting campaign. The ad did its job and this person is ready to make a purchase. There’s only one thing… your ad has caught this person at work, so now is not the best time for a shopping spree — bye, see you later. 

Finally, the conversion happens the next day. Even with a journey this simple, without switching devices and browsers, any attribution tool will fail, crediting the last touch (Direct), while the paid click from Facebook will not receive any value at all. 

Conversion Modelling, on the contrary, will show the contribution of each touch, even if cookies are wiped or expired.

How Conversion Modelling Works with ITP

Sure, SegmentStream will also see two different visitors, because the point of getting an accurate picture of how your channels perform is not through stitching the unstitchible customer journey, but in getting relevant and accurate value. The value we measure is based on the visitor’s probability to convert in the future.

To see how Conversion Modelling can tackle your current challenges in digital marketing and help your business grow faster – request a trial here

Key takeaways

  • ITP is a privacy feature, launched in the Safari browser in 2017. It blocks third-party cookies by default and limits the lifespan of first-party cookies to 7 days. (In case when the link decoration is used, first-party cookies are wiped out in 24 hours).
  • For example, first-party cookies set by analytical platforms like Google Analytics expire in 7 days. Meaning, that tools like Google Analytics are going to have a much harder time dividing new users from returning ones.
  • First-party cookie limitations caused by ITP result in shorter conversion windows and a broken attribution, which impacts the effectiveness of your marketing channels. 
  • Broken attribution drags down the optimisation too, as ad platforms need accurate feedback (conversions) to learn properly.
  • Conversion Modelling solves conversions loss due to ITP and other restrictions by evaluating each website session, based on the visitor’s behaviour and contextual data. This way, SegmentStream allows seeing the real value of all traffic sources and campaigns, even if cookies are wiped or expired.
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