Cookies are an important part of generating the data for digital analytics. But what are cookies exactly? And what role do they play in Google Analytics now?
You’ll learn everything in this guide, including how to disable cookies in GA4 if you so choose.
What Are Cookies in Web Analytics?
Cookies are small files that store data about web users.
Cookies came onto the scene in 1994. Today, cookies provide tracking in web analytics and in digital marketing in general. There are two primary types of cookies: first party cookies and third party cookies.
What Are First Party Cookies?
First-party cookies are created and managed by the website domain the user is currently visiting.
You’re currently on the domain rootandbranchgroup.com (Hi, there!). A cookie is helping to track what you are up to. It doesn’t know who you are, but it does know if you’ve been here before or if you’re here for the first time. It knows because it checks to see if there is already a cookie in your browser from this website.
The tracking is limited to this site only. Once you leave, none of that information “does” anything other than being available in web analytics data so I can understand how people use the site so I can try to make it better.
What Are Third Party Cookies?
Third party cookies are not limited to a single domain. Instead, they track web visitors across multiple websites and create a comprehensive picture of user behavior.
As you can imagine, digital advertising platforms love third party cookies because they allow detailed ad targeting capabilities.
Google says that Google Analytics is designed to work with or without cookies. When cookies are not available for a given session, Google will fill in the gaps of data based on modeling.
For example, let’s say you can track 80% of your form submission conversions with cookies. Google Analytics knows where those sessions come from (because of the cookies) for the purposes of “attribution” (i.e. giving credit to the proper traffic sources for sending that converting traffic).
But what happens for the remaining 20% of sessions that were not tracked with cookies?
Google will compensate for the “missing” cookie data, by using all of its pre-existing data to model where it thinks those remaining 20% of conversions would have come from.
Why Might Cookies Not Be Available?
Here are two reasons:
- Your web visitor is using a browser like Brave that blocks cookies.
- You have a cookie acceptance banner on your site and your web visitors do not consent to cookies.
Note: Here’s a resource from Kaspersky on how to block cookies in other browsers.
So How Do Cookies Work in Google Analytics?
In the context of GA4, first-party cookies are set by the analytics.js library, allowing the collection of data directly from a website visitor.
Some of this data is about what visitors do on a website. This is all about tracking those GA4 events like clicks, scrolls, file downloads, page views, and more. Some of the data provides additional context about the visitors themselves. Where did they come from? Have they been on the site before?
What is analytics.js?
Which Cookies Does GA4 Set?
Google Analytics 4 sets two different cookies by analytics.js.
The _ga cookie distinguishes users from one another. The _ga_<container-id> cookie is used for session state data.
The table above is from the Google Analytics support article here.
Here’s how it works:
When a user visits a website, the analytics.js library creates a first-party cookie that stores information such as the user’s unique identifier, session details, and website interactions. This data is then sent to the Google Analytics servers, where it is processed and transformed into reports. That is the data that we can then see in our GA4 reports and Explorations.
Some Benefits of First Party Cookies
These are some of the benefits first party cookies can bring.
Personalization: First-party cookies allow website owners to deliver personalized content and experiences to their visitors. By tracking user behavior and preferences, businesses can tailor their offerings and visitor experience.
Cross-Domain Tracking: GA4 allows the tracking of users across multiple domains using first-party cookies. This functionality enables a more holistic view of user interactions across various web properties owned by the same organization.
User Privacy: First-party cookies can be accessed by the domain that created them. This stands in contrast to third party cookies which are set by a website other than the one that is currently being visited.
First party cookies are generally considered the “good” cookies, even among data privacy advocates. They can make the internet a better, more useable place.
How Long Do GA4 Cookies Last?
The default behavior is for GA4 cookies to persist for 2 years of inactivity. However, you can customize this by overriding the default cookie settings.
Read on below to customize your cookie settings.
How to Disable Cookies in GA4
It is possible to use Google Analytics without cookies. But do you want to? Without cookies you won’t be able to see things like new vs. returning visitors.
If you’re certain, the best way to dramatically cut down on your GA4 cookies is to set them to expire immediately at the end of the session. That way, they can assist in tracking the individual session data but they will disappear after. If you want to try a code based approach, this article from Stack Overflow might be worth testing (note: I haven’t tried it).
Here’s how to expire your cookies immediately.
First, go to the “Admin” section of your GA4 property and click into “Data Streams”.
Now, select your individual Data Stream.
Next, scroll down and click ‘Configure tag settings’ under the Google tag area.
Once you’re viewing your tag settings, click the blue ‘Show all’ button.
Now, hit the checkbox to ‘Override default cookie settings’. You’ll see options as shown below. This is where you can adjust your ‘Cookie expiration’.
You can also adjust your ‘Cookie update’ if desired. The default is for cookies to expire relative to the most recent visit. However, you can have cookies expire relative to the timing of the first visit, regardless of any subsequent visits.
Reminder: Adjusting your Cookie update would have implications for your GA4 user counts.
Hit the drop down arrow and you can choose your cookie duration. As you can see below, you have the option to have cookies expire immediately when the browser session ends.
If you don’t want to expire your cookies immediately, you can customize your cookie expiration window differently.
Hit the blue ‘Save’ button in the top right. All done.
What’s Up With Third Party Cookies?
A single domain creates and controls first-party cookies. Third-party cookies track behavior across multiple domains
Advertising networks, retargeting campaigns, and other marketing platforms that span multiple websites use third party cookies. GA4 does not rely on third-party cookies as its primary tracking mechanism.
Advantages and Challenges With Third Party Cookies
Third-party cookies can present both advantages and challenges:
Enhanced Tracking: Third-party cookies can track users across different websites, allowing advertisers to deliver targeted ads based on their browsing history and interests. This cross-website tracking enables marketers to reach users who have previously engaged with their brand or expressed specific preferences.
Limitations and Privacy Concerns: Over the past few years, there has been a growing emphasis on user privacy and data protection. Major web browsers have implemented stricter policies regarding third-party cookies, making it more challenging to track users across websites. Privacy concerns and user opt-outs have resulted in limitations for marketers relying solely on third-party cookies.
GA4 Intends to Become Less Reliant on Cookies
Google Analytics has transitioned towards a more privacy-centric approach in GA4. In fact, if you read Google’s initial blog announcement about GA4 the word “privacy” appears no less than 7 times!
While first-party cookies remain a fundamental part of the tracking mechanism, GA4 introduces other data collection methods, such as events and user properties, to reduce reliance on third party cookies.
When Will Google Phase Out Cookies?
Beginning in 2024 web browsers will phase out tracking cookies (third party cookies). This follows some other important cookie-related privacy milestones.
- On April 14, 2016 GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was passed in the EU. This accelerated the demise of the third party cookie.
- Starting on April 26, 2021 Apple introduced a new feature (called App Tracking Transparency) in iOS 14.5 that requires asking users for consent of app tracking.
Final Notes About Google Analytics Cookies
Cookies are confusing. At least, I think so. Here are some clarifying notes that may help this all make more sense.
Events and User Properties
Events: GA4 places greater emphasis on event-based tracking, where specific actions and interactions on a website trigger events. These events, such as button clicks, form submissions, or video views, provide valuable insights into user behavior without solely relying on cookies.
User Properties: GA4 allows the collection of additional user information through user properties. User properties can capture specific attributes or characteristics of website visitors, providing a more complete picture of the audience.
Google is diversifying data collection methods which can adjust to the changing user privacy landscape while still collection valuable data. This should allow Google Analytics to continue to function as cookies gradually disappear.
First Party Cookies vs. Events in GA4
First-party cookies primarily maintain session information and track basic visitor information, rather than tracking granular user interactions. Events track those detailed user interactions.
Without cookies, GA4 could still track a list of events but you need cookies to be able to associate those interactions with a session. The cookies provide a way to maintain continuity with the user’s session. They associate all pageviews, clicks, scrolls, and other events with one another.
Interested in digital analytics? If you have an hour to invest in learning GA4, this free beginner’s tutorial might be the place to check.
Looking for something else? Feel free to leave a note in the comments or on the Root and Branch YouTube channel at youtube.com/@rooted-digital. We’re always looking for new ideas.
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