Over the past few years, there has been growing concern among the public about the ad-based monetization system that funds most content on the internet. Most people understand that their web activity is used to determine the ads they see, but it's become clear that online advertisers have a lot of data on consumers with little oversight on how it's being used. As they are often a target for criticism when it comes to privacy, Facebook has made many reforms in recent months to ease concerns. In an email sent out last week, Facebook said they will allow for first-party cookies to be used with the Facebook Pixel starting later this month.

Let's start by answering the question most people had when they saw this email, "What is a first-party cookie?" In general, a cookie is a file created by a website that has anonymous information about the visitor that can be used for a variety of purposes. For example, a cookie can be used to remember a visitor's favorite items on the site or it can be used to save data that is used to serve relevant ads. What makes a first-party cookie different from traditional third-party cookies is that the website creates the cookie itself and has full control over the data collected and how it's used.

Since first-party cookies give the website owner more control over the data their site collects and how it's used, they have become a popular choice for some sites. This is especially true for sites dealing with GDPR regulations which require owners to have more control over the data a site collects and to account for how it's been used. So allowing first-party cookies is more about Facebook adapting to this change in the technology and legal landscape than anything else.

In an email that went out to current pixel users, Facebook wrote, "On October 24, Facebook will begin offering businesses a first-party cookie option with the Facebook pixel. This change is in line with updates made by other online platforms, as use of first-party cookies for ads and site analytics is becoming the preferred approach by some browsers."

Up until now, Facebook has used its pixel, which itself is powered by data from third-party cookies, for website analytics, ad targeting, and ad measurement. Over the past year, the Facebook Pixel has lost access to some of the third-parties that provided it with data. This is why many ad targeting demographics were removed recently. By allowing for custom built first-party cookies, this new option will also help advertisers, publishers, and developers continue to get accurate analytics about traffic to their websites.

For consumers, the change won't have a noticeable effect on their Facebook experience. For example, the controls people have over ads on Facebook in Ads Preferences will not change. And even when using first-party cookies, Facebook's Business Tools Terms will still require businesses to clearly disclose how they use cookies and share data collected on their sites with third parties.

This announcement from Facebook is either great news or meaningless depending on how and where a particular website operates. For example, a site that relies on ad traffic needs to have cookies and they may switch to a first-party cookie for one reason or another. For this user, Facebook's change means they can use their first-party cookie along with the Facebook Ad Manager which can lead to better Facebook Ad results and metric measurements. On the other end of the spectrum, many websites for businesses that provide a service don't use cookies except for the Facebook Pixel and Google Analytics code. There's no reason for these websites to build their own cookie since they're using the Facebook and/or Google cookie which are always up on industry standards, making them safe bets to stick with.

To learn more about recent changes to Facebook, read this article on Facebook's plan to add fact-checking to photos and videos.

Published on: Oct 8, 2018
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