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Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention and the critical role of Google Analytics

In June 2017, Apple released its machine learning-enabled Intelligent Tracking Prevention into the Safari web browser. The technology impacts Google AdWords tracking significantly, and Google has updated Google Analytics’ first-party cookie tech to operate as a support to AdWords tracking.

As a result, it’s more important than ever to install Google Analytics (GA) on your website (even without customisation, as only a page view tracking implementation).

What is Apple’s Intelligence Tracking Prevention?

Apple’s new technology tightens Safari’s restrictions on the management of third-party cookies. It does not block ads online; but it does prematurely delete third-party cookies for advertising, and so it obstructs conversion attribution, as well as the recording of user behavioural histories (i.e. it blocks the formation of cookie-based audiences).

Search Engine Land published a great write-up, in which you can read more about Google’s response relating to the AdWords conversion tag technology. That response was described in a recent email from Google to AdWords users.

Google’s response

Apple’s new tech dramatically restricts the longevity of the third-party cookies that it identifies as being tracking cookies, but it does not block them completely. This is likely the reason that users who are continually using Google’s web services and domains – such as Gmail, Calendar and Search – will be tracked as normal. We understand that with this behaviour, by visiting Google’s domains, users are refreshing the validity of their Google cookies in the (machine-learned) eyes of Apple’s ITP.

Google isn’t explicit on this further detail: but it ought not to be necessary for users to be logging into Google web services; just having visited a Google domain within a day of conversion, including Search, should be enough to support conversion tracking.

We can expect Apple to keep acting further to protect user privacy, but for the time being our main concern is the quality of data describing Safari users’ journeys where a day or more passes between the user’s ad click and their conversion on site, and where a Google domain isn’t visited during this time.

These journeys happen. Not everyone uses Gmail every day! And often the phase of consideration for a user involves only a series of direct or referred sessions on the advertiser’s own website.

Google’s additional steps

Beyond the support of user visits to Google domains, Google is reacting with two other strategies: firstly, AdWords conversion metrics are now being adjusted by a model that aims to estimate the volume of missing Safari conversions. We have to assume that there’s error in this model; and we know that statistical error – as with sampling – causes queries and doubt, even when it’s small. We really need to try to minimise the number of Safari conversions that aren’t tracked.

Secondly, Google Analytics comes to the rescue, with an upgrade that has already been released to the Google Analytics library. The GA tech uses first-party cookies, which are unaffected by Apple’s ITP changes in Safari; and now GA is writing a new first-party cookie:, named “_gac”.

GA writes the value of landing page GCLID parameters into the new _gac cookie, and the AdWords conversion tag is collecting this ID from the _gac cookie when it loads, i.e. on conversion confirmation pages. The GCLID parameter has always enabled GA’s link with AdWords data; now, that parameter is being used to help keep AdWords conversion tracking linked up to AdWords users and clicks.

Recommended action

Be sure that Google Analytics is installed on your website. More than ever, GA is necessary, even if only as a secondary digital analytics technology, but a critical element of the Google ad tech stack.

Some advertisers and publishers avoid Google Analytics because of their own brand positioning. AdWords can be seen as necessary; whereas the choice of digital analytics tech is an opportunity to be seen not to be sending detailed data to Google. The reality is, with these brand positioning concerns, there is less and less to separate GA tech from AdWords. A meaningful gesture can be to include in your tracking code GA’s option to anonymise the user’s IP address.

Apple’s privacy strategy

Apple has for a long time positioned itself as a champion of user privacy, sceptical of digital advertising technology. It’s a nice point of differentiation: a hardware and software business versus advertising businesses.

The Safari browser has by default rejected third-party cookies for as long as most of us can remember. In 2012, Google was busted having circumvented this user preference in Safari’s settings. Today, companies that use tracking technology lead users into allowing their third-party cookies (e.g. see AdRoll) and when your tracking company is also a trusted social network, it’s pretty easy to have users enable your tracking technology without resistance.

We can think of Intelligent Tracking Prevention as bringing newly to Safari the automatic management of third-party cookies. The user no longer rejects them generally, with manual exceptions; instead, machine learning helps Apple to keep third-party cookies functioning while simultaneously protecting user privacy.

If you have any questions, or would like more information on this, please contact us.