When the story of 2021 is woven into posterity, what word will best describe the most salient analytics trends of the year? What changed the most? What has the most potential to impact the analytics industry moving forward? 

I’ve always been fascinated by language. For this reason, I always look forward to December when Mirriam-Webster announces their “word of the year.” For nearly two decades, the dictionary-creator has evaluated internet searches and run polls to choose a single word representing a concept that has produced significant public interest each year. When viewed over time, these words demonstrate how people have sought understanding of the changing world around them.

I’ve had the privilege of working at a leading data and analytics agency for the past couple of years as a “switch hitter” of sorts—alternating on a daily basis between Adobe and Google’s technology stacks and reaching even beyond them to the worlds of Snowplow and Tealium. 

With this somewhat unique perspective and 2022 right around the corner, I’ve recently been pondering what “word of the year” I would choose to best represent the changes taking place in the analytics industry and what clients are asking about most. After much thought (including reflecting on 2020, whose word would probably be an expletive), the word I’d choose to best represent the changes I’ve seen in 2021 would be ‘privacy.’

Few of the privacy changes put in place over the past couple of years by browser and mobile operating system manufacturers were unexpected. Apple announced its Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) initiative way back in the summer of 2017. Google announced in January of 2020 that they would be ending support for third-party cookies. However, the industry response to these changes has been relatively slow—similar to the way it’s behaved with previous privacy initiatives like GDPR. That said, especially in the second half of this year, privacy has risen to the forefront of many analytics client conversations.

What’s changed in Analytics in 2021?

If you’ve been out of the loop on privacy this year, that’s okay! Things aren’t nearly as bleak as some would have you believe. However, chances are—whether you know it or not—your data is already being affected by the changes that have occurred.

Restrictions on Cookies and Local Storage

The death of third-party cookies on all browsers but Chrome and significant restrictions placed on first- party client-side cookies and local storage on all iOS browsers and desktop Safari left brands scrambling to understand whether they would be able to continue tracking their users. Is remarketing dead? Could they actually measure the ROI of their ad spend anymore? Why were their returning user counts falling? How does A/B testing work when users fall out of treatment groups every seven days?

A “FLoC” of bird-themed technology proposals were rapidly proposed in an attempt to find an alternative to third-party cookies. My clients had lots of questions about all of them, with Google’s FLoC and FLEDGE generating the most interest. Having sat in on half a dozen FLEDGE calls this year and having monitored many of the other proposals, I can say that these technologies are slowly progressing. Will we have a third-party cookie replacement in place next year? I’m not sure. Even if one is built, its capabilities and legal status are still in flux.

Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) initiative’s effects on first-party cookies has arguably had an even stronger immediate impact on the analytics industry than the retirement of third-party cookies. Cookies set via Javascript will now last no longer than seven days in all iOS browsers and desktop Safari, with some cookies set by specific services lasting only 24 hours. If you had a significant unexplained uptick in “new visitors” in the past year, this is likely to blame. If your advertising audiences have become untargetable and your ROI has fallen inexplicably, this is likely why.

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Apple’s first-party cookie duration restrictions have thus far only been applied to cookies set client-side via Javascript. They do not extend to cookies set directly from a server itself as long as that server lives on a true first-party domain or subdomain. For instance, to set a cookie longer than seven days on searchdiscovery.com, it would need to be set from a server that is hosted on a subdomain like something.searchdiscovery.com—and would need to be truly mapped to that domain via a DNS Address (A) record. Aliases like those created with DNS CNAME records will not suffice, as Apple can see through them.

At Search Discovery, we’ve ideated alongside clients and colleagues all year on the best approach to extending cookie duration, and we’ve piloted a number of approaches to this, ranging from reverse-proxying the demdex ID call for Adobe’s ECID service to implementing full server-side tagging. I’m confident that we’ll have a standard solution to offer clients in the next year to solve this challenge…assuming Apple doesn’t move the goalposts again!

Server-side Tagging and Data Collection

Non-technical analysts have had to become cloud server administrators overnight. Why?  Marketing platforms have rushed to implement server-side endpoints that server-side tag managers can use to set cookies via HTTP headers). Google released GTM server-side in August of 2020, but it wasn’t until 2021 that most clients started considering it in earnest.

In the first half of 2021, we told clients that server-side tagging should be in their 2-year plan as a potential solution to Apple’s cookie duration restrictions and a way of tightening their site security. However, Facebook’s aggressive efforts to get advertisers using their 2-year old conversion API (CAPI for short) significantly tightened that timeline. We’ve now implemented server-side tagging (including CAPI) for a handful of Google clients,with many more planned for early next year. 

My colleagues at Search Discovery have implemented CAPI server-side using Adobe’s AEP event forwarding approach, and I’m eager to get my hands on a server-side Adobe implementation next year. If you’d like more information on server-side tagging, you’re in luck! We’re working to compile a lot of resources on server-side. (And here’s a bonus article on server-side vs. client-side testing for optimization programs.) 

iOS App Analytics

In addition to all the cookie changes, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) initiative introduced prompts requiring app users to consent to tracking (“Ask app not to track”) on iOS. This shook up the mobile analytics industry, and clients asked whether they could even track iOS apps at all anymore. Brands that relied heavily on apps for product and ad targeting were heavily affected. Google, Snap, Facebook, Twitter and Peloton all reported material losses to revenue as a result of ATT. 

The good news is that analytics isn’t strictly classified as tracking under ATT in the same way marketing attribution tech is, so mobile analytics is not We do, however, recommend that you check with your legal team just to be sure your analytics implementation and practices are compliant. 

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Cookie Consent

Though GDPR and its cookie consent requirements have been around for five years, the California CCPA law that went into effect in 2020 brought cookie consent requirements to many US-based companies. We worked on a number of cookie consent implementations this year, including OneTrust, TrustArc, and in-house solutions. The tools have come a long way, as have the integration approaches with tag management systems. 

Google’s release of consent mode for GTM made implementing consent management both easier and weirder (a first-party feature dependency on a third-party and/or custom built tag template?), while OneTrust’s Adobe Launch Extension integration with Adobe’s ECID extension helped simplify that implementation process.

What’s next?

Given all of these changes, it was pretty easy to choose ‘privacy’ as the word of the year for 2021. The topics mentioned here are mostly those that clients asked about most, but there are a lot of additional privacy changes that went into place late this year that I expect to hear questions about next year. If you want to be ahead of the curve, check out this related post on 2021 privacy trends by my colleague Cory Underwood.

Much like college football analysts with their “way too early” rankings, I’m already thinking about 2022’s word of the year, and I have a proposal! Stick around for the next post in early January to find out what it is, and how you can be preparing for it!

Search Discovery offers impact reviews and roadmapping assistance for how to transition existing efforts. Reach out to get prepared for 2022!

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