iOS 17 Update: The removal of Tracking Parameters and how to deal with them

Casper Hauskov— 

Apple is a BigTech company that doesn’t have real skin in the game when it comes to advertising. On the other hand, their biggest competitors (Microsoft and Google) do. The Apple USP is clear: "Yes, we might be more expensive, but your privacy isn’t for sale with us". With the recent unveiling of iOS 17 at WWDC 2023, Apple isn't just talking the talk – they're walking the walk.

But as Apple doubles down on privacy with new mandates for SDKs, conversion tracking and apps, one can't help but wonder: What does this mean for campaigns, advertisers and tracking in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)? Dive in as we explore the latest update and it’s impact.

A Quick Flashback: What Happened before iOS 17

Before iOS 17, tracking digital marketing campaigns wasn't easy either. Enter Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) and ATT: game changers that sent conversion tracking on a nosedive.

Multiple studies confirmed, Google Ads saw conversions plummet by 50%, while Meta's took a steeper 60% hit.

Did these conversions disappear? Not completely. For third-party conversion tracking (ad platforms like Meta and Google) it became harder to attribute conversions since third-party cookies didn't work anymore.

Within first-party tracking systems like GA4, since Tracking Prevention also hit first-party cookies, an increased number of conversions where attributed to ‘direct’ or the ‘last-click-channel’, making conversion attribution even harder.

How did the market respond?

Technically, two major "solutions" to improve both first-party as third-party conversion tracking emerged:

  • A swift pivot to first-party solutions like (GTM) Server-side tag management to improve measurability in the analytics domain of the advertiser was a widely adopted move.

  • Implementation of the so-called Conversion APIs. Both Meta and Google offer those and give the posibility to track conversions server-side based on identifiers like hashed email-addresses, click-ID’s, etc. The channels then decided whether there was a click/view prior to the conversion.

But, regarding the Conversion APIs, entrusting Google and Meta with evaluating advertising ROI is risky. Conversion API’s and the matching algorithms are (still) a black box and Meta and Google have an interest in attributing positively toward their own advertising channels. Having Google and Meta judge the value of advertising is like having the fox guarding the henhouse.

Having Google and Meta judge the value of advertising is like having the fox guarding the henhouse.

What Did Apple Announce with iOS 17?

At a time when it feels like advertisers are still grasping the impact of ITP & iOS 14.5, Apple iOS 17 is on the horizon (estimated launch: September 13-22). iOS 17 is poised to shake up the digital landscape yet again.

Peter Jakus already did a great job for us unraveling iOS 17 and the impact on advertising

To summarize, the biggest impact on iOS 17 are the plans to remove tracking parameters like, gclid (Google Ads), dclid (DV360), msclid (Microsoft Advertising) and fbclid (Meta).

These parameters are automatically removed in the following scenarios:

  • Private mode and as opt-in in default browsing mode.

  • When opening links from Apple Mail and messages.

Image: Impact on tracking (URL) parameters

The impact in ‘normal browsing mode’ is still minimal, but the move to proactively remove those advertising identifiers is a bold move of Apple and could be a sign on the wall for things to come.

This change - and future changes that could follow up - will negatively impact third-party tracking (Google Ads and Meta) and first-party tracking in tools like GA4. These (Click) IDs are generated at an individual level, and thereby can ad platforms track on-site behavior and connect it to users (for both conversion measurement, optimization and targeting).

Advertising platforms and agencies will most likely advise to increase the use of the already existing conversion API’s. We strongly believe that Conversion APIs in itself are not the way forward, making you (again) more reliant on untransparent measurements by the BigTech that have a big interest attributing as many conversions as possible.

How to deal with the removal of tracking parameters?

There are two main areas you need to focus on:

  1. Improve first-party campaign tracking

  2. Use multiple ways to analyse advertising effectiveness

Improve first-party data collection / campaign tracking

Since you can't rely on "auto-tracking" parameters like gclid and fblid anymore, you need to prioritize enhancing first party (campaign) data collection, as this is where the future is heading.

By adding additional data in URL (UTM) parameters of your landingpage URLs, you will strengthen your data collection. And these parameters doesn't have to identify users, but more important, identify campaigns, ads or other advertising entities.

Example:

  • https://yourwebsite.com

  • ?utm_source=bing

  • &utm_medium=cpc

  • &utm_campaign=<CAMPAIGN-NAME>

  • &utm_id=<CAMPAIGN-ID>

You can use the predefined UTM parameters or you can make up your own parameter which you populate with for example campaign and ad-IDs'

For advanced tracking, in most platforms you can automatically add Campaign and/or Ad-IDs into your landing page URLs. This will enable you to enrich GA4 with campaign data afterwards. And if you plan to use BigQuery, you can join campaign performance data from Google Ads, Bing, and Meta with raw GA4 data. You will also need this if you want to create your own attribution models.

Image: Join Google Analytics 4 and Marketing Channel Data

Use multiple methods to analyze advertising effectiveness

Measure 360° campaign success, by using multiple methods to analyse advertising / campaign effectiveness. Think of these methods:

Multi-touch Attribution

  • Don't settle for the GA4 interface for your conversion attribution; it's processes can be biased / black box.

  • Adopt a technical framework to tap into multi-touch attribution capabilities from all owned channels.

  • Leverage BigQuery to provide clearer insights into your marketing efforts with custom / transparent attribution models.

Incrementality Testing

  • Gain insights into visibility impact across platforms like Google, Meta, Bing, and even traditional media like TV and Radio.

  • Execute controlled experiments that temporarily pause certain channels or campaigns for targeted regions or audiences.

  • Analyse the results with metrics like revenue, fluctuating visitor counts, cost savings, and the broader effects on your media strategy and not only ROI.

Media Mix Modeling (MMM)

  • Use MMM to understand how different advertising channels impact overall campaign performance.

  • With MMM, understand the synergy between channels and allocate budget efficiently based on the relative impact of each medium.

Take control of your data

The release of iOS 17 and Safari 17 will have a significant impact on marketing campaigns, but it's not the end of the world. The future of advertising measurability is uncertain, but advertisers can adapt to the changing digital landscape by following the developments and aim to take control of your data instead of solely depending on third-parties.

By taking the right steps, you can mitigate the impact of these changes and create a broader view of your marketing impact (even within the new reality).

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