Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 17th, 2021, and was updated on July 2nd, 2021 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

We are living in an ever-evolving digital world, and this year more than ever, has found us spending our lives online, socializing with friends and relatives and working from home. This new reality has fueled an ongoing conversation about user privacy, data control, and personal information shared across the internet. Several tech giants have taken significant steps towards a safer and less-tracked internet, and Google is no exception.

In a previous article, we went over the iOS app tracking transparency and its complications for law firms advertising on Facebook. We talked further about it in our In Camera private legal marketing conversations. We consider Facebook Ads a great way to create and enhance attorney brand awareness and get in front of leads. Google Ads and SEO are the gold standards for those law firms wanting to stay top of mind, capture the attention of prospective clients, and sign new cases. Today, we’ll look into what the current (and future) Google privacy updates mean and how you can prepare to keep up with the new challenges.

  • What’s changing, and what’s the potential impact on law firm SEM & SEO?

Google, just like most other search engines and networks, collects user data and tracks specific characteristics like location and activity, creating user profiles that help them improve their services, provide personalized recommendations, and serve relevant content and ads. Apart from commercial or product-related cookies, Google also uses tracking for safety and reliability, something that’s not changing as it allows you to be protected against automatic abuse (DDoS attacks, for example) and keep your accounts safe by notifying you of recent activity or unauthorized attempts for login.

Some of the new changes have already been announced. Some have been previewed and are waiting for confirmation in the Google Marketing Livestream on May 27. They are taking steps to stay on track with the recent US (as well as EU & UK) laws and regulations protecting user privacy.

  • Removing third party cookies from Chrome

Third-party cookies are created by other websites, like ads or images that a user might see on a website they visit and browse. These are different from the first-party cookies, which are created by the website you are actually visiting. These snippets of code track your browsing history and display ads, sending data to different domains than the one you’re currently using. Let’s put it simply; third-party cookies are what allow advertisers to track your activity and get in front of you with banners showing the exact product you looked for weeks ago. These can create behavioral profiles that advertisers can use, with one of the biggest concerns being the brokering of data.

Fact: Google will still track users for its own purposes and services, but the data won’t be available to external parties. There are no plans for an immediate replacement of third-party cookies functionality.

  • What does this mean for law firm digital marketing?

It looks like advertisers will soon be unable to target prospective clients through behavior, identity, or audience targeting. That practically means if you’re investing in display ads for your law firm, you won’t be able to gather and use third-party cookies, making you shift your strategy towards a first-party-oriented approach that combines several elements.

  1. Build your first-party data. The new “cookie-less” reality creates the need to set up your owns assets, such as your website, in a way that allows you to track and collect the data you need. The most critical information you’ll need to capture is location, emails, preferences, history, and phone numbers. If you manage to gather the data you need, you’ll rely on your own assets and be able to reach out (or retarget) in a less intrusive and equally targeted manner.
  2. Leverage search intelligence and location targeting. Search data and intent indicators can assist in designing your law firm’s PPC strategy without being heavily dependent on the more limited resources Google will provide. At the same time, such an approach can help you with your SEO activities as well as tell you where intent lies, what terms you should focus on, and what type of content you should create.
  3. Know your capabilities, buyer persona, and KPIs (and track them). These will help you concentrate on what matters, targeting the right partners/websites to show your display ads or retarget your website visitors. The privacy-focused updates and the “cookie-less” future that Google aims to build isn’t necessarily a negative thing for your law firm’s digital marketing efforts. It can help you consolidate your advantages and work more strategically towards the prospective clients that matter for you.
  4. Manage your affiliates and monitor the competition. By analyzing your partner/affiliate marketing options, you can control your ad spend and quality. At the same time, you can also analyze and solve law-firm-specific issues and challenges. On the other hand, monitoring competition can help you create the most appealing creatives and ad copy that stand out and bring you to the forefront of the industry. Simultaneously, you can indicate the severity of the competition, the keywords competitors are using, and potentially websites they are using to show their ads.

Tip: If you get to the point that you understand your law firm’s buyer persona, know your market, and understand what news/information/recreation websites are relevant to you, you can approach them directly to show your display ads on a proposed rotation. That way, you’ll ensure that you stay visible, creating brand awareness for your law firm by getting in front of the audience that matters most to you.

What are our key takeaways?

  • Internet is changing in an effort to become a safer, more user-centric place by valuing privacy and tracking exclusions. Google is also taking steps towards that direction by removing third-party cookies.
  • That change creates several questions and potentially disrupts how we used to market our businesses digitally, but it’s not the end of the world.
  • Focusing on first-party data and creating more options for owned media can be the top solution for working around the new challenges and getting your law firm to the top of the SERPs.

June 17th Update

Google has announced that it’s postponing third-party cookie blocking. That’s not a change in plans, in any way, but according to the company’s executives, they had to follow a more realistic timeframe. The main reasoning behind this decision is that an extended trial period will be vital for testing, preparation, and adoption, as well as creating a complete understanding of international regulations and requirements. If everything goes according to plan, we’ll have a two-steps rollout:

a) Late 2022: Stage one will signal the beginning of a “cookie-less” future with Google Chrome. It will be the official kickoff for advertisers and publishers to migrate their services, adapt to the new era, and adopt the best practices. Google expects this stage to last several months and will consider feedback and metrics before they move to stage 2.

b) Once all aspects are sorted out and advertisers/publishers have been given time to adapt, Google will phase out support for third-party cookies, making Chrome a strictly first-party browser.

As we always do, we’ll keep an eye out and update this article if more news surfaces.