What Are Third-Party Cookies? What You Need To Know

In recent years, third-party cookies have become a prominent topic among web owners and internet users. Before regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), these cookies operated with minimal oversight. Advertisers and third-party providers could collect personal data and monitor users’ online activities without much consequence. This article explains what third-party cookies are, why they concern publishers and advertisers, and how to use them responsibly within legal frameworks.

Understanding Third-Party Cookies

To fully understand third-party cookies, it’s important to differentiate between first-party and third-party cookies.

First-Party vs. Third-Party Cookies

First-party cookies are generated and stored by the website a user is currently visiting. These cookies enhance user experience and provide essential site functionalities, such as remembering login details and user preferences. For instance, a first-party cookie can help a website recognize a returning visitor, eliminating the need for repeated logins. Generally, first-party cookies are considered safe since they don’t track the user beyond the original site.

Third-party cookies, however, are created by domains different from the one the user is visiting. These cookies appear when a website includes elements from other sites, like ads or embedded videos. For example, watching an embedded YouTube video on a site can lead to YouTube setting a cookie on your device. This cookie tracks user preferences and helps suggest similar content on subsequent visits to YouTube.

How Are Third-Party Cookies Created?

Third-party cookies are set when a website requests resources or scripts from another domain. Here’s a typical scenario: A website (www.example.com) uses an analytics tool from www.analytics.com. When a user visits www.example.com, it requests a JavaScript file from www.analytics.com, which then sets a cookie in the user’s browser to track their activities.

How Do Third-Party Cookies Work?

Have you ever noticed ads following you around the internet? That’s the result of third-party cookies. Here’s a simplified example:

  1. Browsing an Online Store: You visit a site selling sunglasses and check out some stylish aviators. The site places a first-party cookie to remember your activity.
  2. Third-Party Ad Service: The store uses an ad service that sets a third-party cookie on your device.
  3. Tracking Across Sites: As you browse other sites, the ad service accesses the third-party cookie, identifying your interest in sunglasses.
  4. Targeted Ads: You start seeing ads for sunglasses on other websites, driven by the third-party cookie tracking your activity.

Example: While browsing ShopSmart.com, you see an embedded ad for sneakers from AdNetwork.com. Even if you don’t click on the ad, the moment it loads, AdNetwork.com sets a third-party cookie on your device. This cookie tracks your activity as you visit other websites. Later, when you visit other sites that also display ads from AdNetwork.com, you’ll start seeing more ads for sneakers or related products. This is because the third-party cookie allows AdNetwork.com to recognize your interest in sneakers and show you targeted ads based on your browsing behavior across different websites.

Uses of Third-Party Cookies

Beyond targeted advertising, third-party cookies enhance user experience in other ways:

  • Live Chat Support: Third-party cookies can store chat history and preferences, enabling personalized support.
  • Social Sharing: Social media plugins use third-party cookies to streamline sharing processes, recognizing your social media account and simplifying logins.

Pros and Cons of Third-Party Cookies


  • Personalized Advertising: Enables advertisers to tailor ads based on browsing history and interests.
  • Enhanced User Experience: Helps websites remember user preferences, improving overall experience.
  • User Analytics: Provides valuable insights into user behavior, aiding website performance improvements.


  • Privacy Concerns: Collects extensive personal data, raising privacy issues.
  • Security Risks: Can be exploited for malicious activities, like tracking users to steal information.
  • Lack of Transparency: Many users are unaware of how extensively they are being tracked.

Are Third-Party Cookies Bad?

Third-party cookies are not inherently bad, but their use in tracking and targeted advertising raises privacy concerns. While they don’t affect a website’s core functionality, their absence could impact services relying on them. For marketers, these cookies are invaluable for personalized advertising. However, the debate around third-party cookies centers on their usage and the control users have over them.

How to Check for Third-Party Cookies on Your Website

You can manually check for third-party cookies using browser settings or use online cookie checker tools. For example, in Chrome, you can press Ctrl + Shift + I, navigate to Application > Storage > Cookies, and check the domain list. Cookies from domains different from the website indicate third-party cookies.

GDPR and CPRA Regulations

Under GDPR, websites cannot store third-party cookies without user consent. Users must be informed about these cookies, and websites must provide clear options to accept or decline them. CPRA mandates an opt-out option for users rather than requiring consent.

The Future of Third-Party Cookies

Google plans to phase out third-party cookies in Chrome by 2024, following similar moves by Safari and Firefox. This phase-out aims to enhance user privacy while still supporting ad services through alternatives like Google’s Privacy Sandbox, which introduces APIs to replace third-party cookies for ad selection and measurement without compromising user privacy.

Alternatives to Third-Party Cookies

  • First-Party Data: Collect data directly from users through interactions on your site.
  • Contextual Targeting: Serve ads based on the content of the current webpage rather than user behavior.
  • Device Fingerprinting: Collect device information to create a unique user fingerprint for tracking without cookies.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it safe to allow third-party cookies? Allowing third-party cookies means accepting tracking and data collection by external sources, which could compromise privacy.

Should I accept third-party cookies? It depends on your comfort with being tracked and the potential impact on website functionality.

How do I enable/disable third-party cookies? Browser settings allow you to enable or disable third-party cookies, with options varying by browser. For example, in Chrome, navigate to Settings > Privacy and security > Cookies and other site data > Block third-party cookies to disable them.

Does Google use third-party cookies? Yes, Google uses cookies for various services, but plans to eliminate third-party cookies from Chrome by 2024.

Understanding third-party cookies, their benefits, and their risks enables you to make informed decisions about their use and management on your website.

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