iOS 17 Link Tracking

Link Tracking Still Works, But Highlights The Need to Focus on First Party Data

By Sarah Cascone

You might have heard about the upcoming Apple iOS release. Rumors are flying among marketers that it’s going to cause tracking trouble. iOS 17 is set to be released sometime between September 13 and September 21, and after a number of Apple iOS releases that have limited tracking and targeting, marketers are concerned about a new feature called Link Tracking Protection, that this new feature will seriously reduce the link tracking that marketers use today.

The good news is that the actual effects on link tracking as you know it will be minimal with the release of iOS 17.  However, it is important to understand the new feature and how it will change the tracking of some Apple Safari users, and why retail marketers should focus on identification and signals, not just link tracking to maintain measurement capabilities. 

Apple’s news also reminds us to consider the inherent vulnerability marketers have if they continue to rely on channel-based tracking features. The privacy bar will continue to be raised, and not just by Apple. At a time when ROI measurement and justification are critical, retailers need to focus on tracking that will outlive future privacy changes. 

What exactly does iOS 17 limit and why?

Generally speaking, iOS 17’s Link Tracking Protection feature will automatically remove some of the tracking parameters (also known as a query string) from things like messages, mail, and links, making it harder to tie an interaction to a specific user. 

Apple noted that “When a tracking parameter is detected, Safari strips the identifying components of the URL, while leaving non–identifiable parts intact.” That implies that any query string that allows the tracking party (i.e. a company) to identify the user will be taken out. However, the user can click on any link and parameters will remain in place if they are not part of a query string. 

In case you’re wondering – a query string is a part of a link that starts with a question mark (?), and typically also includes ampersands (&) to join various tracking elements to the query string. For example, a company might use a query string to track both a unique customer ID and a campaign ID, or product ID. 

Based on current testing, Link Tracking Protection appears to be mostly limited to users who are navigating through Safari in private browsing mode, which accounts for a very small percentage of all users that Bluecore sees (less than 1%.) And one thing that’s not affected is tracking opted-in visitors for measurement purposes. 

Apple is making this update to increase security for Safari users. By removing the query string, a user can navigate the web without being “followed” by whatever third party had a tracking parameter appended to the original URL that the user clicked on. That’s a good thing, as are privacy measures in general. For a marketer, the goal is to stay ahead of privacy with a focus on opt-in, first party data and privacy-safe tracking approaches. 

Why Link Tracking Protection Doesn’t Affect Bluecore Customers

Bluecore estimates that only a very tiny percentage of user links will actually be affected by this update – probably less than 1%, but we have another layer of insight that minimizes the impact even further. With a focus on first party data and signals, Bluecore doesn’t rely solely on channel specific tactics like query strings. This helps you build a data-driven marketing approach no matter what Apple releases in iOS 17 and beyond. 

We have a robust approach based on transparent identification, which incorporates the unique collection and combination of first party customer data: a shopper’s identifier (such as: email, phone number) with shopper behavior (think: browse, search, click) and product data (like: just added, out of stock, price drop). There are many different approaches to identifying and tracking that we combine to deliver a solution that is only minimally affected by changes like Link Tracking Protection.

At the same time, we’re fully privacy compliant and are supportive of Apple’s focus on user protection. Our signal-based approach to marketing uses the available data to safely identify users across browsers and channels to create super-effective marketing experiences. 

Sarah Cascone, VP Marketing

Sarah Cascone

A metrics-driven brand marketer with 10+ years experience, Sarah has a passion for tying the human element of marketing to revenue growth. As VP of Marketing at Bluecore, Sarah’s focus is cultivating and nurturing the strong community of innovative retail leaders behind Bluecore's mission to empower brands to discover their best customers and keep them for life.