Who Wants to Play in Google’s Privacy Sandbox?

Who Wants to Play in Google’s Privacy Sandbox?

Google

On March 31, Google shared an update on a number of consumer privacy initiatives under way as part of its Sandbox initiative. And advertisers are not completely onboard.

What Google Announced

Before we get to Google’s March 31 announcement, let’s set the stage with a bit of context. Back in January 2020, Google upended the advertising world by saying that the company was planning to phase out support for third-party cookie tracking on Chrome. Cookies are online trackers that websites place on people’s web browsers when they visit sites. Without them,  businesses have a harder time serving targeted ads based on people’s interests, and it is more difficult to track the effectiveness of ads. But privacy advocates have long contested that cookie tracking increases the risk for people being tracked when they don’t want to be tracked. So, Google has been developing ways that make it possible for advertisers to create targeted ads without tracking people across the Web via cookies.

Google set a timetable for phasing out third-party cookies: at some point in 2023. This acts as a deadline for Google to provide advertisers an alternative to third-party cookie tracking. And Google is under a lot of pressure to do so given all the money the company makes from advertising.

Since then, Google has been slowly announcing the development of alternatives to cookie tracking, all being developed in the Privacy Sandbox. This is an initiative that aims to create technologies that both protect people’s privacy online and give companies and developers tools to build digital businesses. The Privacy Sandbox reduces cross-site and cross-app tracking while helping to keep online content and services free for all.

On March 31, Google said that it is making progress in rolling out some alternatives to the use of third-party cookies to serve up advertising on the Google Chrome browser. They include, most notably, the launch of tests for Topics.

What Is Topics?

Topics is a technology will track people on Chrome and assign them a set of advertising categories (such as travel or fitness) based on the sites they visit. When a person goes to a site with ads, Google will share three of those topics with advertisers on the site. This will allow the advertiser to show them to show a relevant ad.

That is the theory, at least. No one knows how the reality will pan out.

Topics sounds like cookie tracking, but it isn’t. It’s actually a software platform that publishers and ad tech providers will plug into in order to help target ads when people visit their sites through the Chrome browser. After Topics is enabled, the technology will track people on Chrome and assign them a set of advertising categories (such as travel or fitness) based on the sites they visit. When a person goes to a site with ads, Google will share three of those topics with advertisers on the site, which will allow the advertise to show them to show a relevant ad.

Topics are kept for only three weeks and old topics are deleted. Topics are selected entirely on a user’s device without involving any external servers, including Google servers.

In its March 31 announcement, Google said Chrome users will be able to opt out of the tests of Topics through their settings. In Europe, consumers have to opt in to enable the tests. As Google noted, participants “will be able to see and manage the interests associated with them, or turn off the trials altogether.”

So far, the ad tech industry has raised questions about how Google is proceeding with Topics. For instance:

  • There is worry that the need to opt into Topics in Europe will be a roadblock.
  • Others have complained that Google is attempting to use consumer privacy to exert its own influence over the ad tech industry.
  • There remains an open question as to whether Topics will even work.

Advertisers and technology firms raised objections when Google launched the predecessor to Topics, an open source program known as FLoC. FLoC was supposed to make it possible for businesses to group people based on their common browsing behavior instead of using third-party cookies. But FLoC caught plenty of flak from consumer privacy advocates who believed Google was overplaying its hand, as well as advertisers and agencies who accused Google of strong-arming them into playing by Google’s own rules. As one executive put it, FLoC was “a half baked idea.” It is an open question as to whether Topics will be an improvement.

What Advertisers Should Do

  • Work with your advertising agency to understand what’s happening and how you may be affected. That’s exactly what our clients are doing with True Interactive. That’s what we’re here for.
  • If you are succeeding with Google Ads, stay the course. Google is enduring an imperfect transition right now toward a privacy-world. But Google Ads? They’re not going away. Far from it – Google Ads are alive and well based on our experiences helping clients succeed with them.
  • Do invest in ways to leverage your own (first-party) customer data to create personalized ads as Google continues its assault on third-party cookies. We can help you do that.
  • Consider ad platforms such as Amazon Advertising and Walmart Connect, which, as noted above, give businesses entrée to a vast base of customers who search and shop on Amazon and Walmart. True Interactive offers services on both platforms in addition to our longstanding work on Google, Bing, and other platforms.

Contact True Interactive

To succeed with online advertising, contact True Interactive. Read about some of our client work here.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Google Rejects Alternatives to Cookie Tracking: Advertiser Q&A

Google Rejects Alternatives to Cookie Tracking: Advertiser Q&A

Google

Google recently made another major announcement in its quest to usher in a cookie-less world. Recall that in January 2020, Google said it was going to phase out third-party cookies on Chrome in a bid to protect consumer privacy more effectively. On March 3, Google published an update: Google will not build alternative tracking technologies (or use those being developed by other companies) for its own ad buying tools to replace third-party cookies. Let’s take a closer look at what Google announced.

What exactly did Google announce?

Google said that once third-party cookies are phased out of Chrome browsers, Google will not build alternative identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will Google use them in its products. Examples of those alternative identifiers include Unified ID and LiveRamp IdentityLink.

Instead, Google wants advertisers to adopt cohort-based targeting, or grouping people based on their common browsing behavior as an alternative to third-party cookies. Specifically, Google is advocating for the adoption of FLoCs (federated learning cohorts) developed out Google’s own Privacy Sandbox initiative. According to Google,

. . . our latest tests of FLoC show one way to effectively take third-party cookies out of the advertising equation and instead hide individuals within large crowds of people with common interests. Chrome intends to make FLoC-based cohorts available for public testing through origin trials with its next release this month, and we expect to begin testing FLoC-based cohorts with advertisers in Google Ads in Q2. Chrome also will offer the first iteration of new user controls in April and will expand on these controls in future releases, as more proposals reach the origin trial stage, and they receive more feedback from end users and the industry.

How will online advertising be affected?

It’s likely that advertisers will still be able to create targeted ads based on user behavior – but the ads will be based on larger cohorts of people based on their common browsing behavior as an alternative to third-party cookies. Google told The Wall Street Journal that ads using cohort-based targeting have performed nearly as well as the existing tools that target consumers individually.

But no one yet knows exactly how targeting will change. As Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communication officer at Mastercard, told The Wall Street Journal, “When you’re able to target precisely to individuals your effectiveness is very high. When you’re doing it to cohorts it’s bound to be lesser than the individual, but we don’t know how much less at this point in time.”

What should advertisers do?

We always recommend that when Google makes a major change to its products that advertisers keep a close watch on their spend and costs especially for any potential near-term fluctuations. (If you are a True Interactive client, we do that for you.) Beyond that, it’s time to wait and see. The worst action to take is to stop advertising on Google. Google remains the Number One digital advertising platform, even if targeting consumer behavior across Google’s universe changes from personal to cohort-based targeting.

Also:

  • Keep an eye on how the Google sandbox initiative evolves especially as Google begins testing FloC with advertisers in the second quarter.
  • Consider tapping into your own first-party data more effectively to create ads (and True Interactive can help you do so). As Google pointed out, “We will continue to support first-party relationships on our ad platforms for partners, in which they have direct connections with their own customers. And we’ll deepen our support for solutions that build on these direct relationships between consumers and the brands and publishers they engage with.”
  • Google’s FloC may not be your only alternative, the March 3 announcement notwithstanding. Watch the development initiatives such as Unified ID 2.0, which is a next generation identity solution built on an open-source digital framework. Unified ID 2.0 is the result of a collaboration among publishers, buyers, and technology providers. According to a recent announcement, Unified ID 2.0 serves as an alternative to third-party cookies. Unified ID 2.0 aims to improve consumer transparency, privacy, and control, while preserving the value exchange of relevant advertising across channels and devices. Tom Kershaw, the chief technology officer of Magnite and chairman of Prebid.org — which is the operator of Unified ID 2.0 — dismissed the Google news. He told Campaign that Google’s March 3 announcement has zero effect on Unified ID 2.0. He also said that he was never under an impression that Google would participate in Unified ID 2.0. For more insight, read his newly published commentary on AdExchanger.
  • Consider ad platforms such as Amazon Advertising and Walmart Connect, which give businesses entrée to a vast base of customers who search and shop on Amazon and Walmart. True Interactive offers services on both platforms in addition to our longstanding work on Google, Bing, and other platforms.

Contact True Interactive

To succeed with online advertising, contact True Interactive. Read about some of our client work here.

Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay

Google to Stop Supporting Third-Party Cookies on Chrome: Advertiser Q&A

Google to Stop Supporting Third-Party Cookies on Chrome: Advertiser Q&A

Google

Recently Google announced that over the next few years, it will stop supporting third-party cookies on Chrome. With Chrome currently accounting for more than half of all installed web browsers, this is big news. It follows actions by Apple and Mozilla to block tracking cookies in Safari and Firefox respectively, too. In light of this news, we’ve answered some questions you may have. A big caveat: this is an evolving story, and one being played out over the next two years. A lot can happen yet. That said, here’s what we know:

What Exactly Is Google Doing to Third-Party Cookies?

Google announced that over the next two years, it will not support third-party cookies on its Chrome browser. Let’s break down what this means:

  • A third-party cookie consists of text stored in a person’s computer that is created by a website with a domain name other than the site a visitor is visiting.
  • Third-party cookies make it possible for an advertiser to track a person’s browsing history and, in theory, serve up more personalized ads that follow a person around the web.
  • Typically web browsers allow third-party cookies.

But over the next few years, Chrome will replace third-party cookies with browser-based tools and techniques aimed at balancing personalization and privacy. So, third-party cookies are going away from Chrome – but that doesn’t mean advertising is. Far from it.

Google said it will replace third-party cookies with a (vaguely defined) browser-based mechanism as part of a new “Privacy Sandbox.”  The Privacy Sandbox is an evolving and (equally vague sounding) “secure environment for personalization that also protects user privacy.” Google describes the Privacy Sandbox an “open source initiative is to make the web more private and secure for users, while also supporting publishers.” In an August 2019 blog post, Google said the Privacy Sandbox would be a place to collaborate on better ways to provide relevant ads while protecting personal privacy:

Some ideas include new approaches to ensure that ads continue to be relevant for users, but user data shared with websites and advertisers would be minimized by anonymously aggregating user information, and keeping much more user information on-device only. Our goal is to create a set of standards that is more consistent with users’ expectations of privacy.

The unplugging of support for third-party cookies looks like a way for Google to get the industry to start playing in its Privacy Sandbox, resulting in a mechanism that will replace the cookie, protecting user privacy while also supporting advertisers. No one knows what that mechanism is going to look like yet.

Why Is Google Going to Stop Supporting Third-Party cookies in Chrome?

Google says it’s trying to balance personalization and privacy. Google’s stated objective is to create “a secure environment for personalization that also protects user privacy.” In announcing the change, Google said, “Users are demanding greater privacy–including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used — and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands.” At the same time, Google wants to make it possible for businesses to continue to offer personalized content. Google intends for the still-evolving browser-based mechanism envisioned by Google to do that.

How Will Ads Be Affected?

If you use a Google ad products, you will not be affected. Google will still be able to use data from its own search and other properties to target ads to people. But once Google phases out third-party support, you won’t be able to use third-party cookies to follow users around on Chrome and retarget with an ad them after they’ve visited your website.

How Has the Industry Reacted?

The move has received a mixed response.

Some critics point out that phasing out third-party cookies on Chrome is a cynical play to strengthen Google’s ad business because Google’s ability to use data from its own search and other properties to target ads to people remains unaffected.

Others have speculated that the change will make obsolete many tools that advertiser have been relying on. As Adweek noted,

Marketers wary of the industry’s reliance on Google will have to figure out how they can adapt their first-party data strategy as some of the de rigueur marketing tools of recent years are rendered redundant in most internet browsers. These include third-party data and data management platforms, and multitouch attribution providers, all of whose days would appear to be numbered (at least in their current guise), as third-party data has been a critically important part of how marketers shape their communications strategies with consumers for close to 25 years. For instance, Procter & Gamble, one of the industry’s largest-spending advertisers, this week effused over its frequency capping efforts at the National Retail Federation’s annual conference.

The Association of National Advertisers and American Association of Advertising Agencies issued a joint statement that said, “We are deeply disappointed that Google would unilaterally declare such a major change without prior careful consultation across the digital and advertising industries. In the interim, we strongly urge Google to publicly and quickly commit to not imposing this moratorium on third-party cookies until effective and meaningful alternatives are available.”

In fact, it’s possible that backlash will cause Google to reverse its course. A lot can happen in two years.

What Should Advertisers Do?

We reached out to Google to find out what near-term steps businesses need to take. Here’s what Google says:

First, you don’t need to do anything with your Google ad products. Google will be updating the cookies that Google sets and accesses for our advertising products prior to the deadline

Google recommends that you:

  • Confirm with your own engineers that they have conducted testing on your sites to assess impact and are updating any third-party cookies they control. It is important to also check non-ads use cases (e.g., logins, shopping cards).
  • Confirm with your vendors (ads and non-ads) that any cookies they set and access on your sites will be updated.

This is an evolving situation. We recommend keeping a close watch. At True Interactive, we’re following the situation closely and will be ready to help our clients sense and respond.

Contact True Interactive

To succeed with online advertising in 2020, contact True Interactive. Read about some of our client work here.