April 04, 2022

Written by Mark Smith

Who Wants to Play in Google’s Privacy Sandbox?

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