Jon Fletcher 2021-03-10

Google to Stop Selling Ads Based on the specific sites you browse

The advertising and publishing industries are well aware that Google is removing support for third-party cookies in the near future. But, as part of the dismantling of the current online system, Google has announced that they will not pursue a replacement that tracks users across multiple websites or fund research into similar tracking solutions. 

This announcement is a development of Google's move to a 'privacy-first' online experience. The key distinction in this announcement is that even without cookies Google will not use the specific sites users visit to serve advertising. 

Cookies track people as they interact with different websites, building detailed profiles that are used to serve ads targeted to this user. Chrome is removing support because they are too closely tied to identifiable individuals and expose user data to too many different parties and vulnerability for the value they provide. 

So, in addition to removing support for third-party cookies, Google will no longer use the specific sites users browse to help advertisers target them via Google's advertising platform. 

Previously a cookie could tell advertisers that a specific user visits X, Y, and Z car websites. As well as blocking the cookie, Chrome will not share the site information with other advertisers or brands via any other type of tracking technology. 

Writing in the Google blog, David Temkin, the director of Product Management, Ads Privacy and Trust made it explicit. 

'We will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.

Some advertisers and publishers were holding out hope that Google would develop a like-for-like alternative for cookies. Instead of third-party cookies a less invasive, but similarly effective solution could offer the same level of tracking - done in a different way. 

The announcement has made it clear that Google won't help advertisers follow single users across the internet.

Why would Google want to stop collecting such valuable data? 

Google's public answer is that this change helps 'chart the course towards a more privacy-first web'. They don't believe that solutions that track individual browser habits' Will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren't a sustainable long-term investment. '' 

But, this isn't the end of targeted advertising. Instead of tracking sites visited, users may be grouped into a Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) that tells advertisers information about their consumer interests without tying this info to identifiable users or tracking individuals across multiple sites. 

In addition, removing this level of tracking may devalue some advertising but Google makes most of its money on AdWords in search. The ads you get based on sites you visit have a very low level of efficiency. Visiting the Nike and Adidas websites might you want running shoes, but it might mean you want a volleyball. Searching for running shoes' in Google is much easier to serve up a properly targeted ad. This platform only gains value. 

Then comes the issue of user demand for more online privacy. Even if new methods of advertising are less effective after the change (which is not a certainty), Google may become more competitive as users start to fade away from platforms that still use more invasive tracking techniques. 

This announcement pressures non-search companies (such as Facebook) to also remove tracking. If not, Facebook will be an outlier in having to explicitly say that they need to track users across the web, an ugly look in 2021.

Does this make Google less vulnerable to wholesale regulation? 

No company wants more government regulation. If major online platforms are seen to actively and effectively policing themselves, it reduces the pressure for external regulation or even the potential break up of its stronghold. 

By making changes that can be controlled, Google is able to plan and adapt in time to make them profitable. It also stops regulators from having to force this change in behavior that may be far more stringent or come tied to other regulations that make it harder to profit from this change. 

Google is proactively making positive privacy changes and engaging in structured debate with publishers and advertising organizations such as the IAB to build 'an innovative, dynamic future for digital advertising in which advertisers, publishers, and consumers have a wide range of paradigms and suppliers from which to choose. '' 

With this announcement Google is more appealing to users, less vulnerable to external regulation, their advertising becomes more valuable and shines the spotlight on other platforms still using site tracking.

Where does this leave publishers? 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this announcement has been the surprised reaction from elements of the advertising and publishing industries. This is news, but it's not surprising news. This announcement is that it is exactly in line with what Google has explained they want to do and is consistent with all of Google's previous statements. 

Meanwhile, Google will still track and target users on mobile apps, and it will still target ads to users based on their behavior on its own platforms, which make up the majority of its revenue and won't be affected by the change. Furthermore, the ad industry's approaches, such as UID, aren't affected by this. 

As with the announcement over cookies, the publishers that truly struggle will be ones too heavily invested in a single source of revenue and no ability to defray. Having multiple ad networks, working on competitive solutions will enable publishers to keep revenues up during any transition period. 

Ad companies that rely on cookies will have to find another way to target users and publishers that rely entirely on Google's open exchange revenue will be susceptible to the biggest disruption.

Is this about privacy or profit? 

The ultimate question when it comes to wholesale changes to how the internet works. Google will tell it is about privacy at the cost of their bottom line, but Google's definition of privacy by design doesn't exclude collecting data. It hinges on preventing this data from being passed across the fences between platforms and websites. 

Fortunately for Google, within their ring-fenced community live the largest user base, collection of first-party data, most-used websites on earth, and a complete advertising ecosystem. This announcement makes a concession to user privacy while ushering more users within Google's own walled garden. 

The Venn diagram of Google's definition of user privacy and 'good for Google' is still very much a circle. 

Will this satisfy users' privacy concerns? 

While there is still tension over privacy between users and advertisers there is growing acceptance of the role that advertising plays to support the best and weirdest parts of the internet. 

Advertising removed the traditional gatekeepers of media and gave a voice to more corners of the world. It may be better to only give your data to one company, but soon there may only be one company that controls it all. 

Rather than being the end of the conversation, this announcement is likely to spark more user demands for privacy and control but targeted at data monopolies like Facebook and Google. 

Users will want to see advertising and the data that informs it uphold a unique and democratic internet, not fewer companies deciding what is right for them.

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