‘We will not build alternate identifiers’: In drastic shift, Google will end behavioral targeting, profile-building in its ad products

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Google helped create and grow the digital ad ecosystem that relied on tracking and targeting ads to people across the web. Now, up against pressure from regulators around data privacy and antitrust, Google will stop enabling cross-site tracking and targeting of individuals outside its own properties such as in inventory it sells through its Google AdX display and video ad exchange.

“Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products,” wrote David Temkin, director of product management, ads privacy and trust ad Google in a company blog post published on March 3.

Many of the ads that Google sells run outside its own properties on other websites where it has allowed advertisers to target people based on what they do across the broader web, such as the various sites they visit. Now, those behavioral targeting capabilities will go away. The impact on digital ad targeting and measurement throughout Google’s ad universe could be drastic, but many details on just how the changes might affect specific ad products are yet to be determined.  

At this stage, here’s what we know:

  • Google’s targeting changes will go into effect when it officially stops recognizing third-party cookies in its Chrome browser. In January 2020, the company said it would do that within two years.
  • Google will no longer build user-level profiles within its ad systems nor will the company use such data to enable targeting on non-Google sites. That means Google’s AdX ad exchange and other services that target ads to web inventory outside Google properties will no longer support any cookie replacement identifiers (think the Trade Desk’s Unified ID or identity tech built by LiveRamp).
  • Google will not block non-Google DSPs from connecting with publishers and will still allow publishers to use first-party data to target along with Privacy Sandbox-based targeting and measurement methods.
  • Google’s ad targeting changes are focused on the open web and will not apply to the mobile app ads bought and sold using Google’s ad tech.
  • While Google is stopping cross-site tracking and targeting across the web, advertisers buying through Google will be able to target ads on non-Google sites based on aggregate data, using its FLoC method, which enables targeting based on audience cohorts rather than by targeting individual people.
  • Advertisers will still be able to target their own databases of consumers through their own first-party data on Google properties, such as Google’s search results pages and YouTube.
  • Google isn’t changing any policies for how publishers collect or use data gathered directly from users. So, a publisher that uses Google’s ad tech will still be able to sell ads that are targeted based on the publisher’s first-party data.
  • When advertisers buy ads from Google’s ad exchange to run on publisher sites such as BuzzFeed or The New York Times, they will be able to use their own first-party data or FLoC cohorts to target ads.
  • Google will still allow targeting across its own properties when people are logged in to their Google accounts. For instance, if someone is logged in to their Google account and searches for dog food on Google’s search engine, Google might aim a dog food ad to that person inside another Google property, like YouTube.

Google has publicly stressed a commitment to keeping the open web free and accessible, which will require advertising support for content publishers and service providers that don’t rely on subscribers or other fees. But Google has incentives to continue steering ad dollars toward inventory inside its owned-and-operated properties where it has identifiable first-party data connections to logged-in users through Gmail, Google Docs and its other services.

“As the industry shifts to a more privacy and consent-oriented business model, the ability to manage, syndicate, and measure the impact of advertising against first-party audiences will become the foundation of sound campaign strategy and investment,” said Nii Ahene, chief strategy officer at Tinuiti, which manages ad campaigns on Google and other platforms for advertisers.

What this means for identity tech and Chrome
Google wants to prove to advertisers that it believes in the targeting and measurement capabilities it has been developing through its Privacy Sandbox initiative. The company has faced skepticism from advertisers, ad sellers and industry watchers who have questioned the efficacy of the sandbox methods, and wondered whether Google will actually use the ad targeting solutions it’s developed to replace third-party cookies in its Chrome browser.

What Google’s latest move means for identity technologies that are intended as privacy-safe replacements for third-party cookies is more complicated. While Google won’t allow ad targeting based on what it calls “alternate identifiers” in inventory it sells, it will continue to enable those identifiers in its Chrome browser environment.

Google’s decision not to support alternate identifiers for cross-site tracking is just another step in a gradual move away from tracking technologies based on questionable user consent. Amid restrictions on data use in Europe and U.S. states including California, the company has transitioned away from allowing targeting technologies that merely replace third-party cookies with other forms of identity such as email addresses or fingerprinting techniques that piece together identity.

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In his post, Temkin said Google recognizes its decision to stop building user profiles across its ad products “means other providers may offer a level of user identity for ad tracking across the web that we will not — like PII graphs based on people’s email addresses.”

Cohort targeting results “will be worse”
Google has tested new approaches for targeting without third-party cookies through its Privacy Sandbox effort. The company expects to begin testing FLoC-based cohorts with advertisers in Google Ads in the second quarter of this year. However, its decision to stop cross-site profile building and limit targeting to offerings based on aggregate user data is a drastic departure from the sort of behavioral, interest-based digital targeting most advertisers will continue to spend on until third-party cookies go away entirely.

When asked about targeting based on cohorts, Jason Hartley, head of search, shopping and social at PMG, said it “could have a significant impact on the way we activate and measure audience strategies because it will reduce the pool of addressable audiences as well as our understanding of the consumers in those pools.”

Publishers are testing the type of cohort-based targeting that has been developed inside Google’s Privacy Sandbox through Prebid, another collaborative initiative for devising ways to enable ad targeting without third-party cookies. When you move from cookies to cohorts, “ad effectiveness is degraded,” said Tom Kershaw, chief technology officer at ad tech firm Magnite who serves as chairman of Prebid. While he said he supports the use of cohort-based targeting, he added, “Performance will go down. It will be worse.”

This article has been updated to reflect that Google will stop enabling cross-site tracking and targeting for ads purchased through its ad tech products that run outside of its properties. A previous version had stated the change would also apply to ads running on YouTube.

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