Why some publishers worry identity tech could slow down their sites

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The race to replace the third-party cookie risks leaving publishers with sluggish sites if an overload of alternate identifiers offsets any speed gained from sites shedding the cookie.

As identity tech firms scramble to get publishers to adopt their cookie-replacing IDs, the tech providers argue there’s not much required of the site owners. Publishers don’t have to pay to support the identifiers; they only need to add some code to their sites. The primary reward, the identity tech firms promise, is higher ad revenue for the publishers based on the ability to recognize the authenticated site visitors that advertisers are looking for. But in addition to the very palpable fear of ceding control over their audience data to identity tech firms, publishers also worry that adding an abundance of new tech could create problems by slowing down site load times.

“I can’t just throw a bunch of identifiers on a page and hope that some work and don’t work,” said Sara Badler, svp advertising and partnerships at Dotdash, which owns publications like Verywell and The Spruce. Badler told Digiday that identity tech vendors tell her, “If you put the tags on the page, there’s very minimal impact… but that’s just not the case.” The potential for any new piece of tech to increase page load time is “the biggest hurdle” to adopting any cookieless identifier, said Badler.

Page load time is a major consideration because of its impact on publishers’ search-driven traffic, Badler said. Dotdash generates around 85% of its visitor traffic through search, and site latency is a factor in search rankings. Google announced in May 2020 that it plans to incorporate a set of user experience metrics called Core Web Vitals, which include page load speed measurements, to determine search rankings. That is leading publishers to take a close look at how IDs may affect their site speeds and, by extension, their traffic and resulting ad revenue.

“We test every ID solution not just for revenue, so we know that it’s helping publishers make more money, but also for performance, using Core Web Vitals and other metrics,” said Don Marti, vp of ecosystem innovation at CafeMedia, which manages ads for small publishers.

Avoiding clunky tech

Ultimately, identity tech providers demand that publishers add another piece of code to their sites — “client-side,” in tech parlance, and it is more than a mere imposition, Badler said. “When you put them client-side, you’re essentially giving them the keys to your house,” she said. As an example of her protective approach, she added, “We didn’t roll out a consent management platform till this year because we were so concerned with how clunky it would be.”

Other execs from publishers including BuzzFeed and Maven, which publishes Sports Illustrated and TheStreet, agreed latency is a factor when evaluating the new crop of ID tech from companies including LiveRamp, The Trade Desk, BritePool and ID5. “[Latency] is absolutely something that has to be considered,” said Maven COO Andrew Kraft, who said he’s interested in testing several identifiers.

Page load time is “a concern for advertisers; it’s a concern for publishers,” said Ric Elert, president and COO of Publicis Groupe’s data marketing firm Epsilon, which said on April 8 it will partner with The Trade Desk to hinge its ten-year-old Core ID product to Unified ID 2.0, the industry-wide identity offering developed by the Trade Desk. Because publishers want more demand, he said, “they get into that trap where they want to sync with so many places.” Each attempt to sync an ID can slow down a page.

However, Elert argued Epsilon’s identifier doesn’t create site latency because of the company’s massive scale. One of the largest data brokers in the world, Epsilon connects with enough partners to see 400 billion interactions among people, brands and site publishers each day, Elert said. That frequent connectivity enables the company to confirm people’s identities on a regular basis through its access to logins happening across the web, he said. “We can connect the dots so [publishers] don’t have to do 17 calls to get the reach they need,” he said.

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Cookie syncs took longer

In general, Marti said the publishers that CafeMedia works with haven’t experienced lag time from ID technologies. “As with any code, we sometimes see performance issues in the testing process,” he said, “but we have been able to report issues to the [ID] companies and get any needed improvements before deploying at scale.”

Of course, many identity tech products have been developed as a way of replacing third-party cookie tracking. While the IDs may add to publishers’ page loads, their sites could potentially net out to be faster when adding the IDs but removing the cookie. Syncing third-party cookies had the potential to significantly affect page load time, or PLT, said Brendan Riordan-Butterworth, a tech consultant for HIJ Consulting who has been evaluating identity technology for publishers, advertisers and tech clients. While he suggested publishers should consider the impacts of identity tech code on page load time — as well as sluggishness brought on by processes some ID technologies employ involving redirects before page requests are made — he said, “Most [ID] solutions I’ve looked at decrease PLT.”

Test, test, test

Like Marti, Maven’s Kraft said there are ways to test identity tech without placing burdens on site performance that could affect things like search ranking. “I’m signing all the ID providers, but I’m not going to call them all on every page,” Kraft said. Rather than calling every identity partner on every pre-bid call, he said he will test identity tech performance by doing dynamic insertion of each provider’s code based on attributes such as region, domain, browser and whether ads are running on mobile or desktop. “The key is testing, looking at the data, and understanding the specialty and focus of each identifier, as they are all different, even if they do have overlap,” he said.

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