WTF is the authenticated web?

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

Amidst the ongoing chaos of life without third-party cookies, the concept of the authenticated web stands out as a puzzling enigma. The idea of a marketplace filled with premium ads, all at a fair price, seems almost too good to be true outside of the walled gardens. Yet, here we are, still pondering its tantalizing potential while The Trade Desk’s CEO Jeff Green throws another curveball into the mix.

So, let’s hit the pause button, catch our breath, and dig deep into what the heck this authenticated web is all about — and why it’s worth our attention, or maybe not.

What is the authenticated web?

It’s anything that makes users verify their identity through a secure process (like logging in with an email) to access content on a site or app.

So like streaming services? 

Exactly. Streaming services require a login to use them, so they are part of the authenticated web, just like a news publisher.

Is the authenticated web similar to the first-party web?

First-party web, premium web, authenticated web — they’re all essentially the same thing to ad execs: high-quality ad inventory sold on the back of first-party data and consent.

But they’re also different?

Yes. It’s probably best to view them all as extensions of the premium web idea, which should really emphasize media quality and integration, rather than just focusing on authentication and identifiers.

Why is everyone (including The Trade Desk’s CEO) talking about the authenticated web now?

The short answer is third-party cookies. As their end draws near, the ad industry can’t ignore the need for alternatives. Publisher data, collected through authentication, is one of those.

The authenticated web doesn’t sound cheap?

Yeah, it’s not cheap, but that doesn’t mean it’s unfair.

What makes the authenticated web different from the open one?

The open web is driven by intermediaries using third-party cookies, with publishers often playing a passive role in a market dominated by these intermediaries. In the authenticated web, however, publishers should, at least in theory, be on the frontlines, actively engaging with their audience and data. They become a cornerstone of the ecosystem, not just an afterthought.

“The first-party web acknowledges that all signals are derived from the publisher,” said Danny Spears, the chief operating officer at publisher alliance Ozone. “This means the role of technology should become one that works in favour of the publisher themselves — and the scope of that tech should be both clearly defined and limited. With trust playing such an important role, each publisher’s choice of partners feels way more considered.”

So ad tech becomes a means to an end, not an end to itself in the premium web?

That’s certainly how publishers would like it.

If that’s true then shouldn’t the authenticated web be a win for publishers? 

It is, but only if publishers can get enough logins to attract ad dollars. The problem is, many can’t. Gathering that info means dealing with user hesitancy, technical debt, and regulatory requirements. Because of these hurdles, publishers struggle.

The authenticated web suddenly doesn’t sound so great, after all.

The crux of the matter is that the identifiers crucial to supporting the authenticated web will never match up to human scale. And even if they did, privacy concerns would undoubtedly rear their head. Some critics argue that these alternatives to third-party cookies offer scant privacy improvements in comparison.

So, all that talk about publishers making this work is nonsense?

Not exactly. It’s true that some publishers have built successful ad businesses using logins. The confusion lies in how many publishers can do this and what percentage of their user base needs to log in. The Trade Desk suggests it could be as little as five percent, while others think it will require much more. Either way, there’s a clear divide on how achievable this really is.

It sounds like The Trade Desk has a lot to say about this. Why?

Depends on how cynical you want to be. The optimist’s view is that The Trade Desk has always championed the best practices outside the largest walled gardens, so their support for the premium web is no surprise. Cynics, however, think they’re acting out of necessity, not altruism — after all, they need the authenticated web to thrive to keep buying media effectively. 

The truth is probably somewhere in between — similar to how Alessandro De Zanche, founder of media consultancy ADZ Strategies, sees it: “What TTD is envisioning is exactly the same opportunity that media owners have (had for years) to take control of their own premium advertising environment, which is directly correlated to the quality of their content. In many countries that potential is already available (Ozone, TRUSTX, etc.) but what’s missing is the adoption of the concept of exclusivity and scarcity (i.e., publishers are also selling the same inventory through many other channels at the same time).

Should an ad tech vendor be the one to control so much of the spending and narrative around this topic?

This ties into Spears’ earlier point. Publishers should have more influence over what “premium” means in advertising. They should be in a stronger position when choosing their partners, rather than having partners imposed on their ad businesses.

Ozone’s Spears put it like this: “No one’s really clear whether any of those third-party IDs are delivering a contribution to their [publisher] business. If you can’t see that they’re delivering tangible value, then the publisher is on the losing side of the exchange. Publishers need to think long and hard about how they approach those types of considerations moving forward.”

In other words, the authenticated web is a touchy subject for publishers? 

Yes, that’s a fair point. Generally, publishers find this beneficial for the reasons we talked about. But the tricky part is their identity data. Not many publishers have fully taken advantage of it yet. Instead, it’s often used as the base for ad tech’s identity strategies, similar to third-party cookies, and this might keep happening. This makes publishers feel uncertain about the authenticated web. It doesn’t mean they’ll have full control over their future. While total control might be unrealistic, they can still take steps to gain more influence. By understanding their identity data, both for logged-in and anonymous users, they can make smarter choices about which partners to work with. This way, they can better evaluate if third-party identity solutions from ad tech vendors truly value their data.

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