Google has today clarified that despite industry speculation and discussion around alternative replacements for third-party cookies, which the search giant is gradually phasing out, it will not be looking to provide a means to maintain the same level of individual data tracking once cookies are gone.
As explained by Google:
"We continue to get questions about whether Google will join others in the ad tech industry who plan to replace third-party cookies with alternative user-level identifiers. 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."
That could be a blow for advertisers who were hoping for an alternative option, in order to maintain their data flows as normal. But then again, Google has been pushing forward on its removal of cookies for some time, so its official stance in this respect is no real surprise.
To clarify, in January last year, Google officially outlined its plan to phase out third-party cookie tracking due to shifting consumer and regulatory sentiment around data privacy on the web. Google had been working towards this for some time - in May 2019, Google began investigating solutions to address concerns about data misuse, while still maintaining a level of data tracking.
Based on these investigations, Google established that it would be possible "to sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete". Google has been experimenting with different methods on this via its Privacy Sandbox, which has enabled Google and its advertising partners to establish workarounds and alternatives that will protect individual privacy, while still allowing a level of user data collection.
But in the end, advertisers won't have the same level of individual user data available. Instead, Google is proposing new anonymized groupings for ad targeting.
"Advances in aggregation, anonymization, on-device processing and other privacy-preserving technologies offer a clear path to replacing individual identifiers. In fact, our latest tests of FLoC show one way to effectively take third-party cookies out of the advertising equation and instead hide individuals within large crowds of people with common interests."
That should ensure ad targeting remains responsive and focused, but it will be a significant shift in the specific data advertisers have become used to. Combine that with Apple's coming IDFA update, and it could mark a major change in digital advertising approach - which is important, given the broader concerns about individual user tracking, but it will force an adjustment in strategic thinking.
So how do brands counter this, and ensure their ads remain as targeted and responsive as ever? Well on both fronts, in terms of cookie tracking and IDFA, we don't yet know the full extent of the impacts because we haven't seen what will happen once each element is removed.
It could be that the change is minimal - essentially, users will be able to implement more control over data tracking if they wish, but there's no guarantee that they will, which could mean data targeting remains largely intact.
But it could, as expected, see some major shifts. Some apps will still have access to lots of user data regardless, so effectiveness could remain relatively stable. But, in certain applications at least, you can expect that there'll be a need to change your audience tracking approaches, which will eventually lead to new industry norms, and likely, new ways to maintain direct connection with your focus audiences to boost ad effectiveness.
As Google notes:
"Developing strong relationships with customers has always been critical for brands to build a successful business, and this becomes even more vital in a privacy-first world. We will continue to support first-party relationships on our ad platforms for partners, in which they have direct connections with their own customers. And we'll deepen our support for solutions that build on these direct relationships between consumers and the brands and publishers they engage with."
Establishing your own databases, your own contact listings, collecting your own data insights, and utilizing your own audience segmentation, will be an important focus for all brands moving forward. If you don't have audience data collection processes in place yet, or they could stand for some specific improvement, it may be worth investing the time into working out the most effective data elements for your business, and how you might be able to maintain that connection in future.