Back in January, Google announced it was phasing out third-party cookies on its Chrome browsers. It did so under public and competitive pressure to do more on privacy. But the search giant said it would take two years to phase out cookies.
This week Google added to that message by announcing it would not replace cookies with another individual tracker after phasing out the annoying little bits of code.
Google’s recent privacy moves have a broader context. The announcement that it was phasing out cookies, while significant, was really a matter of catching up. Rival browsers Safari and Firefox had already forsaken third-party cookies.
Google also faces broader pressure to improve its privacy. There is a general sense that Big Tech is under the glare of antitrust regulators and the DOJ. The scrutiny involves many issues, with privacy being at the forefront.
Less significant but still notable, has been the emergence of search competitors. A growing list of companies has been entering the fray with a pro-privacy message. These include DuckDuckGo, Neeva, and You.com. The latter two are still in test mode and are led by veteran tech executives with meaningful backers. You.com, for example, is supported by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
Duck Duck Go, the elder of the group, hit the 100 million daily users query milestone in January. Granted that pales compared with the 5 billion Google generates in a day. But the growth got the search industry’s attention. Clearly, there is a consumer movement for search that doesn’t involve being stalked across every channel we use by ads for everything from vegan-friendly clothing to productivity software.
Trust and Privacy
Google shared the latest news in a blog post published today titled “Charting a Course Towards a More Privacy-First Web.” In it, David Temkin, Google’s Director, Product Management, Ads Privacy, and Trust, wrote the following, citing the Pew Research Center.
“As our industry has strived to deliver relevant ads to consumers across the web, it has created a proliferation of individual user data across thousands of companies, typically gathered through third-party cookies. This has led to an erosion of trust: In fact, 72% of people feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms or other companies, and 81% say that the potential risks they face because of data collection outweigh the benefits.”
Temkin acknowledged that Google may fall behind in the level of targeting it can offer advertisers. But he suggests that Google is making a bet that whatever replaces cookies will itself become a lightning rod for consumer privacy advocates. The example he cites is PII graphs based on people’s email addresses. He said Google is working on something better.
“We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long-term investment,” Temkin writes.
So What’s Google’s Plan?
Temkin says Google will move to an API-based system, which he argues is both effective and privacy-friendly. Google’s next phase of performance tracking comes out of its Privacy Sandbox initiative. This was an effort launched in 2019 to try and create a system that’s sustainable in a privacy restrictive environment.
A basic premise of FLoC — or interest-based advertising, is to replace tracking individuals with tracking groups of people with common interests.
“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,” Temkin wrote. “Chrome intends to make FLoC-based cohorts available for public testing through origin trials with its next release this month, and we expect to begin testing FLoC-based cohorts with advertisers in Google Ads in Q2.”
Google is a company that is good at PR. It’s also good at search. We’ll watch with great interest to see if a FLoC-based system will mean advertisers won’t ever miss cookies. If that’s the case, Google will have done a lot to eliminate the rationale for many of its newer competitors. Neeva in particular was founded by the man who once ran what is now called Google Ads. Does this mean Neeva is dead before it’s even out of beta? We will soon know the answer to this and other important questions about the future of Google Ads.