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Goodbye, cookies. Hello FLoC? By now, marketers who rely on advertising and targeting through the Google machine likely know about the search giant’s plans for a third-party cookies alternative: the open-source Privacy Sandbox that intends to make cookie-tracking obsolete. It's built on anonymized group-targeting principles vs. individuals. Google calls these groups “Federated Learning of Cohorts,” or FLoC, where brands won’t be able to determine who they are targeting specifically, but will still get to curate relevant advertisements based on the interests of each FLoC. It’s currently rolled out for about a month now in a developer origin trial in Chrome. 

Google pays close attention to its advertising programs: in 2020, advertising pulled in $146.9 billion of its $182.5 billion annual revenue, or 80% of its total revenue.

Does Google Need Regulatory Intervention?

Not so fast, Google. Turns out, there are many FLoC hatersMarketers For An Open Web (MOW), a coalition of marketers and publishers who support an “Open Web,” last month teamed up with US Save Journalism Project and in a joint statement said Google “already possesses more data on more people than any other organization on the planet. In reality it is only stopping the use of third-party cookies to enhance its own commercial interests.”

That group is calling for regulatory intervention to stop Google from stifling open competition for the web. Google's got its hands full there already. In the meantime, marketers need to ask how many choices do they want on where they spend their money, according to James Rosewell, director of Marketers for an Open Web.

"If they're happy to have connected television, or the various different connected television platforms, and Google and Facebook, then that's OK,” Rosewell said an in interview with CMSWire. “If they think they're going to get value for money from an oligopoly, then I would say that’s flying in the face of not only economic theory but economic reality from other industries for well over 200 years. Monopolies don't tend to lead to good pricing, as far as consumers are concerned. And I think that should be very worrying. If marketers want to have a diversity of options through an open web — and that's why Marketers For An Open Web has open web in the title — then they should be very concerned.”

Google will continue to capture consent for personalized marketing when you buy an Android phone, when you use Maps, when you use Gmail and when you search, Rosewell added. They’re going to capture that consent and continue to offer personalized marketing "in a way that the rest of the world could only dream of," he added.

“And at the same time they're taking away through Privacy Sandbox the features of the internet and the web that allow competitors to offer a comparable proposition,” Rosewell said. “So if you think of it as a platform level, the open web starts to have its features diminished and in order to provide the same return on investment for an advertiser, either Google has got to really mess up and do something really dodgy or really bad, which I think would be very unlikely, or the open web is never going to be a competitive platform. And that's why Marketers for an Open Web are advocating for regulatory intervention.”

Rosewell suggests marketers follow and get involved with the Partnership For Responsible Addressable Media (PRAM) to make their voices heard. 

Related Article: Google Privacy Sandbox: Say Goodbye to Third-Party Cookies in Chrome

Oracle EVP: This Isn’t About Privacy

Ken Glueck, executive vice president at Oracle, didn’t exactly fawn over the Google FLoC rollout in his blog last month. Catching up with CMSWire, Glueck said, “Google can do this under the pretext of privacy, but that's not really what's going on here. And I think marketers need to be aware that choices are going to be fewer.”

It’s a fair debate whether or not third-party cookies are good or bad for marketing and consumers, Glueck added. However, Google’s Privacy Sandbox is a unilateral change that really eliminates a “big piece of the alternatives that are in the market today.”

Marshall Vale, product manager for the Privacy Sandbox for Google, wrote in his March 30 blog that “FLoC is a new approach to interest-based advertising that both improves privacy and gives publishers a tool they need for viable advertising business models.”

FLoC protects privacy in that:

  • You’re part of a crowd
  • It doesn’t share your browsing history with Google or anyone
  • Chrome browser won’t create groups it seems sensitive

“In the ideal end-state, from a user’s perspective, there won’t be any difference between how the web of today and the web in a post-Privacy Sandbox world work, except that they will be able to feel confident that the browser is working on their behalf to protect their privacy, and when they ask questions about how things work they will like the answers they find,” Google reported in its Chromium Projects forum.

Win-win, right? “No,” Glueck said. “Because the ultimate question in 2021 is, ‘Are you identified by your name, or are you identified by a set of Google identifiers?’ Your name is the least important part of you. There is the suggestion in these FLoCs that we're not tracking individuals, and that's just not true. It may be true that I don't know you by a name, but I've got a series of other identifiers starting [with] your Android ID. If you're carrying around an Android device, and ultimately, I'm taking everything I know about ‘Jessica’ and I'm putting her in a FLoC. And then I'm also putting Jessica in another FLoC.”

Effectiveness of FLoC TBD

So it’s clear some are viewing Google’s FLoC activity as antitrust and using the veil of privacy to just annihilate the competition in advertising. With that said, marketers still need to run their campaigns, analyze results and determine where to put their spend. Marketers have huge expectations for spending, too. Overall marketing spending fell 3.9% this February but expects to jump 10.3% over the next 12 months, according to the CMO Survey.

So what can marketers do about this now? What does the Google Privacy Sandbox mean for Google Ad spend in the future?

"Sandbox is going to fuel the next generation of ad tech solutions trying to find alternative solutions to find audiences at scale without third party cookies,” said Patrick O’Leary, founder and CEO of Boostr. "This fragmentation, which is already happening, will take time to evaluate the effectiveness. Marketers will likely be confused and will need to run lots of experiments to find what gives them comparable or better ROAS (Return on Ad Spend) than targeting solutions based on third party cookies. Google seems pretty confident in Sandbox and FLoCs, but we’ll have to see what happens.”

Related Article: Google's FLoC Helps Bring Cookieless Marketing and Privacy Into Focus

Get Handle Authenticated, Aggregated Data

Some believe in Google’s privacy push. Rebecca Rosborough, CMO at MiQ, said there's still a lot we don't know, but what we do know is that Google is taking privacy very seriously. By rejecting authenticated data/unified IDs within its own advertising products, Google’s drawing a clear line in the sand and saying, “We don't want user ID level targeting,” according to Rosborough.

However, she added, it's not “game over” for authenticated solutions, and marketers who've been building them into their strategies. There are loads of Demand-side Platforms (DSPs) beyond DV360 and AdX and it’s likely that many of them will allow authenticated identity targeting; crucially, they won't be blocked from Chrome, Rosborough added.

“First-party data is more important than ever,” Rosborough said. “Google is committing to using brands’ first-party data as a key identity mechanism within their products. And new solutions like data bunkers and clean rooms mean there are new highly secure ways to glean insights without cookies.”

All of it shows how important getting a handle on both authenticated and aggregated data will be in the future of programmatic, she added. Authenticated gives you the high quality insights, aggregated data gives you the scale. “But you're only going to get high-performing campaigns when you can power the latter with the former,” Rosborough said.

Educating Yourself on ‘Cookieless Identifiers’

With Google’s announcement of the Privacy Sandbox, identity resolution has seen an explosive wave of cookieless identifiers coming out in the market claiming the capability of supporting the use cases of third-party cookies, according to Budi Tanzi, VP of product at Tapad. There are several different types of these identifiers and they are not created equally; from authentication-based IDs to the device or user-based probabilistic IDs. “It’s important to know their utility, scale and adoption and be able to test them well in advance of the third-party cookie disappearing, so you can proceed into 2022 with confidence,” Tanzi said.

Don’t pressure yourself to pick one solution and think more broadly, he added. The third-party cookie delivered against a lot of needs of marketers today, and given the utility and methodology of new cookieless identifiers, it’s likely that marketers will need to employ the solutions of a few partners to fill the void of third-party cookies.

“And that’s OK,” Tanzi said. “Diversity in identity partnerships will enable the most tailored solutions to your business needs; in lieu of bending your own strategy and workflow to retrofit a single solution. Don’t be scared to test solutions and measure results.”

Related Article: How Apple and Google's Tracking Rules Are Impacting Advertisers and Marketers

Challenge Your Publisher Partners

Be proactive in researching and challenging the adaptation of your publisher partners and ad tech vendors to the cookieless world, Tanzi added. No matter how the industry changes in the future, privacy will always be a key factor. Make sure to work with partners who take a privacy-first approach and avoid partnering with companies that try to take shortcuts when it comes to privacy.

“If they aren’t already reshaping how they’ll address the loss of third-party cookies, you probably want to consider other partnerships,” he said. “The ad tech vendors and publishers working ahead of Google’s announcement will have the most tested solutions when the third-party cookie does deprecate.”

Getting Started Now as Rollout Continues

It’s important for marketers to understand the APIs in the Google Privacy Sandbox, according to Andrew Moz, founder of Monster Agency. “The entire rollout will take a long time to implement and the collaborative development process could take years to complete,” Moz added.

In the meantime, marketers can invest into things like fingerprinting, cache inspection, navigation tracking and network level tracking. Keep up to date with counter-proposals to Google’s initial suggest API’s such as SPARROW, DOVEKEY and PARROT. Regularly contribute and or keep up to date with The Chromium Projects.

“If you are tracking users’ behavior, preferences and demographic information on your website,” Moz said, “you will still be able to do this with first-party cookies.”