Google says it won’t track you directly in the future as it phases out cookies

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Google on Wednesday clarified its plans for targeted advertising, promising not to use other ways to “track” users around the internet after it ends support for cookies in Chrome by early 2022.

The company said in a blog post it will only use “privacy-preserving technologies” that rely on methods like anonymization or aggregation of data. Google announced plans in January 2020 to end support for third-party cookies, which fuel much of the digital advertising ecosystem, in its Chrome browser within two years.

The blog post from David Temkin, director of product management for ads privacy and trust, said the search giant had received questions about whether it will “join others in the ad tech industry who plan to replace third-party cookies with alternative user-level identifiers.” Ad tech players have been working on ways to balance consumer privacy while maintaining personalization in advertising after they can no longer use cookies.

“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,” the Google post said. 

Cookies are small pieces of code that websites deliver to a visitor’s browser and stick around as the person visits other sites. They can be used to track users across multiple sites to target ads and see how they perform. Google said last year it would end support for those cookies in Chrome by early 2022 once it figured out how to address the needs of users, publishers and advertisers and come up with tools to mitigate workarounds.

To do so, Google launched its “Privacy Sandbox” initiative to find a solution that protects user privacy and lets content remain freely available on the open web. Google said in January it was “extremely confident” about the progress of its proposals to replace cookies, and that it plans to start testing one proposal with advertisers in Google Ads next quarter. That proposal, called “Federated Learning of Cohorts,” would essentially put people into groups based on similar browsing behaviors, meaning that only “cohort IDs” and not individual user IDs would be used to target them.

Google says this is about how its own ad products will work, and it would not be restricting what can happen on Chrome by third parties. The company said it wouldn’t use Unified ID 2.0 or LiveRamp ATS in its ad products but wouldn’t speak specifically about any one initiative.

Unified ID 2.0, an initiative that some top ad-tech firms are working on together, would rely on email addresses that are hashed and encrypted from consumers who give their consent. Public company LiveRamp also has what it calls its “Authenticated Traffic Solution,” which it says involves consumers opting in to gain control of their data, and on the other side, brands and publishers being able to use that data.

Temkin said in the post that other providers “may offer a level of user identity for ad tracking across the web that we will not — like PII graphs based on people’s email addresses.” 

“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,” the blog post says. “Instead, our web products will be powered by privacy-preserving APIs which prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers.” 

Google had briefed several major advertisers and groups ahead of Wednesday’s post, including George Popstefanov, founder and CEO of digital agency PMG.

Popstefanov said in an email that while this is a dynamic shift, “we have been preparing for it for a while.”

“Following last year’s announcement to phase out third-party cookies, many of our clients have been moving swiftly to build their data infrastructures and to invest in their CRM, to better leverage their first-party data,” he said.

“The important thing is that consumer behavior isn’t fundamentally shifting, just our ability to track and measure behaviors as we’ve been accustomed to,” Popstefanov added. “The importance of strategic planning and insights will be more important than ever for understanding audiences and how to connect at the right times and in contextually relevant ways.”

He also said he believes Google is motivated to design its products and solutions to solve for the new reality.

“Marketers are already diversifying their spending in more areas up and down the funnel, so it will be incumbent on Google for its solutions to appeal to brands and to support marketers’ investments and impact,” Popstefanov said.

Alec Stapp, director of technology policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, called Google’s news a step in the right direction for user privacy. The group has received funding from Google and other major tech players, Protocol reported last year.

“However, companies — even very large ones — can only do so much on their own,” he said in an email. “Policymakers need to step in and formalize rules that protect user privacy while being mindful of not burying users in an endless series of opt-in screens.”

Jon Halvorson, global VP of consumer experience at Mondelez International, said the decision is consistent with feedback from consumers about what they want and expect. He said the company will be doing some testing in the Federated Learning of Cohorts and will be building it into business plans for this year.  

“We don’t think that it can be privacy or performance, advertisers need and require both,” he said in an email.  

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