Google may not have totally derailed alternative targeting

Independents' speed to market and FLoC's own risks might make for a competitive post-cookie marketplace.
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Google’s announcement last week that it would not be developing a tracking method after the phase out of cookies has raised even more speculation about what the future of ad targeting looks like, especially when it comes to alternate identifiers currently under development by independent ad tech companies.

There has been a lot of talk and investment around hashed emails and Trade Desk’s Unified ID 2.0, methods that would  give advertisers a robust way of targeting individuals in what proponents say is a privacy-compliant way. Hashed emails encrypt addresses willingly provided to advertisers so they cannot be traced back to a particular person. UID 2.0 was the version of this that was picking up the most steam, with The Trade Desk rapidly adding numerous partners.

But in a blog post last week, David Temkin, Google’s director of product management, ads privacy and trust, said methods based on those kinds of principles would not be sustainable in the long run, as they weren’t in line with rising consumer expectations around privacy. That has raised flags about whether Google’s weight could be thrown around to dampen enthusiasm behind alternatives from independent companies and encourage adoption of its own FLoC approach.

“Google’s current positioning within the market is not necessarily new, as we have always been aware that they intend to limit the use of third-party data,” says Michael Ingemann, managing director of IPG’s Matterkind, though he adds that the blog post should not be seen as an obituary. “While there may be obstacles for the UID 2.0, this announcement will likely not hinder it from taking off. In fact, it is our belief that it has actually highlighted the solution as we continue to examine alternative options for overall targeting.”

There is also speed to market to consider. While Google is making FLoC cohorts available for public testing in Chrome this month, and testing with advertisers in Google Ads in Q2, The Trade Desk’s solution is already pretty far along. Last month, it also announced it is handing over operations to non-profit Prebid to independently operate the technical infrastructure to address any bias concerns. A code of conduct around permissions regarding the use and sharing of data is also being worked on and input from other governing bodies will be solicited.

Derek Bhopalsingh, VP of precision marketing and data Sciences at Wavemaker, says because most alternatives are far along, they can give marketers the chance to evaluate which one best aligns with their existing data systems, technology, and business objectives. “What we are already seeing, and will continue to see, is the rise of the walled garden approach with specific platforms and publishers. Certain platforms and publishers will use it as a tactic to protect, and in some cases increase, spending on their platform.”

Brian Cuddy, VP, digital activation at Cossette Media, believes Google has made a move that is in line with expectations from consumers, but FLoC might fall short of what its customers have come to expect. “There is a clear disconnect between Google’s solution and what primary industry partners would like to see moving forward, which may ultimately be a hurdle in adoption.”

With that, the issue is now becoming less about privacy protection and more about share of the advertising budget. And the use of hashed emails, says Bhopalsingh, will still be a point of debate as various solutions evolve in the marketplace – in other words, Google’s claims about email-based tracking aren’t totally unfounded. “It has been around for a while and is key part of systems like CRM matching programs. The important thing to note is that irrespective of solution, past or present, the more data various platforms collect on someone the less privacy they have. With emails rarely changing, you have a situation where with every use, that intended protection of privacy erodes a bit further. If history has taught us anything, the industry has not always been great at protecting consumers data.”

But Olga Senko, senior strategist at Horizon Media, points out FLoC is not without its own risks – behavioural targeting can be used as a discriminatory targeting method as well. And given the vastness of current technological development, solutions could adapt to FLoC limitations and find a work-around. For example, sites that happen to know a person’s information could record and reveal the FLoC cohort they are a part of, combining cohorts with other info to identify a user or the fact that some people may be sensitive to being associated with certain interests. However, Senko believes we should wait to see what public testing reveals, and if Google comes up with any solutions to mitigate these risks.