The Battle Between Targeted Ads and Protecting User Privacy

How it all started

It all started with cookies. Cookies are digital notes that websites add to your web browser. They can be read by the websites that you visit. Websites can add additional cookies and edit the ones they added prior. Cookies make it possible for websites to hold your shopping cart for you, recognize when you returned to a website, keep you logged in to a protected area and many other similar valuable services. The down side to cookies is they also allow advertisers and digital companies to amass volumes of information about individuals. Using cookies, technology companies can very easily track the details of our online behavior, the sites we visit and what we are looking at. The initial purpose of this tracking was to allow advertisers to fine tune the ads that we see, but alas it also created a privacy nightmare.  

Google’s Attempt to Find a Solution

Google acknowledged this concern and has vowed to remove third party cookies from their Chrome browser, but since the release of this blog they haven’t been able to make the jump. Why? Well Google, along with many other digital giants, rely on ad sales revenue. Without cookies or something that behaves similarly, it’s difficult to accurately target ads to individuals and it’s that targeting that drives companies to pay Google to place ads for them.

The ideal solution would be a system in which advertisers can present ads to individuals that are genuinely interested in and would benefit from that ad’s offering while protecting the recipient individual’s privacy.  All parties would benefit.  The company buying ads would reach people interested in their offerings.  The individual ad recipient would see ads for items they are interested in while having their privacy protected. Google would continue to be a dominant player in the ad market, bringing buyer and seller together while championing privacy.

FLoC Fail

An early attempt by Google to achieve this is called FLoC. FLoC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts. The idea with FLoC is to group individuals into cohorts based on their online behavior. Web users wouldn’t be tracked individually, but rather as a group (the cohort). Several weaknesses in FLoC quickly emerged. The first was that Google was still collecting information about the individual users in order to create the cohorts. Google had to track the user and monitor their online behavior so as to know what cohort to place them in. So, individual user information was still tracked; it just wasn’t shared among as many entities. The second larger weakness was that other technology companies learned how to work around the FLoC safeguards and could still effectively identify individual web users.  FLoC left many of the initial privacy concerns intact.

Google’s New Tool: Topics

Google’s next attempt is called Topics. Google, via Chrome, will identify up to five areas of interest (topics) for each web user’s browser.  The topics will be set based on the websites visited and other online behavior, but this information will reside only on the user’s browser.  This is key.  Using Topics, Google will not collect information about the web user. Topics will persist on the user’s browser for three weeks and will constantly update based on the web user’s behavior.   Advertisers can select topics that they would like to advertise on. Conceptually, Topics allows a web visitor to remain nearly anonymous alleviating many privacy concerns while allowing advertisers a way to deliver targeted ads via Google’s platform.  As the framework for Topics is new, just released in late January of 2022, its adoption and success is still to be seen.

Google is claiming a 2023 unwind of 3rd party cookies so something is going to have to gain traction soon!!

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Prior article on types of cookies

Google documentation

Google documentation