In its years-long undertaking to phase out third party cookies and replace it with privacy-friendly data insights, Google has proposed a new method. Called Topics, Chrome will assign areas of interest based on what websites a user visits. So, if you visit rugbywoldcup.com, most likely you’re a sports fan. Or, if you visit bbc.co.uk, you’re most likely interested in politics.
Let’s take a step back, shall we? After the major browser, Firefox and Safari started blocking third party cookies, Google was forced to move and also do something about potentially intrusive trackers.
But that puts Google in a tight spot. In contrast to Firefox and Safari, Google runs a thriving ad business but is also behind the browser Chrome. So, Google proposed a plan to block third party cookies from its Chrome browser by end of 2022 and replace it with a more privacy-compliant approach.
The revolution is postponed
Google’s task can be called gigantic. It’s nothing less than to reinvent online advertising. Which should have started by end of 2022 but Google will let the third party cookies live on longer: until late 2023. And even this new deadline appears to be flexible.
During the transition period, Google will test various cookieless ad methods. The old method was scrapped because both regulators, as well as the advertising industry, were worried that it would further strengthen the company’s hold on online advertising. The reason is because Google already knows so much about the interests and habits of its users.
The old method was called “Federated Learning of Cohorts” (FLoC). It grouped uses into “cohorts” based on interests. These are groups of people that share similar interests. Privacy experts, consumer advocates, and civil rights activists like Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue that it could expose demographic or device data.
They saw this method as establishing the browser itself as a data collection tool for as a breach of the dam against privacy. But even more damaging is that the most important customer group rejected it. Advertisers did not pay nearly the same prices for cohort targeting in early test runs as they did for the still current advertising methods with third party cookies.
The new method, Topics, will address both concerns raised by privacy advocates and the advertising industry.
Chrome will still remain central. With Topics, the browser will create an interest profile from your surf history. It determines subjects (or topics, hence the name of the method), like “cooking”, “travel”, or “programming” according to your browsing history.
These topics are considered as your main areas of interest and advertisers can access these to target accordingly. The topics are kept for 3 weeks and then deleted. The browser makes the list of topics, locally and without involving any external servers. This means each week the interest profile is updated.
This approach should be less invasive because only domains and subdomains are processed and not the concrete content of the website when evaluating the surfing history. As mentioned, it’s Chrome that does the profiling and no external servers are involved in the process.
If you’re running a site, you can forward the interest profile to your advertising network. This means Google will not have preferential control over the data. But considering Google’s market share in advertising, most profiles will still end up with the company.
Topics offer more control to the user
Once rolled out, you’ll see your Topics within Chrome’s settings. This allows you to remove specific topics. The topics will also be erased when you delete your browsing history. If you use the incognito mode, no topics are created.
Topics limited to around 350
Initially, the topics will be limited to around 350. This list is based on IAB. Later, the list will expand to a few thousand possible interests. This is to reduce the risk of fingerprinting and enhance privacy. With such a small list, you get rough, even very rough targeting.
Think of it like this: If I like e-sports, I still get lumped together with somehow who likes sports car racing or someone who likes sailing. Don’t you think this is quite a difference? And this difference can be between so worthwhile and totally worthless for a digital marketer.
This may be one of the reasons why the advertising industry is not entirely convinced about Topics. It allows much less targeting than cookies. Also, the much-used retargeting – hated by consumers and loved by companies, isn’t possible with Topics.
Google plans to launch a developer trial of Topics in Chrome in the coming weeks. The company has promised not to deactivate the third party cookies until enough replacements are available for advertising.
Opt out options
In order for topics to work, you need to include the Topics API into your website. This means, if you don’t want to participate, you can just not include the API and opt out of Topics. If you participate, an overall category will be assigned. Each website using Topics API will get its own overall category.
As a user, you can toggle off the Topics API using Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox settings.
According to Google, Topics improves the issues of the previous method with the cohorts. It puts users into broader categories instead of smaller, more targeted groups. In theory, larger topic groups would grant more anonymity. How will The company deal in general with techniques that circumvent the cookie ban? These are for example browser fingerprinting, cookie syncing, or the systematic matching of first-party data.
As an advertiser, aren’t you wondering if the new solution will give an advantage to larger vendors? And will smaller companies be prevented from accessing certain topics? This can be a major headache for new entrants: It may create a b§arrier to entry for new players.
For now, the browser uses the last 3 weeks of browsing history to create Topics. The Topics themselves are kept for 3 weeks. Doesn’t this mean that some topics can be already 6 weeks old? Are they still relevant for targeting then?
Topics are assigned from the top domain of a website. Won’t this favour niche sites, sites? Put differently, a large website with many subjects and contexts may provide little useful information for the creation of a topic compared to a single topic site.
As you move around the web, don’t you think you’re going to see much more than just 3 topics in a week? Google’s browser Chrome will record 5 topics in a week, but will only share 3 with advertisers based on the three-week historic interest. They’ll be based on what you’ve visited most. But this will mean that as advertisers, we’re going to miss opportunities.
As the phase-out of third party cookies is deferred for a year, this gives you a bit more time to adapt your strategies and move from targeted and retargeting tactics. It’s time to develop brand-first and creative-led strategies. If you like to have more guidance during the transition, feel free to contact me.