On January 25, Google announced a major evolutionary change to its privacy sandbox campaign to eliminate the use of third-party cookies for its digital advertising and analytics solutions. Until then, Google had developed a data privacy management framework, called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), that was intended to help deliver digital ads while preventing unwanted ads and online covert tracking from third-party solutions.
Now, Google has replaced FLoC with an algorithmic API framework called TOPICS for its privacy initiative. The tech giant believes that TOPICS will offer the right combination of personalized advertising information and consumer privacy protection.
Given its dominant market share position in browser usage and online search, Google is working to position itself at the forefront of the industry’s transition away from data third parties generated by browser cookies. His first attempt resulted in FLoC.
FLoC was designed to replace cookie-based advertising signals by applying machine learning modeling to browser history. Models score the topic of a website visited through a browser, match the topic to a category, and then allow personalized ad campaigns to appear based on the category. Categories are simple descriptions that are relevant to consumer activity, such as “travel” and “fitness”.
The original plan was to deploy FLoC, allowing marketers to gradually adjust ad campaigns and search strategy. But early industry feedback on early leads with FLoC raised potential concerns about model performance.
In an API documentation for TOPICS on GitHub, comments from FLoC trials included concerns about identifying clients based on cohorts. The most vocal comments were concerns about Fingerprinting, a technique in which information about the software and hardware of a remote computing device is collected for identification purposes.
Any information collected without explicit permission online is increasingly challenged, and identifying mobile devices can sometimes be akin to identifying a person without permission.
Related article: Why did Google abandon FLoC for topics and what is the marketing impact?
Google’s reinvented approach
With TOPICS, Google has incorporated lessons learned from FLoC into a reinvented approach. The machine learning model for ad orientation remains, but with a revised framework that incorporates time block functionality.
When analyzing a user’s browser behavior history topics, TOPICS identifies the top three categories based on a three-week history period. Google TOPICS also provides user controls in the search engine to allow users to periodically review categories and remove those that are likely to send ads that are irrelevant to them or ones that they simply don’t like.
Categories in TOPICS started at 350, relating more to everyday consumer interest. But that’s sure to change – a majority of B2B professionals rely on Google Search, so it’s likely that categories will play into business needs a bit more when TOPICS is rolled out for wider use. Thousands of categories are expected to be added soon.
Potential benefits for marketers and consumers
The impact that Google TOPICS brings to analytics becomes as profoundly multifaceted as analytics itself. Behavioral systems and strategies measured by analytics will gain clearer signals related to page visitor behavior through Google TOPICS, increasing the quality of the measurement applied.
Here are three potential benefits:
Marketers and consumers more confident
One of the impacts of Google TOPICS is a potential boost in consumer and marketer confidence – a rare opportunity given the well-known difficulties with attribution and cross-channel messaging these days. With a user-selected limit to browser behavior history, consumers will feel confident that they can control which advertisers learn of their interest while browsing websites casually.
Marketers will have better choices to understand how personalized ad campaigns are influenced. This influence often leads to where ads are placed in online content through networks that are not originally listed on an advertising plan. Marketers are demanding a tool to prevent ad campaigns from appearing on online networks harboring the wrong customer audience. Google TOPICS aims to be that highly desirable tool.
Behavioral Cohort Analysis Boost
The second impact is a guiding timeframe for using the data in behavioral analysis. For example, an SEO keyword analysis might reflect search queries or conversions from customers who likely viewed a given campaign within a three-week period from the campaign launch date. Integrating TOPICS into an analysis also serves as a starting point to guide campaign planning.
This scenario gives marketers a reasonable guess as to how long customer interest in content will remain, thus strengthening behavioral cohort analysis. By having the data associated with a defined retention period and a known set of user interests, TOPICS brings consistency in the type of cohort that will be identified from the data.
Focus on device-driven search behavior data
A third benefit of Google TOPICS is that the ads are curated without involving any data being sent to a server, which addresses a major privacy pain point. First-party data that eliminates forwarding ensures compliance with privacy regulations that involve data residency — the application of laws based on where the data resides relative to a given territory.
Google and other tech giants have struggled with court rulings over data privacy. My privacy post explains the recent court ruling declaring Google Analytics non-compliant due to sending its data to servers outside the European Union. TOPICS eliminates this server residency issue by focusing on device-focused search behavior data within a client rather than servers.
App development will also see the influence of Google TOPICS
Google TOPICS is important not only from an analytics solution perspective. Developers learn to provide services through browser extensions. Extension provides another level of data that can help the customer experience, especially when an application is at the heart of that experience. Naturally, ads are also used in many apps, so developers also share the same concerns as marketers to keep ads relevant and protect customer privacy from third parties.
Developers will see other technical options to address these concerns. Google announced that the TOPICS framework should be available for Android apps. Also, a developer trial is coming where Google will learn more about user controls acceptance from marketers and developers. Developers will also see a second API framework, PLEDGE, designed for remarketing and custom audience needs, while avoiding third parties that track users’ browsing behavior across sites. Google will reveal more about PLEDGE later this year.
Marketers working alongside developers will need to better understand what devices customers are using when encountering ads and content. This has always been available via Technical Reports in Analytics Solutions, which I explain in this post:
Related Article: How Google Analytics Tech Report Can Inform an App Launch or Marketing Strategy
What will Google bring next for marketers and app developers?
Google is confident that TOPICS will improve customer experience with advertising campaigns while protecting consumer privacy. In the meantime, marketers can prepare their data analytics fit for first-party data strategies.
Consumer browser privacy is about having a choice for your exposure to advertisers when searching online. People still accept ads, but demand better privacy measures to ensure their relevance. Google strives to respect these choices, highlighting a machine learning strategy that incorporates first-party data and privacy needs.
As a result, Google TOPICS may be the best opportunity yet to strike a balance between personalized convenience for consumers who want privacy and information for marketers who want to deliver relevant personalized ads.
Pierre DeBois is the founder of Zimana, a digital analytics consultancy for small businesses. It reviews data from web analytics and social media dashboard solutions, then provides web development recommendations and actions that improve marketing strategy and business profitability.