Google Chrome: The Next Chapter Has Yet To Be Written

The following appeared in the mighty AdExchanger on Jan. 27, 2020:

Google’s blog post last week announcing a two-year experiment to replace third-party cookies in Chrome shocked very few but was treated like a tweet from Mount Doom.

It’s no coincidence that digital ad spend surpassed offline, the California Consumer Protection Act went live and Google’s Privacy Sandbox became a meme all in the same quarter. This is the final scene.

But of what? Now that the lava has settled and everyone and their favorite influencer has weighed in on the news, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Here are three:

We need a better cookie anyway

The internet was not designed for advertising. It was intended as a tool for academic links and was purposely “stateless” – each message between browser and server is self-contained. Thus, the cookie.

It was also not intended for ads. As written by an affable 23-year-old Netscape engineer named Lou Montulli, the original spec describes what we would call a first-party cookie that stored information for a shopping cart. Expanded a few years later, the standard guaranteed users “control” over data collection but left the details up to the browsers. And in fact, the whole ethos of the cookie – the fact that it’s an anonymous ID and the user could delete it – was to provide a better internet without invading privacy.

Over the years, of course, a $100 billion-plus business developed on top of techniques such as the “pixel” and “piggybacking” – but these are basically workarounds. Think about it: The “pixel” is an image that is purposely invisible, requested solely so that a third party can establish a connection and retrieve a cookie in the browser. “Piggybacking,” where tags call other tags and so on (and so on), is even more confusing.

What if we could get a do-over? Look at mobile app advertising, which appeared in the 2000s and has thrived without cookies. What about some kind of token similar to Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) or Android’s AdID for browsers? Like the in-app version, it could be issued only to approved publishers that really sell ads. It could be randomly changed every hour or two. This isn’t where the “sandbox” appears to be going, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Consumers need more information

You’ve probably noticed that the ad tech industry is playing defense. Google’s provided a chance to do what “I [Heart] NY” did for Manhattan: clean up the streets, get control of traffic and improve the image of the brand. Make it morning again.

It would probably surprise many to learn that most people in the ad business are hard-working, well-meaning, creative and technical women and men who are just trying to push commerce along. Advertising isn’t evil, and it isn’t mind control. Some of it is even hilarious.

Advertisers need a counternarrative, one that explains exactly how little most of them actually know about consumers and how pseudonymous it is. Far from “tracking you around the web,” that retargeter likely knows just two things about you, not including your name: that you looked at a particular item in the past, and that you are on this website now. That’s it. You might even welcome the reminder.

We need an image makeover; now is the time. If Times Square can do it, anybody can. The steps are admitting the problem, eliminating defects and providing opt-outs. Consumers are smart enough to understand that ads support the open web and services they value, including Google and Facebook. Examples of GDPR and IDFA hint that only about 20% of users are unwilling to consider a value exchange. There are plenty who will.

There’s still time to influence the outcome

The two-year debate may seem long, but at least there’s an end. It gives an agenda and a deadline. After all, the third-party cookie has been “dying” for at least 10 years, and uncertainty is not good for anyone’s blood pressure.

Meanwhile – despite what you might think from scrolling through Twitter – nobody was really blindsided. Smart publishers have been building up their first-party data assets and improving the ad experience. Many already run successful private marketplaces. Vendors such as data management platforms and demand-side platforms embraced IDs beyond the traditional cookie years ago and – like publishers – shifted to managing first-party keys and consent frameworks. Measurement vendors moved from traditional multitouch attribution to supporting hybrid multitouchpoint methods that are probably more accurate anyway. The only thing that’s “dead” is 2008.

Industry standards are generally good. Case studies from the width of train tracks before the Civil War to the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie-rating system of the 1960s and the internet itself prove that widely-shared standards encourage efficiency and growth – and minimize political problems. We should welcome efforts like the ANA and 4A’s outreach to Google.

It would take a game theorist to predict what will happen. History tells us the “rule of three” probably applies, with three platforms (and some high-margin niche players) controlling the field. It’s up to advertisers, agencies and vendors, interested consumers and their advocates to make sure that they do the right thing.

Follow Martin Kihn (@martykihn) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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