Google’s tracking practices have been updated in order to improve digital privacy, and the implications are wide-ranging.
Have you ever shopped for a product online only to see ads for similar items start showing up on completely different sites? It’s something almost all internet users have experienced, and many of us have come to accept paper-thin digital privacy as a necessary evil justified by the convenience of the web.
And yet, it may not be as necessary as previously thought. In a surprise announcement on March 3, 2021, it was revealed that Google Ads will no longer create or use technologies that follow users across multiple websites. Learn what that means, why it’s important and how it could affect the future of digital advertising.
How Google’s Tracking Policies Are Changing
As Google Ads’ March 3 announcement emphasized, this isn’t the first time Google has made privacy-focused changes: In August 2019, the Chrome team introduced the Privacy Sandbox initiative, and in January 2020 a post on the Chromium blog stated that third-party cookies are on their way to obsolescence.
Now, Google Ads has clarified exactly what will happen once third-party cookies are gone: Google “will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals across the web, nor will [they] use them in [their] products.”
Remember, this applies to Google Ads, not just to consumer-oriented Google products. As such, any company that purchases advertisements from Google will no longer be able to track users across websites.
Why It’s Important
In 2020, eMarketer’s analysis revealed that Google Ads had a total revenue of $39 billion and an impressive search ad market share of about 60 percent.
In other words, more than half of the ads directed toward search engine users are purchased from Google. And with Google Ads’ new tracking policies in place, this means that more than half of search ads will soon be unable to track users across multiple websites.
This represents a marked change from the current search ad landscape. As of now, most ads and their associated websites are loaded with trackers designed to scrounge up as much user data as possible.
Just how many trackers? Use the privacy-centric Brave browser and you’ll soon see that every commercial website is equipped with multiple trackers, sometimes even dozens:
If you can be followed by 10 cross-site trackers from one website alone, imagine how many may be trailing behind you by the end of an hours-long browsing session like a dystopian version of Snake.
Google Ads’ new tracking practices and sweeping rejection of third-party cookies challenge this state of affairs, and the ramifications remain unclear.
The Future of Online Privacy and Google Tracking
As stated above, we’ll have to wait and see what the effects of Google Ads’ new tracking policies will be. In the meantime, though, we can make an educated guess based on current trends already in motion.
More specifically, we can see how users are likely to respond by observing their existing behaviors.
Take for example a Pew Research Center study referenced in Google Ads’ own announcement. The study discovered that 72 percent of Americans feel that all, almost all or most of what they do online or on their phone is tracked by companies, and 69 percent believe that companies are tracking at least some of what they do offline too.
What’s more, the vast majority of Americans don’t feel in control of their own data, believe the risks of data collection outweigh the benefits, are concerned about how their data is being used and don’t know what happens with their data once it’s collected:
Suffice it to say, consumers are decidedly unhappy with how companies are gathering and using their personal data.
This is further evidenced by the growing popularity of privacy-centric products and services such as Brave, DuckDuckGo and even personal virtual private networks (VPNs).
So, we’d be willing to bet that users will welcome Google Ads’ new tracking practices with open arms and start demanding similar changes from other advertising platforms (get ready, Facebook).
The Days of Unchecked User Tracking are Numbered
Up until now, advertisers, websites and search engines themselves have been free to gather as much user data as they see fit. While that’s still largely true, the tides are turning. And thanks to Google Ads’ most recent announcement, advertisers no longer have a choice in the matter.
In response, it’s time for companies to stop relying so heavily on user data and start getting creative. With the right high-quality content creation strategies and plenty of market research, detailed user data is only a small factor of digital marketing success.
Brave / March 2021
Pew Research Center / November 2019