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Google’s FLoC poses a threat to identity solutions and advertisers

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Google’s FLoC poses a threat to identity solutions and advertisers

“Ultimately, this is Big Tech crushing the little guys in the industry.” Jon Waterman, CEO of advertising marketplace Ad.net.

“We’re going to have a scattered market of policies and regulations across countries and states – that’s already happening. You’re going to have a scatter of different browsers, not all saying the same things. That’s a reality we should all just be prepared for and have our eyes open to.” Michael Zacharski, CEO of Engine Technology and digital marketplace EMX Digital.

“We’re beholden to what the walled gardens – Google, Apple, Facebook – are going to decide to do. Part of being able to combat that is this whole third-party data story. They can’t take it away if you own it.” Sam Ngo, Director, Product Marketing at BlueConic, the CDP.

Three players in the advertising and data spaces reacting to the profound uncertainty in the advertising space which has been growing since the significance of a brief statement issued by Google on March 3 has begun to sink in.

Google set to become another walled garden

Identity and data vendors like The Trade Desk, LiveRamp, Neustar and others have spent months scrambling to devise alternative identifiers which will allow advertisers to re-target effectively once third-party cookies vanish from the Chrome eco-system by 2022. These solutions essentially work by associating behavioral signals with consensually obtained first-party identifiers — hashed emails or phone numbers. Probably the best-known is Unified ID 2.0, developed by The Trade Desk but now under the stewardship of open source alliance Prebid.org.

Find out more about Prebid.org and Unified ID 2.0

But did Google’s announcement that “we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products” (emphasis added) undermine this whole approach?

Waterman fears the worst. “Google are saying, if you want to use The Trade Desk, great, use the Trade Desk, but you’re going to be limited to the publishers that they have access to, and that have a unique identifier like an email address or a phone number.” Advertising on Google will be restricted to advertising to Google’s own FLoC audiences; cohorts grouped by behavior at the browser level.

“They’re rebranded the concept of a walled garden as their Privacy Sandbox. It’s kind of a more public-friendly term for their walled garden” added Ad.net’s VP, Business Intelligence, Justin Nakamura.

“They’re creating this mess for their own gain,” said Waterman.

Zacharski was prepared to entertain several possibilities. “I read it as, Google’s going to be building cohort audiences for you. One interpretation is that Google is becoming the arbiter of who is in which audience, with or without visibility into the recipe of how they make up that audience. One interpretation is that, through FLoC, Google is becoming the ultimate data broker for the space. That makes a difference for how a lot of companies have been thinking about building audiences, and being able to customize audiences and have differentiation of audiences.”

Alternatively, he pondered, they might be saying: “If you’re using first-party it won’t be available through FLoC, but it will be available outside as long as there’s one-to-one consent. That’s the big debate, whether Prebid single sign-on and hashed email or phone number matching is or is not going to be blocked by Chrome.  There’s not great clarity about that yet.”

Worst case scenario, Google becomes a version of Facebook, building its own audiences to sell to advertisers, and offering little or no visibility into how it’s done. Best case scenario, Google will do that for sure, but won’t outright prohibit the deployment of first-party data-based audiences.

“You have varying degrees of certainty, uncertainty, doubt – because the reality is that although there are positions and frameworks out there…there’s still a lot that’s unknown.”

And then there are questions the consumer will ask, said Zacharski: “Which of my data signals are being used to have me qualify for this audience, and by the way can I opt out of being in a cohort?”

Read more about Google’s FLoC alternative here.

The advantages of first-party data

Whatever Google’s position ends up being, there’s little doubt that brands will double down on first-party data — and also little doubt that that won’t fix everything.

“For us, it’s not about a one-to-one replacement for third-party cookies, but really about how we help companies continue to build first-party data assets,” said Ngo. “The point getting rid of third-party cookies was always to be able to put customers at the center.”

Building trust and loyalty can’t be done, said Ngo, if brands are using unreliable, low quality data. Third-party cookies were not a good solution to start with. “There was a lot of jumping on the bandwagon: oh, we can advertise to a segment of customers we never had access to before. Now it’s time to rethink that strategy.”

Blueconic supports its clients by helping them collect and manage first-party data. “We work with publishers where Blueconic powers their paywall. They’re not necessarily asking for a subscription right away, but after the second time a user visits the site, they’ll ask them to sign up for a newsletter. During COVID, some publishers decided to take down the paywall completely for COVID coverage, because that’s the type of relationship they want to have with their customer.”

When it comes to agile collection of third-party data, one size does not fit all. “One of our customers, Belgian Cycling Factory, instead of asking for email addresses, what they actually ask for is a bike registration number because that’s a unique identifier – but at the same time, they’re offering them extended warranties; so it’s about creating that value exchange,” explained Ngo.

“Blueconic is the technology that enables them to be able to design that experience, and then on the back-end helps them manage all that first-party data, ensuring that it stays high quality, and that we’re merging profiles as we recognize that someone is the same person – whether it’s across brands or within one website.”

Ngo views first-party data as a way of stepping off the Google treadmill. “If you haven’t been building your first-party data, it’s getting to the point where it’s too late to do it. It’s more important than ever, or you’re perpetually in this chase of, what’s Google going to do next?”

And the disadvantages

“For marketers, the notion of I have my first-party data, maybe I’ll be able to activate that –that’s great, but maybe that’s not the best type of data to acquire new customers,” said Zacharski. And that’s if you get buy-in from consumers in the first place.

“We still don’t know how comfortable consumers will feel putting their personal information into these systems. Maybe they’ll feel great about it, maybe it’ll be mixed. As an industry I don’t know if we’ve done enough work to build that bridge to the consumer so they really understand what they’re agreeing or not agreeing to,” said Zacharski.

Even the aggregation of huge volumes of first-party data by enterprises (think Procter &Gamble or Starbucks) doesn’t solve that problem. “With P&G, they have a lot of brands and a lot of people coming to those websites,” said Waterman, “but those are the only places at which they can capture that audience. If they’re already on their site, they’re already probably interested in buying something relevant. The value add that they had before – or they have now but won’t have in the future – is being able to re-target the user that came to their brand and buy that impression on a display of their video ad when someone is on, say, ESPN. That’s what they’re going to lose.”

Then there are the unanswered questions about what FLoC will allow. “It’s a matter of how compatible [first-party audiences] will be with the mix of technologies that will be available. You may have the regulatory consent, but does the plumbing in each environment, despite your verifiable legal standing, allow you actually to connect with those audiences?”

Engine Technology and Ad.net are preparing for the future in different ways, the former by focusing on CTV, the latter by relying on intent data.

“You have a new class of advertising with CTV,” explained Zacharski, “where the big screen in the living room is now the device you’re consuming content through. It’s like an app in its technical format, but it’s also a consented format.”

That’s part of Engine’s strategy, but it’s also committed to providing multi-channel opportunities to advertisers; it’s participating in industry-wide discussions on the future of addressability; and finally, said Zacharski, “we’re going to watch and respond.”

The multi-channel offering is based around Engine’s Device Graph+ solution. This combines data from Engine’s own SSP with data from Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) providers and attribution metrics from a third party. “We’re not targeting individual consumers, we’re getting to the household level,” said Zacharski. By associating devices with a household, Engine can provide options like advertise on CTV, re-target on mobile.

Zacharksi will say no more than that this will offer clients cookie-less targeting capabilities for the next 18 to 24 months.

A search space outside Google and Bing

“Three years ago, four years ago,” said Waterman, “we decided to focus purely on intent and contextual targeting. We use a level of audience targeting, like geography, but we focus primarily on intent for this reason: there’s no way to capture audience targeting at any scale with just Unified ID 2.0.”

This approach relies on the presence of Ad.net’s technology across a very large number of publisher websites, and in particular their search engines. “We define intent as a keyword search,” said Waterman. “We sell search intent outside of Google and Bing. We go out there into the marketplace, which is a very fragmented space without Google and Bing, and we capture that audience to drive to our clients, our advertisers.”

This aligns well with content marketing – articles or advertorials written with the express purpose of getting readers to reveal their intent or interest through their clicks. “We’re going to capture that and drive that user towards our particular advertiser who’s selling that particular product.” In effect, it’s analogous to a B2B funnel strategy, but scaled.

“We market ourselves purposefully as an extension outside of Google and Bing,” said Waterman. “We sell diversification of your ad spend, and that is lately resonating more with clients and advertisers, because they don’t want to give all the spend to one or two companies. They don’t want to give all their data to one or two companies. They want to keep it open.”

Bigger and bigger monsters

“The politicians have no understanding of what this is essentially doing; it’s creating bigger and bigger monsters,” said Waterman. We all love Google and we all love Amazon and we all use Facebook, but crushing the other competition that’s our there – that’s small, but keeps these guys honest – that’s the fear that I have. This is going to kill companies for sure, and unless you adapt and pivot very quickly, more of the wallet share is going to go to the big guys.”

Waterman continued: “What Google has effectively done is build its own walled garden. You go to Facebook, it’s a walled garden, you go to Amazon, it’s walled garden. You go to Google.com, it’s a walled garden; but now, everywhere Google sits within the eco-system, all the tentacles they have out there, is all part of that walled garden.”

Zacharksi is more tentative. “We’re not in the final inning. There’s going to be more ideation and more collaboration to come. There’s  multiple storylines happening as we watch this movie. The storylines are going to start to interconnect.”

This article first appeared on MarTech Today


Author:
Kim Davis is the Editorial Director of MarTech Today. Born in London, but a New Yorker for over two decades, Kim started covering enterprise software ten years ago. His experience encompasses SaaS for the enterprise, digital- ad data-driven urban planning, and applications of SaaS, digital technology, and data in the marketing space.

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Google to pay $391.5 million settlement over location tracking, state AGs say

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Google to pay $391.5 million settlement over location tracking, state AGs say

Google has agreed to pay a $391.5 million settlement to 40 states to resolve accusations that it tracked people’s locations in violation of state laws, including snooping on consumers’ whereabouts even after they told the tech behemoth to bug off.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said it is time for Big Tech to recognize state laws that limit data collection efforts.

“I have been ringing the alarm bell on big tech for years, and this is why,” Mr. Landry, a Republican, said in a statement Monday. “Citizens must be able to make informed decisions about what information they release to big tech.”

The attorneys general said the investigation resulted in the largest-ever multistate privacy settlement. Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, a Democrat, said Google’s penalty is a “historic win for consumers.”

“Location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects, and there are so many reasons why a consumer may opt out of tracking,” Mr. Tong said. “Our investigation found that Google continued to collect this personal information even after consumers told them not to. That is an unacceptable invasion of consumer privacy, and a violation of state law.”

Location tracking can help tech companies sell digital ads to marketers looking to connect with consumers within their vicinity. It’s another tool in a data-gathering toolkit that generates more than $200 billion in annual ad revenue for Google, accounting for most of the profits pouring into the coffers of its corporate parent, Alphabet, which has a market value of $1.2 trillion.

The settlement is part of a series of legal challenges to Big Tech in the U.S. and around the world, which include consumer protection and antitrust lawsuits.

Though Google, based in Mountain View, California, said it fixed the problems several years ago, the company’s critics remained skeptical. State attorneys general who also have tussled with Google have questioned whether the tech company will follow through on its commitments.

The states aren’t dialing back their scrutiny of Google’s empire.

Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was filing a lawsuit over reports that Google unlawfully collected millions of Texans’ biometric data such as “voiceprints and records of face geometry.”

The states began investigating Google’s location tracking after The Associated Press reported in 2018 that Android devices and iPhones were storing location data despite the activation of privacy settings intended to prevent the company from following along.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich went after the company in May 2020. The state’s lawsuit charged that the company had defrauded its users by misleading them into believing they could keep their whereabouts private by turning off location tracking in the settings of their software.

Arizona settled its case with Google for $85 million last month. By then, attorneys general in several other states and the District of Columbia had pounced with their own lawsuits seeking to hold Google accountable.

Along with the hefty penalty, the state attorneys general said, Google must not hide key information about location tracking, must give users detailed information about the types of location tracking information Google collects, and must show additional information to people when users turn location-related account settings to “off.”

States will receive differing sums from the settlement. Mr. Landry’s office said Louisiana would receive more than $12.7 million, and Mr. Tong’s office said Connecticut would collect more than $6.5 million.

The financial penalty will not cripple Google’s business. The company raked in $69 billion in revenue for the third quarter of 2022, according to reports, yielding about $13.9 billion in profit.

Google downplayed its location-tracking tools Monday and said it changed the products at issue long ago.

“Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said in a statement.

Google product managers Marlo McGriff and David Monsees defended their company’s Search and Maps products’ usage of location information.

“Location information lets us offer you a more helpful experience when you use our products,” the two men wrote on Google’s blog. “From Google Maps’ driving directions that show you how to avoid traffic to Google Search surfacing local restaurants and letting you know how busy they are, location information helps connect experiences across Google to what’s most relevant and useful.”

The blog post touted transparency tools and auto-delete controls that Google has developed in recent years and said the private browsing Incognito mode prevents Google Maps from saving an account’s search history.

Mr. McGriff and Mr. Monsees said Google would make changes to its products as part of the settlement. The changes include simplifying the process for deleting location data, updating the method to set up an account and revamping information hubs.

“We’ll provide a new control that allows users to easily turn off their Location History and Web & App Activity settings and delete their past data in one simple flow,” Mr. McGriff and Mr. Monsees wrote. “We’ll also continue deleting Location History data for users who have not recently contributed new Location History data to their account.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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5 Tips to Boost Your Holiday Search Strategy

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Student writing on computer

With the global economic downturn, inflation, ongoing supply chain challenges, and uncertainty due to the Ukraine war, this year’s holiday shopping season promises to be very challenging. Will people be in the mood to spend despite the gloom? Or will they rein in their enthusiasm and save for the year ahead?

With these issues in mind, here are five considerations to support your search engine optimization strategy this holiday shopping season:

1. Start early.

Rising prices are likely to mean shoppers will start researching their holiday spending earlier than ever to nab the best bargains. Therefore, retailers must roll out their holiday product and category pages — and launch any promotions — sooner to ensure their pages get crawled and indexed by search engines in good time.

Some e-commerce stores manage to get their pages ranking early by updating and reusing the same section of the website for holiday content and promotions, rotating between content for Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine gifts, Fourth of July sales, etc. This approach can help you retain the momentum, links and authority you build up with Google and get your holiday pages visible and ranking quickly.

2. Make research an even bigger priority.

With all the uncertainty this year, it’s vital to use SEO research to identify the trending seasonal keywords and search phrases in your retail vertical — and then optimize content accordingly.

With tools such as Google Trends you can extract helpful insights based on the types of searches people are making. For example, with many fashion retailers now charging for product returns, will prioritizing keywords such as “free returns” get more search traction? And with money being tighter, will consumers stick with brands they trust rather than anything new — meaning brand searches might be higher?

3. Make greater use of Google Shopping.

To get the most out of their holiday spending, consumers are more likely to turn to online marketplaces such as Google Shopping as they make it easier to compare products, features and prices, as well as to identify the best deals both online and in nearby stores.

Therefore, take a combined approach which includes listing in Google Shopping and at the same time optimizing product detail pages on your e-commerce site to ensure they’re unique and provide more value than competitors’ pages. Be precise with product names on Google Shopping (e.g., do the names contain the words people are searching for?); ensure you provide all the must-have information Google requires; and set a price that’s not too far from the competition. 

4. Give other search sources the attention they deserve.

Earlier this year Google itself acknowledged that consumers — especially younger consumers — are starting to use TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites for search. In fact, research suggests 11 percent of product searches now start on TikTok and 15 percent on Instagram. Younger consumers in particular are more engaged by visual content, which may explain why they’re embracing visually focused social sites for search. So, as part of your search strategy, create and share content on popular social media sites that your target customers visit.

Similarly, with people starting their shopping searches on marketplaces such as Amazon.com, optimizing any listings you have on the site should be part of your strategy. And thankfully, the better optimized your product detail pages are for Amazon (with unique, useful content), the better they will rank on Google as well!

5. Hold paid budget for late opportunities.

The greater uncertainty and volatility this holiday season mean you must keep a close eye on shopper behavior and be ready to embrace opportunities that emerge later on. Getting high organic rankings for late promotions is always more challenging, so hold some paid search budget back to help drive traffic to those pages — via Google Ads, for example. Important keywords to include in late season search ad campaigns include “delivery before Christmas” and “same-day-delivery.” For locally targeted search ads, consider “pick up any time before Christmas.”

The prospect of a tough, unpredictable holiday shopping season means search teams must roll out seasonal SEO plans early, closely track shoppers’ behavior, and be ready to adapt as things change.

Marcus Pentzek is chief SEO consultant at Searchmetrics, the global provider of search data, software and consulting solutions.

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Google Home App Gets an Overhaul, Rolling Out Soon

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Google Home app

Google refreshes its Home app with a slew of new features after launching a new Nest gear. This makes it faster and easier to pair smart devices with Matter, adds customization and personalization options, an enhanced Nest camera experience, and better intercommunication between devices.

This revamped Home app utilizes Google’s Matter smart home standard – launching later this year – especially the Fast Pair functionality. On an Android phone, it will instantly recognize a Matter device and allow you to easily set it up, bypassing the current procedure that is often slow and difficult. Google is also updating its Nest speakers, displays, and routers – to control Matter devices better.

Google Home App New Features

  • Spaces: This feature allows you to control multiple devices in different rooms. Google has listed a few things by room: kitchen, bedroom, living room, etc., although it’s pretty limited right now. Spaces let you organize devices how you see fit. For instance, you can set up a baby monitor in one room and set a different room’s camera to focus on an area the baby often plays. With Spaces, you can categorize these two devices into one Space category called ‘Baby.’

Google Home app Spaces

  • Favorites: This one is pretty self-explanatory. It allows you to make certain gears as a favorite that you frequently use. Doing so will bring those devices into the limelight within the Google Home app for easier access. 

Google Home app

  • Media: Google adds a new media widget at the bottom of your Home feed. This will automatically determine what media is playing in your home and provide you with the appropriate controls as and when needed. There will be song controls if you listen to music on your speakers. There will be television remote controls if you’re watching TV. 

Google probably won’t roll out this Home app makeover anytime soon. But you can try it for yourself in the coming week by enrolling in the public preview, available in select areas.

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