Google announced Thursday a major new privacy initiative that could, if adopted by the industry, significantly change how ad targeting works on the web.
Fingerprinting, lost revenue
One is an increasing use of device fingerprinting, where a variety of small differences in device configuration – browser version and settings, device specs, onboard fonts and so on – create a unique user profile that can tracked without cookies. But, Google pointed out, device fingerprinting means the user is giving up info without consent, so the company made clear it opposes the practice and will take more steps in the future to thwart its use.
The other pitfall: free content on the web will be greatly reduced if publishers can’t target ads through cookies or other means. In a post on the Google Ads Blog, Senior Product Manager Chetna Bindra noted that her company looked at the traffic of some top Google Ad Manager publishers over the last three months.
The results would not surprise many publishers. For traffic where there was no cookie, publishers received an average of 52 percent less revenue than for traffic where there was a cookie, because of the inability to target ads. For news publishers, the results showed a 62 percent drop in revenue for cookie-less traffic.
The ‘privacy sandbox’
To remedy this conundrum – more consumer data privacy without seriously affecting the availability of free content on the web – Google is proposing the industry work toward new privacy and ad targeting standards.
Beginning with the new announcements, Chrome Engineering Director Justin Schuh said Thursday in a “Building a more private web” post on the Google blog, the company intends to work with the web community to “develop new standards that advance privacy, while continuing to support free access to content.”
A key proposed element of that new vision is something Google is calling the “Privacy Sandbox,” which it describes as “a secure environment for personalization that also protects user privacy.”
Other proposed standards
In the Sandbox, information particular to a user – such as browsing history or geo-location – would remain inside the Sandbox in the browser. But its info would be used to associate that user with an anonymized audience segment containing users having the same attributes.
So, if a user had recently visited the websites of Toyota dealerships, purchased tickets online to a Bruce Springsteen concert and visited pages relating to babycare, the browser would keep that user-specific info, but the user would be tagged as belonging to Group ABC, containing pointers to many other users with similar likes. Ads that target such a profile would be directed at everyone in the group, but the specific data for each individual would remain hidden.
Google is also suggesting the development of other industry-wide privacy standards, including rules for consumer-accessible metadata in ads, consistency in how consumer data is collected, a method for addressing companies that violate standards, and an encrypted token that could identify which users are non-bot humans without revealing their identity.
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