Farewell, FLoC; we hardly knew ye.
After many months of hype, Google has canned their Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) program, which they had intended to replace third-party cookies (and perhaps forestall anti-trust and privacy legal action). We made no secret of our low expectations for the program, but we were trepidatious regarding what solution Google would find to the looming issues with their current data harvesting practices.
What’s Different About Topics API?
Google’s new program reduces the amount of information advertisers can see about users as well as the amount of time they have access to it. The API tracks users’ activity for a week and uses the data to identify five interests (or “topics”), of which advertisers can only see three (one per week for three weeks). After the three-week period, the data is deleted and the API collects new data.
Importantly, data is stored on user devices, not on servers owned by Google or any other company. Google has also introduced noise via a 5% chance that a random topic will be returned when gathering user data, introducing a certain amount of uncertainty (bad for advertisers, good for privacy).
If you’re like us, you might be wondering how this differs from affinity targeting, Google’s previous attempt to group users by interest. Affinity audiences are notoriously inaccurate globs of data, so we’re crossing our fingers Topics API will be a great deal more sophisticated… but so far, there hasn’t been much evidence of that. It’s even possible the two avenues will be merged.
What’s the Takeaway?
Topics API is not the final nail in the coffin of targeted advertising, but it does put the patient on life support. From a privacy standpoint, Topics API is an improvement, but not the massive change some privacy advocates were hoping for: third-party trackers will still know what sites you browse, and cross-device tracking will likely continue unimpeded. The bad news for advertisers is that their precision may decrease as the number of topics has been dramatically reduced (to ~350 compared to ~32,000 for FLoC), rendering collected data less specific and useful.
It has always been in Google’s interest to remove advertiser tools and automate their ad platform to whatever degree possible, and any automation is sure to favor Google’s bottom line. It remains to be seen exactly how Topics API will affect how advertisers gather data and execute campaigns, but we’ll be sure to keep you updated as we learn more.
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