Google Topics Resembles Contextual Advertising

In 2020, Google announced that it would eventually end third-party tracking cookies in its Chrome browser. Cookies, which are tiny snippets of code, made it possible for advertising networks, including Google Ads, to target folks based on their browsing behavior.

Due to cookies, what an individual does online determines which advertisements and messages she sees. Data from cookies combined with other personal information translates into highly targeted (and effective) advertisements.

Now, Google is proposing an ad-targeting feature called “Topics” that would defend user privacy and replace third-party tracking cookies.

Privacy vs. Relevance

Ads that relied on behavioral targeting could be very relevant. Instead of seeing promotions for uninteresting items, folks saw products and services they could use.

Unfortunately, this relevance came at the expense of privacy. Ad networks harvested all sorts of private and sometimes embarrassing information. This data might even be associated with a specific email address, an actual street address, or a named individual.

Topics Proposal

Privacy-advocating groups, regulatory bodies, and tech companies have started to shy away from tracking-based behavioral advertising.

Google is giving up tracking cookies. Apple let everyone opt out of tracking in iOS 14.5. Meanwhile, the European Union, several nations, and a few American states introduced laws deterring tracking.

Last year, the company tested Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) technology. And while Google said FLoC was 95% as effective as tracking cookies, it still was not privacy safe. The Electronic Freedom Foundation, for example, published an article describing FLoC as a “terrible idea.”

Since April 2022, Google has been testing a new, perhaps better, option, the aforementioned “Topics.” (I will refer to Topics, the ad feature, with a capital “T” – distinguishing it from lowercase topics in the generic sense.)

Boiled down, Topics has three parts:

  • It “labels” websites with a subject, or topic,
  • It associates a user with topics based on browsing behavior,
  • It shares a visitor’s topics with participating websites and ad networks.

Topics in Use

An example might help explain how Topics could work to target someone.

First, Google has identified about 350 topical labels to avoid race, ethnicity, and gender subjects.

One of these topics is “Arts & Entertainment / Comics.”

So, imagine if a person visited sites like Dark Horse Comics, Comic Book Herald, and CBR.com (the site formerly known as Comic Book Review). In Chrome, Topics might associate this person with the comic topic.

When this person, who is now associated with the comic topic, visits a more general website, Chrome will share the visitor’s topic, allowing the site and any ad server it employs to show relevant comics-related advertisements.

There are some complicating details. The Topics feature associates five new topics with a person each week. It also adds a random topic that does not interest the person to confuse nefarious efforts to track individuals.

Topics will only show three websites of an individual’s usual subjects. After three weeks, it deletes them.

Finally, users have the option to opt out of the Topics feature.

Contextual Advertising

While Topics would allow advertisers to find, for example, a comic-loving consumer on a much more general website, this proposed privacy-preserving feature sounds similar to good old-fashioned contextual advertising.

If an online comic book store wanted to target folks who read comics, it could simply place ads on sites like Comic Book Herald and CBR.com.

Because of the context, the advertiser would know folks visiting these sites are interested in comics. In essence, Topics does this for you.

In a way, the proposed Topics tool is an endorsement for contextual promotion.

A marketer who is willing to do a bit more work should be able to find many contexts to promote products, including vertical websites, newsletters, podcasts, and influencers.

Topics and Context

Suppose it turns out that Topics is a roaring success. In that case, it could encourage the advertising and marketing community to look beyond sizeable programmatic advertising platforms to find contextual placements that might be advertising gems.

However, looking beyond platforms such as Google Ads, Meta Ads, and Microsoft Ads does not mean avoiding them. These platforms will still be essential for most businesses in the foreseeable future.

Here is the point: Tracking-based behavioral ads are a lazy way to market. You could buy an ad on Meta and let its algorithm find nearly perfect targets based on their behavior across devices. You could target warm audiences on Google Ads and know that you should get pretty good results.

The new focus on privacy will probably make advertisers work harder, but finding good contextual opportunities might be worth the effort.

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