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Google to Stop Selling Ads Based on Web Browsing: What’s Next for Digital Advertising

What the next change in the digital privacy revolution means for you.
Charlie Feinerman 4

Charlie Feinerman

Director of Marketing & Communications
Charlie prides himself on finding innovative ways to solve client challenges through creativity and lightning bolts of energy. As the leader of Taoti’s Marketing and Communications practice, Charlie leverages his…

Google has announced that it will stop selling ads based on a person’s browsing history across multiple websites, a move that further signals the end of digital advertising as we’ve known it in the 21st century.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Google’s advertising has changed all of our lives since the organization first launched Google Ads in 2000. In the years since, the tech giant has altered the way we gather information, provided advertisers with targeting capabilities reminiscent of something from Minority Report, and made a fortune selling user attention and information—Google’s advertising revenue was $31.9 billion in 2020 alone.

With that much money in play, it’s safe to say that digital advertising certainly isn’t going anywhere, but the future of how advertisers can target and reach people online is going to be very different from the reality we know today. There’s a digital privacy revolution unfolding in front of our eyes and it shows no signs of slowing down.

So, what does Google’s decision to stop selling ads based on a person’s web browsing history across multiple sites actually mean? Is this a PR ploy by Google to get regulators off their back? Or is this a legitimate effort by them to make the web more private? What does the future hold for the digital advertising industry? What can we, as communicators, strategists, and marketers, do to have the best digital marketing strategies in 2021 and beyond?

The answers to these questions—and more—are below. If you have any more questions, feel free to reach out!

What Google’s decision to stop selling ads based on browsing history across sites actually means.

At face value, no more Google ads based on website browsing history isn’t quite the end of the world, but when you step back and look at this as yet another domino to fall in the digital privacy revolution, the end of digital advertising as we know it seems very near.

For years, digital advertisers existed in what I’d refer to as the wild west era of digital marketing—no rules, no regulations, no oversight, and only one commodity: all of us and our attention and information. If you’ve seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix and this is sounding eerily similar, that’d be because it is—the main point of the documentary is that “big tech” has run free for too long to the detriment of our society.

As marketers, we’ve thrived in this digital wild west. We’ve freely targeted very specific ads to people based on their web browsing patterns, but times are changing, and changing fast.

And while Google states that “advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising,” many—this marketing professional included—remain skeptical. Sure, there will obviously be ways to have success in digital advertising, but currently effective tactics like remarketing and marketing automation are sure to take a hit as a result of this change.

Google’s decision to stop selling ads based on a person’s browsing history is just one of the many big moments that will occur in the digital privacy revolution in the coming years. The resulting digital advertising space of five or 10 years from now will look completely different from what we know now—the cogs of change have already been irrevocably set-in motion.

How we got here: Calls for enhanced privacy are changing the digital advertising landscape.

 There are many differing points of view on when the digital privacy revolution began, but in my opinion, the first major domino to fall was the announcement of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016—this is when the tide shifted in privacy’s favor. GDPR gave people in the E.U. control of their data. It made websites ask for consent to use cookies to track a person’s behavior—a not-so-novel concept that is still not mandated here in the United States.

The results have been staggering. At Taoti, we adhere to GDPR regulations for most of the websites we create, and the difference in data we’ve seen when asking users for consent is drastic. In one example, a website we created saw its data shift drastically overnight—a 400% increase in users with no increase in pageviews—simply because a significant number of users did not consent to cookies. These website users show up as sourced from direct traffic and cannot be tracked as effectively throughout their session.

More recent dominos to fall in the digital privacy revolution include the California Privacy Rights Act, which gives people the option to opt out of both the sale and sharing of their personal information to third parties. The large antitrust suits levied against Facebook, Google, and other members of “big tech;” and Google’s 2020 decision to phase out third-party cookies in Chrome—the latter of which was a direct precursor to Google’s decision to stop selling ads based off a person’s website browsing history.

The details: Everything you need to know about Google’s decision to stop selling ads based on people’s browsing history across sites.

I’m sure that you’ve been wondering why Google would do something that could ultimately hurt its bottom line, but the truth is that this decision may actually help the tech giant. Let me explain:

Google’s decision to stop selling ads based on a person’s browsing history signals that the end of cross-site tracking as we know it is near. For most of the last 20 years, advertisers have been able to track people across the web by placing third-party cookies on their internet browsers. For reference, a first-party cookie is one created, set, and only usable by the website a person is using at a given time. A third-party cookie can be set by a third-party—like an advertiser or data analysis firm—and can be accessed on any site a person visits once it’s set, allowing advertisers to track people across their browsing history.

As I mentioned, Google decided last year to phase out support for third-party cookies on Chrome by 2022. But in a world without third-party cookies, those with the most first-party data will reign supreme. And you guessed it, Google is right there at the top in terms of its first-party data, which comes from people directly using its platforms like Google Search and YouTube.

So, while Google says this move is “charting a course for a more privacy-first web,” in actuality it likely also cements Google’s dominant position in the digital advertising space. A move that the Wall Street Journal highlights as one that could hurt advertising competitors who have less access to first-party data.

Here are a few other things you need to know about Google’s decisions to stop selling ads based on a person’s browsing history across sites:

  • Google’s current plans will only impact website advertising, not mobile apps
  • The timeline for this change is the same as the end of third-party cookies (2022), as Google’s announcement said it will no longer pursue cross-site tracking after these cookies are phased out
  • Google’s plans don’t mean other companies can’t try to track users across the web, but without Google’s compliance these efforts will be very difficult
  • Google says it will replace cross-site tracking with new technologies that will gather information about users without following them across websites

Most of us don’t want to be tracked while online, but with that desire come consequences for advertisers. What will they be? Keep scrolling to find out.

Where we go from here: How the digital advertising landscape will continue to change over the next five years.  

Google’s plan to stop selling ads based on a person’s browsing history will certainly not be the last domino to fall in the digital privacy revolution, and the next big changes may be right around the corner.

In my opinion, the next big change you can expect to see will come from the United States Government itself. There are two regulatory outcomes that are possible in the near-term: the breaking-up of some big tech companies after an antitrust case and increased privacy regulations invoked at the national level.

Ironically enough, I’ve had a Google Alert set since October to notify me daily with updates on Google’s antitrust lawsuit that’s currently being pursued by the Department of Justice and joined by several states around the country. This antitrust case is a big deal. If the Department of Justice finds Google to be a monopoly and forces it to break apart, the ramifications to digital advertising and digital life as we know it would be vast. Google Search, Ads, Maps, and more could be split apart from each other as separate entities, and as I’ve mentioned, as separate entities, they won’t be able to gather data across each other’s sites using third-party cookies.

This outcome could actually be good for advertisers. It’d likely mean more competition in the digital advertising space, which would likely mean lower advertising costs as more entities vie for ad dollars. But it’s hard to say if this would be good or bad, the only thing that is certain is the uncertainty of it all. It’s hard to say when the antitrust case will come to a conclusion, but be on the lookout when it does.

The second big change—increased privacy regulations—also seems like something that’s just around the corner. Honestly, I’m still shocked that the United States is lagging so far behind the European Union in enacting sweeping digital privacy reform. Nonetheless, you can likely expect to see a GDPR-adjacent privacy regulation here in the U.S. in the near future.

The resulting regulation would cause vast upheaval in the digital advertising space, especially for the vast number of companies relying on marketing automation tools to drive attribution data for their marketing efforts. I regularly have sales representatives from marketing automation platforms in my inbox asking to give me a demo of their product, and when I do sit down for a demo, I always ask them what they’d do in a world where the U.S. had to be GDPR compliant—not one of them has had a good answer for me.

 

You see, marketing automation platforms rely on cookies to track attribution. It’s how they’re able to track where users are in the sales funnel at a given time and market a customized message to them. This wouldn’t be as effective if the U.S. had GDPR-style privacy regulations.

Let me explain: If you go to most any U.S. website these days, you’ll see a little banner that says something to the effect of “we use cookies to improve your site experience,” with one button that says “accept” and some fine print with a little hyperlink—most users just hit accept, because it’s frankly too annoying to go dive into the fine print. With GDPR-style regulations, another button that appears next to accept: Decline, or no, thanks.

The ability to quickly decline cookies changes the game. As I mentioned in an example earlier, some sites Taoti has created within GDPR compliance have seen significantly high numbers of people click “no, thanks,” which is completely skewing the website data we’re used to seeing.

If the U.S. does move forward with GDPR-style regulations, a lot of businesses and marketers will be impacted, and at this point, very few of them are ready for that domino to fall.

What you can do about it: The five ways businesses and digital advertisers can succeed in a privacy-focused future.

I know I’ve made this out to be the digital advertiser’s apocalypse, but before you hit the panic button and head for the bunker, let me share five ways your marketing can still be effective while the digital advertising landscape is in flux.

1. Organic social

Creating and fostering a community of people on social media is hard, but social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so finding your organization’s niche is as important as ever. You have to create content that adds value for people, entertains them, and grabs their attention—all at the same time. A fellow Taotian wrote a great blog about this not too long ago.

It is worth noting that while organic social won’t be too impacted by the privacy revolution, paid social advertising may be, so don’t put all your eggs in that basket without first having a solid organic social media strategy.

2. Email

Who needs cookies when people are actively joining your email list? Email continues to be one of the best and most-preferred ways to share information with consumers. Making sure your email marketing strategy is effective is key. How are you segmenting your audience? Are your subject lines catchy enough? Are you providing people with a clear call to action? Are you using tracking codes on links, so you know where people click to? If you have strategic answers to these questions, email marketing can be a powerful tool in your advertising toolbelt.

3. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

These days, a successful awareness-based advertising effort can be described as one that ends with a person Googling your business or product. But for that to be effective, you’ve got to be on the top of the search results. A former colleague of mine once referred to SEO as “being there when your customers are looking for you, even if they don’t know they are.” I love that definition, and really think it encompasses the whole of what we strive to do with SEO.

Strong SEO doesn’t just mean keyword-stuffing, though—there’s a lot that goes into it. You must have strong on-page and technical elements. You need to produce engaging, useful, and timely content on a consistent basis. You have to distill information into lists, bullet points, sub-headings, and clear messaging. I’d need a whole series of blogs to dive into all the components of SEO, but what you need to know is that it is important, and you should be paying a lot of attention to it if you’re not already. 

4. Traditional

Did you know that one of the most impactful ways to market to consumers is still to simply put up a sign? It’s true. In their pre-pandemic, 2019 Out of Home Advertising Study, Neilson found that 81% of travelers reported noticing a billboard within the previous month.

If you want to get a message out, traditional options like print, radio, TV, and out of home are a great way to do so. Personally, I think there is a lot of value in real-world advertising—we are inundated with so many digital ads every day that a lot of them lose their value. But a good ad in the real world? That’ll catch my attention.

5. Video

Finally, we come to the king of content in 2021: video. Video is here to stay. It’s people’s most-preferred way to consume information. In fact, videos on social media are more than 12 times more likely to be shared than images and text combined. Knowing your audience and the types of videos they want to see is a key to wielding this powerful tool in your favor.

Google’s plan to stop selling ads based on a person’s browsing history is one of many big changes on the horizon in the digital advertising space. The best way you, as a marketer, can rise above these changes is to do your research, both on the changes in the industry and—perhaps more importantly–on your customer. Deep audience research will become invaluable in the years ahead, and if you need help with that research, or anything else I’ve discussed in this blog, feel free to reach out.

So, what do you think? Is this a PR ploy by Google to get regulators off their back? Or is this a legitimate effort by them to make the web more private? Maybe only time will tell as Google shares more about how this will work.