Google’s Cookie Ban May Put a Brighter Spotlight on Original Content

In early March 2021, Google announced plans to phase out third-party cookies by 2022, sending the targeted advertising industry into a tailspin. For consumers, this means those sneakers are less likely to stalk you around the internet just because you browsed Zappos one time. For brands, however, it means a paradigm shift.

Instead of planting cookies on individuals’ browsers, Google now plans to roll out a Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) model, which will use artificial intelligence to place users into groups based on common interests gleaned from their browsing behavior on Chrome. So, future sneaker shoppers may wind up in a cohort of runners—but their individual data won’t be isolated or easily identifiable (allegedly).

While the long-term impacts of the move remain to be seen, one likely change is that content will play an even more important role for brands and advertisers trying to reach customers online.

“If I can’t advertise with ads, I have to create content that people will share,” said Bruce Clay, an SEO expert and president of Bruce Clay, Inc., a search marketing agency. “I think you’re going to see an awful lot of disturbance in the Force.”

What will change for individual users

There are essentially two sides to the Great Cookie Debate. Brands and advertisers have long relied on cookies to learn more about users’ location, interests, and buying behavior. Individuals, on the other hand, sometimes find retargeting invasive or creepy.

“People have become increasingly uncomfortable with having targeted ads popping up based on their searches,” said Justin Antonipillai, founder and CEO of WireWheel, a data privacy management software company. “We’ve all heard the stories where someone is searching for medical advice, and then starts seeing marketing about that condition.”

A 2020 report published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Sciences noted that more than half (around 53 percent) of consumers queried about their comfort level with targeted ads were at least “slightly uncomfortable” with the practice. About 23 percent of respondents were “extremely uncomfortable.”

As a result of such concerns, consumers are disabling cookies, using ad-tracking and ad-blocking software, and complaining to regulators.

Their remonstrations have led to proposed legislation and, in some cases, new laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a sweeping privacy policy update implemented in the UK in 2018. In the U.S., states like California and Maine are creating their own data privacy regulations that may restrict retargeting in its current form. These laws have led to those ubiquitous pop-ups asking users to opt in to data collection on websites they visit.

In a world without cookies, the day-to-day browsing experience won’t change much. But from a privacy perspective, Google’s move may provide consumers with greater control over their data.

“This will move the needle [toward better data privacy protection],” Antonipillai said. “The question will be how much. Whether change becomes permanent depends on consumer and market acceptance.”

Others are torn on how effective—or compliant—the FLoC model will actually be. “It remains unclear whether a new cookie-free paradigm will ultimately be more ‘private,'” said Rob Shavell, cofounder and CEO of Albine, a company specializing in online privacy products. “It may be more technically efficient and secure—the third-party cookies framework created many opportunities for exploitation by malware, or surreptitious data sharing—but consumer data, the lifeblood of online advertising, is still central to Google’s model.”

As with all AI-based algorithms, there are also concerns about the potential for FLoC to lead to bias or discrimination based on things like race, sexual orientation, or disabilities. Lumping people into blanket categories like “political activists” or “BIPOC college students” based on their news media consumption or textbook purchases, for instance, is ethically murky territory.

“There is a risk that the more [data points] are ‘pseudonymized’ instead of being de-identified, and/or stored, the group identity itself could be considered sensitive, possibly requiring an opt in,” Antonipillai added.

What will change for brands

Google’s announcement sparked a strong reaction from brands. Chrome currently fields more than half of all global web traffic. And even though Google claims the FLoC system will be 95 percent as effective as retargeting via third-party cookies, brands remain skeptical.

Some people also posit the move is self-serving for Google. “Eliminating third-party trackers simply maintains Facebook’s and Google’s ability to track consumers and gather enormous amounts of data about us while also preventing many of their advertiser competitors from doing the same,” wrote Recode journalists Sara Morrison and Rani Molla in a recent article. After all, Google will still be able to track individual user behavior on mobile devices, third-party apps from the Play store, and activities on proprietary platforms like YouTube.

Ultimately, adaptation will be the name of the game. This isn’t the first time advertisers have had to pivot in response to policy changes from a big tech company, and it won’t be the last. Repercussions from Google’s “Mobilegeddon” update in 2015, GDPR, and Facebook’s feud with Apple in 2020 are just a few examples of road bumps the industry has had to navigate in recent years.

Brands have gotten creative every step of the way, and they’re already starting to prepare for the cookie ban. “Third parties have already begun using non-cookie technologies like Tracking Pixels, which provide many of the same features as cookies,” Shavell noted.

How content could become even more critical

With third-party cookies out the window, content that ranks well on search might enjoy a brighter spotlight.

“If I have no knowledge that you care about my product, the only way to attract you to my website is to tell you about my product in a way that causes you to inquire about it.” Clay said.

In recent years, brands have been building out internal media branches to focus on target niches, and some have been doing so in lieu of heavy investment in traditional digital advertising. HubSpot’s recent acquisition of The Hustle, a media company that produces a popular newsletter about the tech and business industry, is the latest sign that brands are making a big bet on content to reach buyers.

Because of this shift, brands may adopt a more straightforward approach to content—at least in the short-term—in order to clearly communicate their offerings to consumers. Think of articles, videos, and infographics that either appeal to audience interests or address their problems.

“The best way to [reach people] will be to write content on your site and tell everybody about it,” Clay said. “Pay-per-click will also likely go up for social media ads.”

Additionally, content maintenance could become more critical as brands attempt to draw consumers to their own sites. Marketers should audit their existing content and update relevant pages that might be dated to improve organic search rankings.

“Google has announced that for every new article you write, you should change one on your website and bring it up to date,” Clay explained. “Maintenance of content is equally important as growth of content.”

In the meantime, marketers are standing by to monitor how regulators respond. Only time will tell how the cookie crumbles.

Image by Alashi

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