With third-party cookies going away in 2023, Google scrambles to find a more privacy-focused yet profitable alternative to targeting digital advertising audiences. The search giant’s most recent concept comes in the form of Topics.
Introduced in January 2022, Google Topics is an interest-based targeting proposal under the Privacy Sandbox initiative, a series of application programming interfaces (APIs) designed to help the ad tech industry navigate a cookieless world. The Topics API chooses three topics of interest based on a user’s browsing history and shares this information with participating sites and advertising partners.
So let’s say your browser (just Chrome for now; no Mozilla, Safari, etc.) has determined that you like cars the most. Topics will then show you advertisements for cars on the websites you visit. Further, the gathered data will be stored by Topics for three weeks before getting deleted.
Topics are selected entirely on your device without involving any external servers. – Google, 2022
Note that this interest based advertising system replaces the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) introduced last year. And Google takes this next step informed by the “learning and widespread community feedback from [its] earlier FLoC trials.”
As Topics goes through developer testing, this blog tackles everything you need to know about this Google Ads targeting API, including:
• What differentiates it from FLoC?
• How does it impact advertisers?
• What can you do to prepare for its full rollout?
What Happened to FLoC? (Google Privacy Sandbox 101)
Google kills FLoC and replaces it with Topics.
Concerns over certain aspects of FLoC prompted the creation of Google Topics.
Remember that FLoC aimed to group users based on their browsing history, generating a cohort ID that would be fed to third-party trackers. Unlike the third party cookies it was supposed to replace, it wouldn’t volunteer specifics, such as websites visited and browsing activities – individual identifiers that had once helped advertisers target audiences more accurately.
Yet, online privacy and security advocates, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), were worried about additional risks. For instance, they claimed FLoC could make it easier to ID a person’s device, browser and even demographics, known as browser fingerprinting. Meaning, trackers could put together a unique fingerprint for each FLoC user in no time. That’s because trackers would simply have to start with a FLoC cohort, sift through a few thousand (instead of a few hundred million) and single out individual browsers.
Now, Topics is in the picture to address this risk and other user data privacy issues.
The Key Differences Between Topics API and the Federated Learning of Cohorts
Some Google Ads specialist communities recognize Topics API as a safer system than its interest based advertising predecessor. But what exactly makes it better at safeguarding users’ online privacy and security?
Let’s look at three critical differences between Topics and FLoC:
Reduced Fingerprinting Risks With Topics
Instead of cohorts, the new Google Privacy Sandbox API will assign top-five topics to each user per week. Out of this list, it will pick three to share with websites supporting Topics API for digital advertising. Each topic has a shelf life of three weeks, after which it will be deleted from the user’s device.
There’s a lot to unpack here. But as Google pivots from FLoC, we see the possibility of fingerprinting with the cohort ID going away. Here’s how Topics makes it more difficult for any tracking tool to isolate and target individual users:
• A small set of topics will be available (current count: around 350), allowing many browsers to be associated with each topic.
• A participating site can learn at most one new topic per week from frequent visitors (so the other two carry over from the previous weeks).
• Four out of five, the topic returned for a user on one site won’t match the topic returned for them on another.
Exclusion of Sensitive Categories
Like any decent Google advertising agency, we were concerned about FLoC potentially enabling user targeting based on race, sexual orientation or religion, among others. So we welcome the change brought about by Topics, which steers Google Ads targeting away from these sensitive categories.
Improved User Controls
Unlike third party cookies, the Topics presents a taxonomy that can be read and curated by humans. This means users can learn about the topics being suggested to them by their browser. Further, they can remove topics they do not want Topics API to share with advertisers or publishers.
In addition, site owners and users can opt out of Topics. Websites will have to include the code that calls the Topics API. So you have the option to not add it if you don’t want to participate. Meanwhile, users can opt out of this action by modifying the Google Privacy Sandbox settings on Chrome.
Digital Advertising Challenges With Topics
Some experts believe this latest interest based advertising proposal is Google finding a middle ground for users, advertisers and publishers. Surely, potential user data privacy wins are apparent. But for businesses and agencies using pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, the change may put them at a disadvantage.
In any case, you or your PPC ads agency will have to prepare for the full impact of Topics API. Here are a few things to anticipate:
Lack of Targeting Accuracy
Expect personalized Google Ads targeting to be less precise if the topics remain broad. As an example, Topics API can lump someone casually reading a fitness article on a particular date with someone looking to lose weight and another shopping for workout clothes. As a result, they may all be shown a fitness-related ad that doesn’t align with their needs and preferences.
We use the term “adoption” loosely here since Topics will be available on Chrome, which still holds the lion’s share of the market. But it’s just worth looking into how this will affect advertisers targeting iPhone users. Changes within the Apple ecosystem have already enabled users to opt out of personal data collection on apps like Facebook and Instagram, limiting the delivery of relevant ads. So the lack of cross-browser support for Topics may add another layer of difficulty to brands and businesses desiring to reach Apple users.
Restrained Access to User Interest Insights
As far as Topics API is concerned, there is no word yet on the visibility and availability of user insights. However, it is safe to assume you and your Google Ads agency won’t have access to user topics. And we will have to rely on ad-tech platforms for insights.
Is There Anything You Can Do?
The short answer is yes. Google will phase out third party cookies, anyway. So you and your online advertising agency should be prepared to take what you can get. In this case, it’s the Topics API.
What can you do before it’s fully implemented? Also, are there workarounds you can try while respecting user data privacy requirements? Let’s have a quick look at a few of your options:
• Collect first-party data. This is data collected by the organization itself. A Google advertising agency that knows what it’s doing should be able to guide your strategy here. Together, brainstorm how you will compel people to provide you with their information in the first place.
One way is to leverage less invasive tracking tool options and tactics, such as lead generation campaigns and better segmentation. Another is to start or continue using the targeting features of other channels, including social platforms.
• Keep abreast of Topics API developments. If you’re a brand or Google Ads specialist, stay tuned for updates. Topics is now available on origin trial. So it’s being tested by eligible third-party developers on Chrome Canary. If things look good, testing will be opened to some Chrome Beta users before expanding to more Chrome (stable version) users.
• Educate clients about the changes. Even if you aren’t a PPC ads agency, you may want to have a conversation with your customers about online privacy in general and Topics in particular. If you’re not sure how to incorporate the message into your marketing, let the experts help.
The Bottom Line
Google Topics API provides a safer, better targeting than Federated Learning of Cohorts, its predecessor. With tighter online privacy and security features, the search giant hopes to set the standard for advertisers in a cookieless world.
However, the adoption of Google’s proposal is complex, with many moving parts. Brands and businesses can go at it alone. But it would be best to partner with an online advertising agency specializing in Google Ads to prepare for Topics’ full release.
Let Thrive Internet Marketing Agency guide you in navigating the ever-evolving digital advertising landscape. We are a Google Ads agency with nearly two decades of experience in search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing through PPC, social media marketing, web design and more. Our strategists and specialists are equipped with the technology and training to adapt your targeting efforts to various changes.
Strengthen your Google Ads and overall online advertising foundation with our team at Thrive. Call or shoot us a message to discuss the next steps.