Google Replaces FLoC With Topics - What does it mean & what’s next?

On January 25th, 2022, Google announced the discontinuation of its proposed replacement for third-party cookies: FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts).

If it’s your first time hearing the about the acronym, a post on the AdButler blog from last year titled "What are Google’s FLoC & FLEDGE Updates - Time to Prepare" has a complete summary of the situation.

Here are some quick points about FLoC and what it was aiming to accomplish:

  • As a longstanding privacy and security concern, third-party cookies are scheduled to be discontinued. Originally, Google had set the sunset date for 2022, but this date was later adjusted to the beginning of 2023.
  • The removal of third-party cookies is a major disruption to the ad tech ecosystem. FLoC was Google’s original proposal to replace third-party cookies.
  • FLoC proposed to sort users into interest-based groups referred to as “cohorts”, by anonymously tracking the actions taken by individuals, rather than the individuals themselves.
  • The proposal of FLoC drew heavy criticism on all fronts, including from competitive regulators, from privacy experts (particularly over device fingerprinting), from competing web browsers, as well as from countless publishers, advertisers, and users online.

How “Topics” Is Different From FLoC

Google “Topics”, also referred to as the Topics API, is Google’s latest proposal for maintaining interest-based advertising in the post-cookie internet.

Instead of tracking the actions of individuals, Chrome will now register user interests within the browser as they visit various websites.

Rather than the highly detailed categorization model that FLoC proposed, which could have placed users into one of over 30,000 categories, each website will now be responsible for categorizing itself under one of 300 topics (uncategorized sites will have a topic assigned to them via machine learning).

The number of topics may be subject to increasing in the future.

The available topics avoid personally identifiable categories which were deemed “sensitive” based on feedback, including details like gender, race, age, and other personal details.

In addition, only 3 weeks of a user’s browsing history will be stored and accessible for the purposes of identifying a user's interests.

When a user visits a website using the Topics API, that user’s browser will share 3 topics the user is interested in with the publisher - with a single topic of interest from each of the past 3 weeks being chosen at random from a pool of that user’s top 5 interests for each week.

These topics can then be shared by the publisher with advertisers, who can serve interest-based ads to the user, without knowing that user’s exact identity.

All of these adjustments are aimed at drastically reducing the ability for websites and advertisers to discern the identity of an individual based on their browsing activity.

Current Commentary On The Topics Approach

The current commentary on Topics is straightforward: while representatives from Google have stated that Topics addresses the issues from FLoC and can provide advertisers with a suitable method for targeting their ads, many (if not most) people remain skeptical.

In an article titled “FLoC is dead. But Topics won’t fix Google’s ad targeting problems.”, author Issie Lapowsky captures several prominent statements from a selection of many outspoken organizations:

“It just seems like rearranging deck chairs on the sinking ship of targeted ads.”

Justin Brookman, Director of Consumer Privacy at Consumer Reports

"There’s no way to spin this as anything other than a new privacy violation being built into your browser."

Bennett Cyphers, Staff Technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation

“Google isn’t going to use it… topics are for rivals. Google is still discriminating against rivals.”

James Rosewell, Director of Movement For An Open Web

The article continues by highlighting that a user’s necessity to manage their own topics week-to-week in order to maintain their privacy is unjustly burdensome, and that a similar move by Facebook was abandoned due to privacy concerns last year.

The announcement of Topics by Google has left people everywhere with a number of questions:

  • Is just 3 weeks of topical data about a user really enough to target ads accurately?
    • Most people say no, but what’s the solution here?
  • Will there be new forms of “Topics” ad blocking to contend with?
  • Will there be another time extension before third-party cookies are discontinued?

For now, all anyone can say is that it looks like the Topics program is shaping up to simply be one more targeting signal added to a list of mediocre options available to advertisers post-cookie.

How To Prepare For The Google Topics Shift

Perhaps the only real good news about the announcement is that the approach to planning for Google’s latest change is still more or less the same as it was for FLoC.

First-party and second-party data are still set to become one of the only ways for accurately targeting individuals with advertisements, based on personal information they share through given consent.

Several other techniques are primed to become popular options for ad targeting post-cookie:

  • Contextual advertising is a practice that will require publishers to accurately tag their content to allow advertisers to identify the types of audiences that are likely to visit their web properties.
  • Digital audio advertising is a medium which has rapidly gained popularity over the past few years, and may prove to be one of the most lucrative advertising channels post-cookie.
  • Self-serve advertising makes it convenient for advertisers to create direct deals with publishers that match their audience criteria. Hosting and promoting a self-serve advertising platform is something every publisher should consider for the future of their monetization strategy over the years to come.

Creating a Future-Proofed Strategy with AdButler

With more backlash being generated against Google's latest proposal to update their privacy practices, no one is really sure what might happen next as the situation continues to develop.

One thing is certain though - that one of the best hedges against uncertainty is proprietorship.

All of the techniques listed above are features supported by AdButler - an ad serving platform dedicated to helping you take direct control over your approach to advertising.

As a demand-neutral platform, AdButler allows publishers and advertisers to retain full and private control of their data and partnership sources - combining the benefits of a third-party development team for setup and support with the perks of a privately owned ad server.

Whether you need a custom ad server solution or something that simply works “out of the box”, the AdButler team has over two decades of experience in providing and configuring ad tech solutions.

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