60-Second Read: Google Plans to Stop Tracking Browsing History

Google’s constantly adjusting their search algorithm or backlinking system, but this is one of the biggest changes we’ve seen since Hummingbird: on Wednesday, Google announced that they’ll no longer sell ads based on individual users’ browsing history, citing the increased push for privacy online.

More specifically, Google has been phasing out third-party cookies — snippets of code that allow advertisers to track user browsing history — since last year. Once that phaseout is complete in 2022, Google’s Chrome browser won’t replace them with alternative tracking tech. This change is similar to Apple’s approach with Safari, which blocks third-party cookies by default (though users can turn them back on).

A Few Caveats

This change isn’t quite as earth-shaking as it might seem at first glance. First of all, the update doesn’t apply to first-party data, including Google’s own products, like Gmail, YouTube, and Chrome. It also only applies to websites, not mobile devices. As web usage continues to shift toward mobile, this change might become less relevant.

It’s also important to specify that this change does not mean that Google won’t still track your browsing habits. What it’s taking away is the individualized nature of that tracking. AI and pattern detection are getting stronger and more sophisticated, so Google (and the advertisers to whom Google sells ad space) might not need to know exactly which sites a user visited to build a profile.

Instead, they’ll build correlations from billions of data points and create sophisticated predictions from those correlations. If you want to sell bike parts, Google can easily find people who are interested in bikes and serve them ads without knowing exactly what their browsing habits are.

What Does This Mean for Marketers?

Google was quite blunt when addressing the impact this change will have on digital marketing. “If digital advertising doesn’t evolve to address the growing concerns people have about their privacy and how their personal identity is being used, we risk the future of the free and open web,” David Temkin, a Google product manager focused on privacy, said in a blog post. “People shouldn’t have to accept being tracked across the web in order to get the benefits of relevant advertising.”

Digital advertisers should take comfort in the last sentence of that quote. The fact is, not much will change for marketers. We’ll still buy ad space from Google, targeted toward people in certain locations or with certain interests. The difference is at the other end, in the way Google determines who should see an ad. Given the sophistication of Google’s AI tools, the accuracy of the ad placement might not change much.

This move also shouldn’t affect ads in search results, which are Google’s biggest moneymaker by far. If you want to target search results for specific keywords, browsing history shouldn’t be a factor at all.

Finally, you can always ask your customers to enable third-party cookies. Lots of useful browser extensions, like the ones that search for better deals or coupon codes, use third-party cookies. If you can make the case that allowing cookies will improve your customers’ experience, they might be on board.

Time will tell whether this change makes any real difference to the experience of browsing the web or placing ads, but Google makes 80 percent of its money from advertising — they’re not likely to cut off their best source of targeting without an idea of how to replace it. Until we see significant reason to treat ad buying differently, we’re not panicking yet.

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