Mar 4, 2021 4 min read

Did Google just kill universal identifiers?

Did Google just kill universal identifiers?

Google set the ad tech world ablaze when they announced that they will not support any universal identifier solutions meant to replace cookies. David Temkin, The Director of Product Management, Ads Privacy and Trust, at Google wrote:

Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.

And just like that, Google thrust all universal identifier / cookieless solutions under a microscope for closer inspection and scrutiny. If the 300-pound gorilla of digital advertising is dismissing alternate identifiers, should the rest of the industry follow suit?

With this announcement, Google declares that they will not support The Trade Desk / PreBid Unified ID 2 nor the LiveRamp Authenticated Traffic Solution / IdentityLink anywhere in their ad stack. Both of these alternate id solutions intend to preserve individual user tracking by using email addresses to replace cookies.

Google is doubling down on the efficacy of their Privacy Sandbox Initiatives like FLoC and TURTLEDOVE as a viable alternative to cookies and a more privacy-conscious path forward:

Advances in aggregation, anonymization, on-device processing and other privacy-preserving technologies offer a clear path to replacing individual identifiers. In fact, our latest tests of FLoC show one way to effectively take third-party cookies out of the advertising equation and instead hide individuals within large crowds of people with common interests

Google, the virtuous?

There is no denying that this will ultimately turn into a win for Google. On their buying platform, DV360, Google will limit all advertiser targeting and attribution capabilities on the open web and push spend to the Google walled garden.

They will do this under the guise of privacy, but it will further cement their dominant position in the market by driving more spend to Google search and YouTube.

If the Google announcement gains political support and the tide turns against universal IDs, advertisers will move away from DSPs meant to target the open web. They will pile into the Google walled garden where they can provide a treasure trove of search data for advertisers to target.

The irony is that the threat of United States antitrust and global privacy regulation drove us here. Pressure from the Department of Justice may have sparked this decision to become more consumer-friendly by not tracking users across the web, with initial scrutiny beginning with the GDPR crackdown on cookies.

Google makes it abundantly clear that they are positioning this move as a win for consumers in their announcement:

We realize this means other providers may offer a level of user identity for ad tracking across the web that we will not — like PII graphs based on people’s email addresses. We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long-term investment.

So is Google virtue-signaling privacy consciousness with an ulterior motive of driving spend to its owned and operated properties? Probably, but it is a smart move for their business and public perception.

The Privacy Sandbox Initiative provides dual cover for:

  1. Antitrust scrutiny — by making privacy-friendly ad-targeting alternatives available to everybody
  2. Privacy regulation - since they will no longer facilitate tracking across the web via cookies or universal IDs

Questions for Google:

With a bombshell of this magnitude only spanning seven paragraphs total in the blog post, there are some open questions.

Will Google openly block universal identifiers on Chrome?

If Google will not support universal IDs in its ad products, will they take this a step further and try to curtail their usage on Chrome? There is a historical precedent for browsers blocking universal IDs — Firefox blocked the ill-fated Digitrust identifier in 2019.

Will they permit 1st party data usage based on universal identifiers?

Google states that they will support 1st party data:

We will continue to support first-party relationships on our ad platforms for partners, in which they have direct connections with their customers. And we'll deepen our support for solutions that build on these direct relationships between consumers and the brands and publishers they engage with.

But what if an advertiser uses a solution like LiveRamp ATS + IDL to capture a 1st party email address? The advertiser can target a logged-in Google user via email, but can an advertiser not target the same user on the open web when using a Google ad product?

By embracing the destruction of third-party cookies while simultaneously supporting the Google Advertising Identifier (GAID), Google is now in a contradictory position.

GAID (sometimes called AAID - Android Advertising Identifier) is the Android equivalent of the Apple IDFA.

Android apps can freely collect GAID without user consent, which is a stark contrast to Apple's new stance that will require users to provide consent to an app before developers can extract an iOS IDFA.

If Google believes that tracking on the web should end, why is it still acceptable to track users across apps? The privacy stance taken on universal IDs creates a contradiction in policy on GAID, and Google should address this question sooner rather than later.

Actions taken by Google will test the collective belief in the long-term viability of universal identifiers. The main narrative to watch is the mainstream and political reaction to the announcement.

Will users and politicians more closely scrutinize the concept of using email addresses as the means to track individuals across the web? Ad tech at large may have wanted this idea to fly under the radar, but Google yanked it out to center stage directly in the spotlight.

Trey Titone
Author of Ad Tech Explained and VP of Client Success at Logiq. Former Principal Product Manager at SpotX and Head of Product at Beachfront Media.
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