Sep 20, 2022 6 min read

Google embraces Seller Defined Audiences

Google embraces Seller Defined Audiences
Table of Contents

Last week, Google announced support for the IAB Tech Lab's Seller Defined Audiences. Google is beta testing a feature called "publisher provided signals" that will:

"help you categorize your first-party data into consistent audience or contextual segments and then share these signals with programmatic buyers"

And according to the blog post, these consistent segments can include segments found in the standardized audience and content taxonomies that publishers should use when passing Seller Defined Audiences (SDA) signals in programmatic bid requests.

For now, Google will only allow select publishers in the beta and will only share SDA segments with Google Ads and DV360.

Google indicated that they would open up publisher provided signals (and consequently SDA signals) to more publishers and buyers eventually:

"In the future, we'll roll out publisher provided signals to more publishers and Authorized Buyers and Open Bidders. We look forward to incorporating their feedback into the product development."

So shit just got real for Seller Defined Audiences, and advertisers have already started buying based on these signals.

How does it work?

If you have never heard of Seller Defined Audiences or want to understand how the specification works, check out this article I wrote about it:

Seller-Defined Audiences Explained
The seller-defined audience approach offers the potential to enhance user privacy and secure the business value of first-party data.

You can also read the official Seller Defined Audiences specification on the IAB Tech Lab website.

To summarize, Seller Defined Audiences outlines a method for publishers to pass standardized audience or contextual segments from their supply-side platform (SSP) to a demand-side platform (DSP) in ORTB bid requests.

Since the segments are standardized, a DSP can read a segment ID in a bid request and understand what that ID represents. Publishers should strip out any identifiers (cookies, device IDs, etc.) in a bid request if they include SDA segments so that a DSP or buyers cannot identify a user or link them to data found in the bid stream.

Through SDA, advertisers can buy based on audience or contextual attributes without publishers compromising user identity or leaking any valuable first-party data. It unlocks the power of publisher first-party data privately and securely. But how exactly is this going to work with Google Ad Manager?

Google did not share technical detail, but I took a guess on Twitter and received confirmation that my assumptions were correct.

Google publishers can either:

1. Pass seller-defined audience segments in an ad request

Publishers identify a user and their associated segments before the ad request and then pass those segments via key-value pairs in an ad request to Google Ad Manager.

This approach requires more heavy lifting by publishers. The IAB Tech Lab chose not to dictate how publishers should segment users and pass those segments to their SSP. It is up to the publisher to pull this off, and many publishers will probably need to enlist help from their data management platforms (DMPs).

2. Use GAM's audience tools to segment user identifiers into seller-defined audience segments

Publishers would pass user identifiers in an ad request and then use GAM audience tools to segment those users into standardized seller-defined audience segments. This approach jives with their statement that they will help publishers "categorize your first-party data."

Google will deprecate third-party cookies at some point (probably after more delays) and has indicated a similar fate for their Android advertising identifier — so publishers need a way to identify individual users without cookies or device IDs to make this work.

Publishers can tie logged-in users to  publisher-provided identifiers (PPIDs) — but Google did mention a new concept in the blog post called a "same app key." The same app key is:

"an encrypted key that identifies a unique user within your apps. The same app key helps you deliver more relevant and personalized ads by using data collected from your apps. The same app key cannot be used to link user activity from your apps to third-party apps."

That description sounds like Apple's ID for Vendors (IDFV) — an identifier assigned to a user's device by iOS that persists across all apps owned by the same company. The big differences are:

  1. The Google Mobile Ads (GMA) SDK sets the same app key, not the operating system.
  2. The same app key does not persist across all apps owned by a single entity — only a single app.

Same app keys do not violate Apple policies on tracking even if a user opts out via Apple ATT, as publishers and advertisers cannot use the identifiers to link users to third-party data.

The same app key could allow publishers to create first-party audiences without a user login if Google automatically identifies users and creates the key. Publishers could then segment users with same app keys into seller-defined audiences.

Why is Google adopting Seller Defined Audiences?

To understand Google's decision to embrace Seller Defined Audiences, we must examine the question from an antitrust and privacy perspective.

Antitrust Perspective

Google has been busy creating a collection of new privacy-focused advertising technologies for Chrome and Android. The Privacy Sandbox on Chrome initiative, along with the Privacy Sandbox on Android, introduced these proposals, which include but are not limited to:

Google presented these products to maintain parity with the targeting and measurement features advertisers know and love in a world without device IDs, cookies, universal identifiers, and maybe even IP addresses.

The biggest issue with these solutions is that they are very much Google-created solutions thrust upon all of us. In contrast, a non-profit consortium (the IAB Tech Lab) introduced Seller Defined Audiences as a private and secure way for advertisers to conduct audience-based buys.

Adopting an outside solution signals that they not only agree with the approach but are willing to play nice with other companies and the industry. So rather than telling everybody what to do and how to do it, Google seems open to playing ball which may alleviate some antitrust pressure.

SDA also rewards publishers with large user bases who can effectively segment those users into standardized groupings. Do you know who has a vast user base and a ton of data to categorize users effectively? Google.

Privacy Perspective

SDA fits nicely into a paradigm established by Apple: It is ok to target ads to a user with opted-in first-party data. But once you connect publisher data to an advertiser's data (or other third-party data set), it's game over — you tracked the user and violated their right to privacy.

Adopting a specification that lends credence to the "first-party data is ok" notion established by Apple further bolsters one of Google's strategic advantages — owning a massive first-party data set.

It is a win-win for Google since they move the digital advertising industry closer to a model that entrenches Google's dominance but still offers privacy protections relative to competing solutions.

SDA offers publishers a private method to facilitate audience targeting without sharing tracking identifiers by describing an audience using a common language (standardized taxonomies). In contrast, competing solutions meant to aid companies in a future without identifiers, like universal IDs, still allow websites and apps to link users to third-party data sources.

So not only is SDA more private than competing solutions, but it also could entrench Google's dominant position in digital advertising.

Will other DSPs and SSPs adopt SDA?

All advertisers, publishers, and ad platforms should understand and vet SDA. Google adopting Seller Defined Audiences invigorates the concept and puts it front and center as a solution that everyone needs to examine. But will SSPs and DSPs implement SDA?

SDA could give publishers one less reason to adopt universal identifiers since it can facilitate audience targeting in a privacy-compliant way. DSPs that have gone all in on a particular universal identifier solution might not like the idea of supporting anything that pushes publishers farther from adopting their universal ID solution of choice.

Since SDA advocates for removing identifiers from bid requests, it could cripple a DSP's ability to help advertisers measure attribution and frequency cap across publishers — which could compel buyers to form more direct relationships with publishers to help accomplish those tasks.

SSPs will likely need encouragement from their publisher clients to adopt SDA. Other SSPs do not face the same privacy and antitrust scrutiny as Google — so the decision to embrace SDA will primarily hinge on pleasing publishers asking for it or the SSPs believing it could bring incremental business.

Regardless, Seller Defined Audiences only works if both the SSP and their partner DSPs adopt the specification. SSPs must pass SDA-specific fields/values in their ORTB bid requests to a DSP. The DSP must then read the SDA fields in the bid request and enable audience targeting features based on the SDA values it finds.

Google decided to embrace Seller Defined Audiences, and now it's time for everyone to determine if they should also integrate the specification into their platforms and business strategy.

Photo by Aditya Chinchure on Unsplash

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