Why Google’s new Topics has received a lukewarm reception – and three problems we have with it

Last month Google furthered the war on cookies by announcing that it would remove third party cookies from Chrome within two years.

Its initial plan was to replace it with Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), however on 25 January 2022 Google told the world that it had changed its mind, and was now replacing FLoC with Topics.

Google has been slow to act on killing off the third party cookie – Safari, Firefox, and Brave have restricted them for several years now. But with a significant 63% share of the global browser market, what Google decides to do could reshape online advertising and set a standard others ultimately need to follow.

And Topics is a very different way of tackling the problem that a lack of third party cookies creates.

Why did Google abandon FLoC?

Under FLoC Google planned to improve protect the privacy of users by placing them into groups of shared demographics or interests. Advertisers would then pay to target a particular cohort from these groups. For example, they could buy a bundle of young women in Scotland who had recently been shopping for baby products.

However, privacy campaigners complained that it was still possible to identify individuals by piecing together all these tiny bits of information into a bigger picture. And by attempting to remove the privacy risks of third-party cookies, it was simply creating new ones.

Industry experts also pointed out the ‘moral problem with FLoC, as browsers would collect user data and then share it widely without explicit consent from users. They argued that FLoC could, from some viewpoints, be worse for privacy than cookies.

As a result of the widespread criticism, Google decided to ditch FLoC and instead replace it with a new approach – Topics. Vinay Goel, product director of Privacy Sandbox at Chrome, told The Drum, “we expected to hear feedback on ways to improve the technologies. That is exactly what happened here – we heard feedback about how to improve on our original design, and we’ve incorporated that feedback into the new Topics API.”

How Google’s Topics works

Topics analyses your browsing history to build a picture of what you are interested in. So if you like looking at boats, it will show you adverts for boats when you visit websites.

How does it know you like cars? Because every website you visit that uses Google’s Topics API has an overall category. And as you use the internet Google records the categories you visit the most frequently.

Each week, your device takes stock of the five categories you have visited the most. So if you visit yoga websites you might be placed in a Fitness” category. If you’re shopping for a holiday, you could be assigned “Travel & Transportation”. Your device then adds a sixth, ‘wildcard’ random topic in, and shares these categories with the websites you visit, where they are used to determine which ads you are served.

Topics are selected entirely on your device without involving any external servers, including Google servers, and old topics are deleted after three weeks. Google are also building user control in Chrome that will let you see the topics chosen for you, remove any you don’t like, and even disable the feature completely.

There are currently around 350 categories to choose from, but Google says its goal is to ultimately source these topics from a third party, and there could be a “few thousand topics.”

Google claims that “by providing websites with your topics of interest, online businesses have an option that doesn’t involve covert tracking techniques, like browser fingerprinting, in order to continue serving relevant ads.”

Why experts aren’t keen on Google’s Topics

But Topics appears to have received an equally lukewarm reception. Wayne Blodwell, founder and chief executive officer at The Programmatic Advisory, says:

“The only benefit this has for advertisers is that it is slightly better than nothing. For some of the large brand advertisers who want to reach broad audiences, this is something, but for the majority this has no value whatsoever as the category is too broad for their targeting criteria or campaign budgets.”

And he’s not the only one to doubt the wisdom of Google’s decision. Farhad Divecha, founder of digital marketing agency AccuraCast told The Drum that Google has been “indecisive” on its privacy stance on privacy when compared to its competitors, concluding that, “Topics might be seen as a way to keep the wolf from the door, but that door will be knocked down again soon.”

Google plan is to start trialing the Topics API at the end of this quarter. But as Topics is only one potential signal to decide which ad to show to a given user, it remains to be seen how many other browser vendors decide to add the Topics API.

Three reasons why we don’t think Google’s Topics is the right way forward

We also have issues with Google’s new Topics approach. Here are three of the key problems for us:

  1. It doesn’t address issues with user experience: Because individual identifiers have been removed, frequency capping will not be possible. This means users will be bombarded with irrelevant ads.
  2. It risks creating a monopoly: Google Chrome pretends to be making its own decisions, but Google doesn’t explain what these changes mean to its ad buying business. As a result, there is a significant risk it will end up with a more monopolistic position, due to the fact it has ability to use first party data, which the majority of other players can’t.
  3. There’s no external transparency: The quality of classifying users into Topics is not controlled externally, which means that Google is in complete control with no oversight.

How can you ensure your ads still reach the right people?

So given the changes to the third party cookie across the board, how can you ensure that your ads are seen by the right people, at the right time – and deliver on your specific KPIs?

We’d be delighted to explain how our unique, cookie-less solution works, and how we can continue to deliver industry-beating performance. Just get in touch and speak to one of our experts.