Updated: Google’s plans to replace cookies with Topics API dubbed grossly insufficient

Google confirms its abandoning its FLoC alternative for digital advertising targeting in favour of a new Topics API approach

Google’s decision to drop one of its leading proposed alternatives to cookies for digital advertisers and adopt a different topics-based approach has been met with some initial caution and scepticism from several across the adtech industry.  

Google announced this week it’s no longer developing ‘FloC’, one of the leading proposed alternative replacements to third-party cookies and unique identifiers. Instead, it’s turning its attention to a new ‘Topics API’ approach.    

FLoC, or ‘federated learning of cohorts’, was one of four proposed options in Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative aimed at finding a replacement for cookies for digital advertising targeting without unique identifiers. FLoC has received plenty of criticism since being announced in April 2021, which led to work temporarily paused last June when Google also announced an extension on the final deadline for using cookies to late 2023

Having taken on additional feedback, Google said it’s no longer developing FLoC and instead using an approach dubbed Topics API.  

Topics API is an interest-based approach that sees a consumer’s browser history determining their biggest interests in a handful of topics each week, such as ‘Fitness’ or ‘Travel and Transportation’, without intervention from Google servers or external insights. Topics are set to be kept for three weeks then deleted.  

Each time a user visits a participating site, three topics can be assigned, one topic from each of the past three weeks, to share with the site and its advertising partners. About 350 topics are being touted as the limit available at any one time, originally sourced from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Tech Lab Audience Taxonomy, although technical details from Google indicate this could end up going into the thousands.    

To make this happen, the API used labels each website with a recognisable, high-level topic – such as matching a sports website with the topic ‘Sports’. The browser then collects a few of the most frequent topics associated with the websites a consumer has visited. In all, the top five topics are calculated each week for each user within the Chrome browser to then aggregate down to the top three.  

“These topics are then shared [one new topic per week] with the sites you visit to help advertisers show you more relevant ads, without needing to know the specific sites you’ve visited,” Google stated in its blog post.    

Google said it’s also building user controls in Chrome to allow consumers to see topics assigned, remove those they like or disable the feature completely. Sites can also opt-out using Permission Policy, an existing browser mechanism. In addition, the company claimed topics will be curated to exclude sensitive categories, such as gender or race.  

“However, it is still possible that websites calling the API may combine or correlate topics with other signals to infer sensitive information, outside of intended use. Chrome will continue to investigate methods for reducing this risk,” Google stated.    

In its technical explainer, Google said the eventual goal is for the taxonomy to be sourced from an external party that incorporates feedback and ideas from across the industry.  

“The browser will leverage a classifier model to map site hostnames to topics. The classifier weights will be public, perhaps built by an external partner, and will improve over time,” the company explained. “It may make sense for sites to provide their own topics, for example, via meta tags, headers or JavaScript, but that remains an open question discussed later.”  

Notably, not every API caller – that is, an advertiser or site - will receive a topic. Only callers that observed the user visit a site about the topic in question within the prior three weeks can receive the topic, Google said. If the caller did not call the API in the past for that user on a site about that topic, then the topic will not be included in the array returned by the API.  

“This is to prevent the direct dissemination of user information to more parties than the technology that the API is replacing,” Google said.  

A developer trial of Topics in Chrome including user controls will be launched shortly for website developers and the ads industry. The timeline for launch, final design and technical aspects will be based on feedback and trial learnings. 

Initial response: Insufficient for marketers

In a scathing response to the Topics API news, COO of customer data platform provider Lotame, Mike Woosley, labelled Google’s revised approach to digital advertising “grossly insufficient” for modern marketers.  

“Google describes Topics as a browser-side utility that will assign a user up to several from a ‘handful’ of interest areas that will persist for three weeks. This type of capability hearkens to contextual advertising techniques circa 2005,” he said. “Unfortunately, the technology as described would be grossly insufficient for the needs of the vast majority of modern marketers who require detailed personas to determine marketing voice, segment customers, measure brand affinity, and tune marketing for complex products like insurance with very detailed segmentations.  

“Even the difference between ‘sports’ and ‘hockey’ can be the difference between worthless and worthwhile for the digital marketer. The latter category might just be 3-4 per cent of the traffic in the former. Google could never survive relying on such basic tools for its vast empire of authenticated traffic, and to bequeath it to the rest of the world borders on insulting for most of the digital media industry.”  

According to Gartner senior research director, Eric Schmitt, FLoC was unlikely to fix solve the root privacy concerns issue. And it was confusing, he said.

"Topics looks like it will solve the privacy concerns, but at a cost," Schmitt continued. "Audience targeting will be very broad and imprecise, as it will be based on recent audience interests, such as lifestyle choices, like music preferences. Whether there are 350 topics or 3500 – these fall far short of cookie-level precision, even allowing for a fair proportion of bad data." 

What is clear regardless of scenario, however, is that audience targeting of all sorts, including lookalike modelling, retargeting and measurement are all sure to depend heavily on Google, Schmitt said.

"Practically speaking, many advertisers would be wise to come to terms with the reason why Google captures at least 25 and probably approaching 33 per cent of global ad revenues: It holds many cards," he said. "From 2 billion-ish first-party email accounts, to search marketing domination, YouTube, to Google Analytics – as well as powerful advertising tools like DV360, Audience Data Hub and Custom Segments – if you are a business that wants to acquire new customers, you pretty much have to work with Google. A lot. Embrace it, and make sure you’re getting the most value out of the ecosystem."

At the same time, Schmitt advised marketers to keep Topics in perspective. While impacting Chrome, it does not encompass Safari banner and display ads, nor some video. 

"If Topics is less precise than cookies, so what? It will be 'independent adtech' that gets squeezed first, not Google," he said. "Rather than speculating on post-cookie browser futures, many marketers would be well off sorting out how to squeeze the most out of their non-browser-based - and Topics-irrelevant - digital ad investments. This list includes paid social, streaming TV, streaming audio, retail media networks and in-game advertising."

CEO of online advertising solutions player FatTail, Doug Huntington, expressed more positivity about Google' next approach, but said as always, “the devil is in the details”.  

“Targeting based on contextual relevancy seems likely to disproportionately reward premium publishers which is great for professional journalism and a positive step in the right direction for consumer privacy,” he warned. “Who better to infer the meaning of content than Google?” 

The IAB advised both buyers and sellers to engage in forthcoming testing and origin trials, either directly or via their vendor partners, so as to fully understand this proposal as it evolves – and the related opportunities and challenges.

The industry association also said it expected updates on Google's proposal for 'Fledge', the search and digital advertising giant's remarketing audiences solution alternative to cookies, to follow shortly. The API reportedly enables on-device 'auctions' by the browser to choose relevant ads, based on websites the user has previously visited.

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