Is Google really doing away with behavioural ad-targeting?

Akilesh Radhakrishnan
Mar 7 · 4 min read

Google’s latest announcement regarding ad-targeting changes generated quite a few headlines (Click the links to read the stories).

The Wall Street Journal: “Google to stop selling ads based on your specific web browsing”

Mashable: “Google Says It Will Stop Targeting Ads Based On User’s Browsing History”

Digiday: “Google will end behavioral targeting, profile-building in its ad products”

Yahoo: “Google plans to stop targeting ads based on your browsing history”

Quite the noise. The new ad-targeting announcement, where Google has announced they will no longer target ads based on personal user fingerprinting, is being hailed as a pro-privacy move.

Is it really revolutionary, though?

Only milk, no more cookies?

No, for three reasons:

  1. Google will still be collecting and using your data
  2. Ads will still be based on your behaviour
  3. This doesn’t apply to mobile

What’s really happening?

Last year, Chrome announced plans to phase out third-party cookies — No website would be able to track user activity outside of said website. This began the start of work on a Privacy Sandbox: Innovations to provide accurate targeted advertising while keeping individual users anonymous. In last week’s announcement, Google said they will be moving away from building/enhancing individual user profiles based on individual users’ data to deliver ads.

Users will instead be clustered into groups of “<People who browse these kinds of websites>”, and relevant ads will be delivered to all the people in this group.

A primer on the ad targeting changes

David Temkin, Director of Product Management, Ads Privacy and Trust, wrote in a Google blog post: “People shouldn’t have to accept being tracked across the web in order to get the benefits of relevant advertising. And advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising.”

But how are these cohorts created?

By, well, tracking consumers across the web. It is just that Google will now read the data from the browser, tally the relevant variables (sports, teenage, adult, fashion etc) accordingly and deliver ads without tagging that data to an individual profile.

Oh, and first-party cookies are still on the table. This means data from GMail, Google, YouTube, Drive, Groups, Maps, etc. will still be used to add to individual Google ad profiles. There is also continued support from Chrome for any other websites/services that want to do this — They just won’t get any user behavioural data from outside of their own website (Which might be restrictive for most websites, but I am skeptical of any significant damage to the omnipresent Google).

Below is the relevant snippet from Temkin’s post:

Google will still be using your data.

How will ads be targeted?

Ads will be delivered to everyone in the relevant cohorts (The aforementioned “sports, teenage, adult, fashion, etc.”).

Users will still signal to websites, “Here’s the kind of stuff I’ve been browsing. Please show ads accordingly”. They just won’t be personally identifiable. The user experience won’t be any less ‘creepy’.

Ads will still be based on your behaviour.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. This doesn’t apply to data collected through Google’s trackers in mobile apps. Not exactly a privacy-friendly ‘exception’ though, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I want my privacy. What do I do now?

There are options to progressively move towards better privacy either through service substitution, or tech habits.

Is ad-targeting without invading privacy even possible?

Yes. One alternative to targeted advertising is contextual advertising.

Contextual advertising is about targeting ads based on the content of the active web pages rather than past user behaviour. Rather than, for example, showing ads for baby products to new parents browsing a website for tech webcomics (leading to the ‘creepy’ feeling privacy-aware users have), they see baby product ads when they search for them, they see IDE ads when browsing xkcd, they see ads for movies when browsing FlickMetrix. You get the picture.

Does this sound less efficient than targeted advertising? Don’t be too sure. Evidence against the supposed superiority of targeted advertising is mounting. In the GDPR era, a major Dutch media firm did away with cookies entirely, and saw their ad-revenues shoot up. You can read this and related stories here.

To sum up — The proposed change takes Google further away from the Peeping Tom model, but there is a way to go. Leveraging user data without storing it is not privacy. Privacy is about not looking at user data at all.

Firms that provide targeted advertising as a service will always do so with users’ behavioural data. I will admit it’s naive to expect companies that have made billions off targeted advertising to do away with it.

While it’s good to see a giant in the online advertising industry make the right noises and moves, there remain questions: Is targeted vs contextual as much of a no-brainer as we think? Is the choice of business model (free service + tracking users vs paid service + privacy) a false dichotomy? The answers could determine the direction web giants’ policies — and by association, everyone’s online experiences — take.

What do you think about this announcement? Feel free to mention in the comments!

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