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Google's first steps toward a cookie-free tomorrow

Google's first steps toward a cookie-free tomorrow Andre Golsorkhi

With cookies severely restricted in the European Union and big browser companies like Mozilla deciding to prioritize privacy over data collection, it's no surprise that there's been a scramble to develop new technology that can track consumer behavior online. Several different ideas have emerged, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has even formed a group to investigate what comes after the cookies go. 

Google, it seems, has so far presented the strongest cookie challenger. Much like earlier technology developed by Apple, the Google technology would rely on anonymous identifiers -- looking at user behavior but not personal information -- and it would be far easier to disable or restrict than current tracking technology. 
It's a big step toward addressing a situation that has had online retailers, especially, quite frightened. Not because they wanted to invade consumers' privacy -- that's the job of the NSA's PRISM program -- but because cookies had become a crucial part of how these retailers could reach specific customers with specific messages, based on preferences gleaned from web history. And whereas even a few months ago, the certain death of the cookie would have been great cause for concern for retail marketers, there seems to be a great sigh of relief circulating: Google's got this.

The targeting imperative

According to Pew, nearly two-thirds of Americans disapprove of search engines and websites collecting their data for the purpose of ad targeting. There's an inherent mistrust because they don't like their behavior tracked. But at the same time, a 2010 report indicated that these targeted ads are far more effective than ads that are not. The logical jump to make here is that it's not the targeting -- it's the tracking that people have a problem with.
Because Google owns about 41 percent of the digital advertising business, it was naturally important to develop a solution that would allow for better targeting without invasive tracking, lest the company lose some of its market share, or clientele. Google products can take years to development -- so it wasn't just the latest round of anti-cookie sentiment that led to the development of the company's cookie alternative. It was rather a simultaneous anticipation that its AdWords' clients were going to panic when cookies went the way of the dinosaur, and a confidence that Google could create a better product -- one that would not only work on desktop web but also on mobile devices.
If the product is all that Google promises, advertisers can continue to target content in a way that will be less invasive and possibly more precise than ever made possible by cookies.  

From targeting to measurement

As part of Google's efforts to move tracking away from the cookie and improve the capabilities of tracking technology overall is also last month's launch of its Estimated Total Conversions tool, which will provide an improved means of tracking not just for targeting but also for measurement. Millennial Media announced a similar product, specific to mobile ad conversions and how they relate to brick-and-mortar conversions, during Advertising Week in September. Combined with the new flexibility of its AdWords conversion window,  this move shows a real desire from Google to understand how the data it collects -- tracks -- affects the full sale cycle.
Retail marketers know that not every ad impression will generate a sale -- immediately or at all.  And while cookies, and even Google's cookie alternative, could help marketers take a guess at what items consumers would buy, there hasn't traditionally been a reliable way of determining whether they do buy, or when or where.
It's always been easy to measure direct conversions -- from ad to click to purchase, all on the same device -- but sales are usually more complicated than that. Google's promise to retail marketers is that they'll be able to know, with a high degree of certainty, that a purchase a person made from his or her work computer at 9 a.m. originated with an email received to his or her personal computer at 7 a.m. for a product researched on his or her smartphone from the bus on the way to work. Instead of the old way of doing things -- saying there was no sale at 7 a.m. so the initial email was a bust -- Google is using the same sort of tools it has now developed for collection and targeting to measure conversions.

Goodbye cookies, hello tomorrow

Google's continued endeavor to stay one step ahead of the curve -- something it's been consistently good at, even when changes have been unpopular at first -- means opportunity will accompany the downfall of the cookie, both with ad targeting and with tracking effectiveness. If we allow ourselves to move through the process with Google, embracing the options it provides rather than resisting the end of a dying protocol, marketers can only meet success.

Andre Golsorkhi is CEO and founder at Sidecar.

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"Chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies" image via Shutterstock.

Sidecar is a leader in automated e-commerce marketing, powering paid search, comparison shopping engine advertising, on-site product recommendations, and email re-targeting for retailers ranging from $5M to $3B in annual online revenue, including...

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