DuckDuckGo has announced an add-on to the Chrome browser that blocks Google’s new scheme to provide marketers with information for targeting advertising at Internet users.
The scheme called FLoC — Federated Learning of Cohorts — is being tested in Chrome, in some cases without the knowledge of the browser’s users.
“If you’re a Google Chrome user, you might be surprised to learn that you could have been entered automatically into Google’s new tracking method called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC),” DuckDuckGo explained in a post on its website.
“It groups you based on your interests and demographics, derived from your browsing history, to enable creepy advertising and other content targeting without third-party cookies,” it continued.
After a short trial period,” it noted, “Google decided not to make this new tracking method a user choice and instead started automatically including millions in the scheme.”
DuckDuckGo, which makes a search engine that competes with Google, added that it has updated its Chrome extension designed to block Internet trackers to also block FLoC interactions on the Web.
FLoC is Google’s alternative to third-party cookies, which will soon become extinct in Internet browsers. Those cookies are used by marketers to target ads at users across the Web.
With FLoC, users are placed in “cohorts” based on their browsing history. When a user lands on a website, the FLoC ID can be used to target ads at them.
Google did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but in the past, it has said that not only is FLoC 95 percent as effective as the third-party cookies, but it better preserves a user’s privacy.
DuckDuckGo disputes that claim. “While FLoC is purported to be more private because it is a group, combined with your IP address (which also gets automatically sent to websites), you can continue to be tracked easily as an individual,” it maintained in its Web post.
“Although the cohorts you belong to over time are non-descriptive and represented by an anonymous-looking number, it won’t be long before people or organizations work out what FLoC IDs really means, e.g. what interests and demographic information they are likely correlated with,” DuckDuckGo asserted.
“Google is wrapping a lot of questionable past behaviors in the language of privacy and altruism that a lot of people just don’t buy,” added Liz Miller, vice president and a principal analyst at Constellation Research.
“That’s what you’re seeing with DuckDuckGo,” she added.
Josh Crandall, CEO and cofounder of NetPop Research, a market research and strategy consulting firm in San Francisco, explained that DuckDuckGo’s value proposition is to protect users from further erosion of their privacy, especially from Google.
“By releasing the Chrome extension, DuckDuckGo continues to present its benefits to users who are concerned about Google’s use of their data,” he told TechNewsWorld.
FLoC seems to be meeting resistance from three camps, observed Charles King, the principal analyst at Pund-IT, a technology advisory firm in Hayward, Calif.
“First, are organizations, like DuckDuckGo, which want to eliminate or radically curtail online tracking of any sort,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“Second are groups and individuals that reflexively distrust Google efforts of every sort,” he continued.
“Finally,” he added, “are companies that depend on traditional cookies and hope to keep those technologies or something like them around indefinitely.”
Advertisers also have some qualms about FLoC.
“Because FLoC does not provide any sort of ad targeting taxonomy, advertisers need to run their own research and data science to determine which FLoC IDs will perform on certain campaigns or to determine online behaviors,” explained Louis Ashner, executive vice president of technology at Engine Media Exchange, a media and marketing services company in New York City.
“By the time this analysis is run, users could have already been placed into a different FLoC as they browse to different websites,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Constellation Research’s Miller added that a lot of advertising pushback against FLoC is from agencies that have been doing the kind of market segmentation Google is proposing to do with its new scheme.
“Those agencies not only understand data, but they understand the strategic and business goals of their clients’ brands,” she said. “They don’t trust Google to do that because its broad segments could create a negative customer experience for people consuming their ads.”
“That’s a real worry, and it should be for a lot of marketers,” she added.
What’s more, FLoC would give Google even more leverage than it already has in the digital advertising marketplace, maintained NetPop Research’s Crandall.
“By controlling the FLoC algorithms through which Internet users are segmented, Google would retain full visibility into user behaviors and the advertising that is targeted to them while at the same time disintermediating other companies from receiving the same data,” he observed.
“In essence,” he continued, “FLoC puts Google even more squarely in the middle of the online advertising marketplace and increases its control of user data and insights.”
If FLoC Falters
If FLoC doesn’t gain the traction Google hopes it will gain in the market, what will digital marketers do?
“Universal ID approaches or fingerprinting will be pursued as they are being pursued today,” maintained Greg Sterling, vice president of market insights for Uberall, a maker of location marketing solutions based in Berlin.
“There’s also contextual targeting and paid search, which is arguably the safest and most effective form of digital advertising,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“I don’t think it’s a sky-is-falling moment for digital marketers,” he said. “The industry will survive. Most brands and retailers will need to develop much stronger first-party data sets, which is a good thing to do in general.”
If FLoC fails, Miller predicted that advertising done with specific publishers or websites will pick up steam and gain importance.
“Through individual publishers, you’ll be able to optimize efficiency of spend as well as effectiveness of targeting because you’ll be using first-party data that exists with the single site or publisher,” she explained.
“It starts to refunnel advertising into different places,” she continued. “You’ll start to see small and mid-sized advertisers invest in larger, walled gardens, like Facebook and Google. That’s not going to be a good thing for the industry.”
Threat to Open Web
It may not be a good thing for a more Open Web, either, asserted Brendan Riordan-Butterworth, a technology consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“If you have a third-party cookie, you can identify my browser as being interested in a certain product or service,” he explained to TechNewsWorld. “Then, whether or not I’m on a website for that product or service, that website can get the CPMs for the product or service.”
“Third-party cookies can be a great normalizer for the advertising a publisher can get,” he continued. “It allows websites that are less commercially interesting to some advertisers to exist.”
“If you remove cross-site targeting through cookies, a bunch of websites not big enough to build their own first-party user targeting resources will no longer be viable,” he said. “They’ll either cease to exist or migrate to larger platforms like Facebook. That will centralize the system so everyone will be logged into a few walled gardens.”
“With FLoC, you’re going to have some consolidation, but without it, it’s even worse,” he added. “It’s a good way to promote the Open Web.”