Google ditches FLoC for ‘Topics’: a more advertiser friendly privacy solution?

The newest toy in the Privacy Sandbox aims to simplify cookie-free targeting for brands. Are the two sides finally talking the same language?

Google ditches FLoC for ‘Topics’: a more advertiser friendly privacy solution?

Google has announced its latest attempt to fill the upcoming Chrome cookie void, with a new ‘Topics’ system that replaces its much-maligned FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts). 

The story so far

After announcing its plans to retire tracking cookies on its Chrome browser back in early 2020, the company intended for FLoC to replace cookies with a new technology which it claimed was more anonymised yet still able to yield conversion rates of 95% for every ad dollar spent. 

The internet giant eventually ended the development of FLoC in July 2021, at the same time delaying the end of third party cookies until at least mid-2023. 

Since then, Google has declined to say much more on its plans for a cookie-free Chrome, but this week it announced a replacement: ‘Topics API’. 

How it works

The new tool will select topics of interest, based on the user’s browsing history, without involving external servers, and share those topics with participating sites.

In the coming weeks, Google plans to launch a developer trial of Topics in Chrome, including user controls. 

With Topics, the user’s browser determines a handful of topics, like ‘Fitness’ or ‘Travel,’ that represent the user’s top interests for that week based on their browsing history.

When a user visits a participating site, Topics selects three topics to share (one from each of the previous three weeks) with the site and its advertising partners. 

Up to five topics are associated with the browser. Topics are then stored for three weeks, with topic selection occuring on the user’s device, without involving any external servers, including Google’s own servers.

To start, the tool will feature about 300 topics that represent an intersection of IAB’s Content Taxonomy V2 and Google’s own advertising taxonomy review. However, the number of topics could expand to thousands as the project expands. 

“More in line with nomenclature advertisers are used to “

Commenting on the move,  Farhad Divecha, MD and Founder of AccuraCast, says: "FLoC doesn't make sense to most advertisers who aren't technical data analysts. The system was met with a lot of criticism when Google launched it, and it largely felt like a half-baked idea Google prematurely pushed out the door in response to changes in advertising and privacy.

"The move to Topics is more in line with nomenclature advertisers are used to - both on Google (Display Network targeting offers publisher-based Topics) and on Facebook (where advertisers can target audience based on topics of interest).

"An option that doesn’t involve covert tracking techniques"

Vinay Goel Product Director, Privacy Sandbox, Chrome, says: “Because Topics is powered by the browser, it provides you with a more recognisable way to see and control how your data is shared, compared to tracking mechanisms like third-party cookies. And, 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.”

Google provided an explainer video to demonstrate how it works: 

“Broad topics will drastically decrease value for those advertisers”

Not all performance marketers are convinced by Google, with concerns that the new system might not be offering enough granularity for today’s sophisticated marketing campaigns. 

Jürgen Galler, CEO and Co-founder of 1plusX, says: “Google’s Topics is a much simplified version of the original FloCs. While it will make it easier for Google to pass data protection authorities’ review and to test and launch, there are concerns around the level of granularity and if the taxonomy is dynamic enough; broad topics will drastically decrease value for those advertisers that are used to working with much more granular and sophisticated target groups.

“FloCs used to provide signals that allowed for some level of socio-demo predictability; these seem to have gone now. Also the narrow three-week window of historical data is likely to reduce its quality. The cumulative effect of these changes could be advertisers turning to more insightful first-party data solutions which offer them additional value.”

"Indecision is in stark contrast to Facebook"

"How this gels with Google's recent moves towards greater control over user privacy remains to be seen,” Divecha adds. “The past year has made it fairly clear that Google still aren't really sure of the best way forward. They've talked about protecting privacy and then introduced a number of counter-measures. This indecision is in stark contrast to Facebook, who pushed their conversions API back in 2020, and have steadfastly supported it.

"As an agency that manages fairly significant advertiser budgets, this constant indecision and lack of clear future direction by Google does not inspire confidence, especially at a time when we're planning 2022-2023 budgets," Divecha concluded.