Google’s FLoCs are dead, long live Topics (for now)

February 2022

How does the introduction Topics change advertising targeting?

The story so far

Google has been working on a solution to replace third-party cookies for advertising for some time. Although other browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Safari have deprecated the use of third-party cookies a while ago, Google only made its announcement in 2019. 

Meanwhile, and with some fanfare, they came up with the idea of FLoCs – Federated Learning of Cohorts. Available details on what this involved were limited but in essence, Google was going to use algorithms to categorise data about individual users browsing patterns to create a range of interest-based groups which could be used for targeting. 

What happened next? 

Things did not progress as rapidly as expected. There were a series of delays and hold-ups with many speculating about the cause: 

  1. Many parties including major publishers were concerned about the conflict of interest and the fact that Google was still harvesting vast quantities of data. 
  2. Various anti-trust bodies including The Competitions and Markets Authority in the UK got involved and determined that FLoCs were potentially anti-competitive. 
  3. The Data Protection community in many territories expressed concern about FLoCs for being too intrusive and non-compliant. 

In Summer 2021, Google announced a delay to the launch of FLoCs. Not only did this cast doubt over it’s future but it also provided a stay of execution for those who were still reliant on third-party cookies for their targeting. There ensued a period of silence for 6 months.

Parallel technology developments for advertisers

Over the last few years, a number of alternative solutions have emerged which take advantage of recent technology to allow personal data to stay on your device rather than be collected centrally. 

In parallel, contextual advertising solutions are being adopted that are focussed on context and interest. A notable, but not only, example is Permutive which uses context to create advertising target audiences and has been introduced by a series of major publishers. 

The advent of Topics by Google

Eventually, in January 2022, Google announced Topics, and guess what? It’s using edge computing techniques as well as focusing targeting efforts on context. 

Does this mean that Google is just catching up with some of the more innovative organisations? Have Google decided that they wish to be more respectful of privacy concerns? Have they decided to walk away from the face-off with anti-competition bodies across USA and Europe? 

What does Topics do?

To quote Google extensively:

“With Topics, your browser determines a handful of topics, like “Fitness” or “Travel & Transportation,” that represent your top interests for that week based on your browsing history. 

Topics are kept for only three weeks and old topics are deleted. Topics are selected entirely on your device without involving any external servers, including Google servers. When you visit a participating site, Topics picks just three topics, one topic from each of the past three weeks, to share with the site and its advertising partners. 

Topics enables browsers to give you meaningful transparency and control over this data, and in Chrome, we’re building user controls that let you see the topics, remove any you don’t like or disable the feature completely.”

How does this differ from FLoCs?

Superficially it appears that Topics allows for meaningful transparency and control of personal data whilst serving ads that are based on your browsing interests: 

  1. Topics share far less data about the user – it simply shares an interest in topics
  2. No data is stored centrally – the targeting occurs in the browser when you visit sites 
  3. The user can curate the topics that are used for targeting 
  4. Topics provide the user with more clarity over how their data is being used through the browser settings
  5. Data is deleted after 3 weeks rather than retained 

What does it mean for advertisers? 

If Topics does see the light of day, this is a major change in the way that Google is approaching the targeting of advertising with a significant shift towards a privacy-friendly solution with a continuing focus on interests. If no investigations have been carried out by advertisers into using context as a basis for targeting, now seems like a good time to get started. 

Practically, the deadline for deprecating third-party cookies on Chrome is late 2023. This deadline may or may not move. Google will need the time to ensure that this alternative is well tested and is successful for targeting. 

Successfully leveraging contextual advertising? 

Successful contextual advertising relies on using your compliantly collected first-party data to create segments and profiles. These can then be used to target new prospects using context as the basis for targeting rather than behaviour. Such solutions often rely on data remaining on an individual’s device until the point when they start to consume relevant content – known as edge computing. Back to the future for some of us old enough to remember media buying without any technology!