On April 27, Google announced new sharp restrictions on the use of the DoubeClick ID when leveraging its data transfer service, effectively making it useless for analytics. AdExchanger rightly described the move as "making it more difficult for advertisers to have an independent view of the data generated from ad buys in its ecosystem."
This restriction and its far-reaching implications for advertisers and the ad tech community are just the latest in a series of recent moves from Google in which the company has cited GDPR as justification to raise its drawbridge and use its market power to favor its own ad tech. Earlier in April, Google announced it would be suspending third-party ad serving and pixel tracking on YouTube with the excuse of of GDPR compliance and privacy concerns.
But make no mistake: these are anticompetitive moves that benefit no one except Google. What is being touted as a boon to privacy is instead a serious blow to transparency.
At present, the suspension of third-party ad serving on reserved buys on YouTube will only apply to Europe, starting May 21. But Google is assessing whether to extend that policy globally. Meanwhile, the discontinuation of third-party pixel tracking—a move that's been in the works for more than a year—will take effect on the same date.
But fear not, advertisers. The DoubleClick ID restriction might limit advertisers’ ability to measure the reach and frequency of Google campaigns against other platforms, and will hamper multi-touch attribution by third-party platforms. And pixel tracking might be banished from YouTube. But Google is more than happy to provide its own black box attribution solution in Google 360 and a new cross-device tracking solution to advertisers in the form of its own Ads Data Hub.
Google sure seems determined to grade its own homework and prevent any third party from checking it.
The Deepening Trust Deficit
Google’s unfortunate moves to restrict visibility and accountability within its ecosystem come at a time when the search giant is already facing a crisis of credibility among advertisers, publishers and the public. The company is operating in an increasingly closed ecosystem, and yet its ability to protect user data and brand safety is still in question. And now, the company is using GDPR as a convenient excuse for changes it knows are bad for advertisers and a further anticompetitive abuse of its power.
Of course, the industry recently witnessed Facebook’s decision to shut down third-party data for ad targeting, following its own massive data breach. At first glance, one might reasonably forgive Google’s moves as precautionary ones based on lessons from its fellow Duopolist. But one would be mistaken. The circumstances are quite different. Google has decided to further close its system from outside scrutiny, rather than to build trust and transparency in its operations.
Of course, there are bad actors out there. And Google has an obligation to keep such actors out of its walled garden. But for it to claim that it cannot tell the difference between the bad actors and the good ones is insulting to every professional working in this space. Established players—the good guys—have years of history as solid industry citizens, along with the big-name clients to prove it. Google’s failure to embrace these players speaks volumes to its true intent in further closing its ecosystem.
Right now, our industry is witnessing a slow but steady erosion of faith in its biggest player. The recoil from the ad community is just beginning, as understanding of these moves are being processed at clients and agencies … but that recoil is happening. Google surely anticipated the response, but must believe that it will “blow over”; that advertisers will whine and gnash their teeth, but are too dependent to change. But make no mistake: conversations are being had—among brands, agencies, publishers and the ad tech community at large—about the pressing need to reduce reliance on Google for the long haul. The buy side is rising.
It’s not too late for Google to change this narrative. But it will not do so by further walling itself off from the advertising community. The path forward, as in so many realms, must be one of openness and transparency. This includes welcoming legitimate industry players—ones that support and enable reputable advertisers—to provide service and oversight within their walls. There can be rules. Data can and should be protected. But advertisers must be able to work with legitimate partners to hold Google accountable for the billions of dollars passing through its garden.
Google can no longer use smoke screens to block out competition. It must turn over a new leaf and embrace partners, and even competitors, that can help it become transparent, accountable and—yes—worthy of trust.