Commentary

The Google Maneuver

There are many and varied points of view regarding Google’s recent announcement —let’s call it the Google Maneuver — to disallow third-party cookies in Chrome. The Google Maneuver could destroy thousands of jobs, erase billions in investment, or cripple digital advertising accountability (see “deadpool” below). Companies (like Google) that rest on first-party data will be fine. 

This is big drama in digital media. Some ad-tech companies may simply evaporate; some will find a workaround. Where you stand depends on where you sit, but wherever you sit, hold on tight.  This is nothing less than a reordering of power. 

Rather than get into the gory details, we’re going to take a step back. Who are the actors, what are they saying, and why? 

Google. It says it wants to protect consumer privacy.  But it has, and will continue to have, more personal data than any company, which it uses to great advantage. Other companies will have less. Are consumers safer? 

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Cool sub-plot #1: Google basically invented the use of cookies for purposes such as personalization and accounting (DoubleClick). Is it killing the goose that laid its golden egg, or just angling to keep all the eggs for itself (killing other people’s geese?)? 

The ANA and the 4A’s.  Three years ago, these organizations were at loggerheads over transparency issues. Basically, the ANA had the 4A’s membership investigated, resulting in a rift. But the Google Maneuver is so threatening that the two organizations are collaborating for mutual support.  

Last week, they issued a joint statement condemning Google’s action in the strongest of terms. Will Google take this condemnation to heart? Why should it ?

The Interactive Advertising Bureau says, via press release, that the situation forms the preconditions for “a new and better beginning.” This is not without merit, but it is also how friends comfort you when your house burns down.  

The IAB adds that cookies were never an ideal solution, which is true enough, but that’s what friends say about the ex after a bad break-up.  Could they at least have offered us hot tea and a Kleenex?

Publishers and advertisers are “mostly absent” from this discussion, according to a recent headline. Several publishers have made the point that the Google Maneuver is OK because it will drive a return to context-based buying. That’s nostalgia. If audience targeting is working for advertisers, they will buy it from those who can best provide it. That would be walled gardens -- in particular, Google. 

Expect this will drive mergers and acquisitions among publishers for purposes of driving first-party data scale.   

Advertisershave been similarly muted in their response, except via their industry association (The ANA). Now would be a good time for them to reinforce the ANA/4A’s message. 

Facebook is already advising its users that being too personal is dangerous. This is like the water department, anticipating a drought, saying that being too hydrated can kill you. No news here, but the timing is impeccable. 

The ad-tech intermediaries are a tough bunch. But now, theyare pinned down by a withering hail of gunfire. Will their customers rush to their defense? Will it suddenly be clear that the “ad tech tax” funded the roads that Google will now demolish and replace with its own toll road? 

Buying automation will manage to buy impressions on some basis, so we probably won’t go back to handwritten insertion orders and lunch-based pricing. Probably.   

Advertising measurement. Industry organizations, advertisers, and agencies have begged walled gardens to support independent measurement of digital media for the past 20 years. Response has been disappointing, but now measurement gets harder because independent measurement often relies, at least in part, on third-party data. There are alternative approaches, but not everyone will be able to implement them.  

It seems inevitable that advertisers will have to rely, more than ever, on the foxes to guard the henhouse. The foxes are withholding comment.  

Ari Paparo, CEO of RTB platform Beeswax, summarizes the carnage in a dark Ad Exchanger piece as follows:

 “Let's start with the deadpool:

  • View-through attribution: dead.
  • Third-party data: dead.
  • DMPs: dead.
  • Multitouch attribution: dead.”

Jeesh, don’t take your kids to Ari’s house for Halloween — they’ll get PTSD! 

In sum, Google had several kinds of options to deal with the onslaught of regulation.  The option it chose, uncharacteristically, was to play the cowed prisoner: “OK, OK, whatever you want Mr. Government! Just don’t hurt me!”

Not unjustified, mind you, considering the past and potential future fines, but there were plenty of other ways to manage those risks.  

Google’s action cripples the means by which many other players collaborate for targeting, accounting, and measurement. This could maim competitors, squash innovation, and compromise media accountability. 

What a coup! Google has raised passive aggression to an art form.

4 comments about "The Google Maneuver".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 6, 2020 at 11:46 a.m.

    Very well thought out commentary, Ted. I wonder what will happen if the feds, who are actively investigating Google, step in and take some action---like introducing strict regulations, perhaps a move to break up overly controlling "monopolies", etc.?

  2. Ted Mcconnell from Lucid Llc. replied, February 6, 2020 at 12:41 p.m.

    Thanks Ed. For sure, this is a smoking gun for anti trust action. I edited that out because I am not a lawyer, and I get beaten up when I talk about stuff that touches on law :). This started a chain of thought that ended up with the idea that publishers could break or discriminate against Chrome simply by not serving content to it.(The http header exposes the browser type). I doubt if they would do that ... but even if they caused one of every 20 Chrome page loads to fail, users would probably switch browsers. It simply goes to show that reciprocal power exists. 

  3. Randall Tinfow from CLICK-VIDEO LLC, February 6, 2020 at 1:04 p.m.

    Banning Chrome is a regressive idea, recalling days when webviews resulted in "best viewed on . . ." notices. But I like it! 

    Wonder if that ban includes other implementations of Chromium, such as MSFT's Edge or multiple instances of Chromium packaged in a desktop app using Elektron? 

  4. Gian Fulgoni from 4490 Ventures, February 7, 2020 at 1:54 p.m.

    Another idea: Publishers should band together and invest some significant money in the development of a powerful new browser

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