UPDATED 13:24 EDT / JANUARY 25 2021


Google looks to replace third-party cookies with privacy-friendly AI alternative

Google LLC today said that it will soon begin publicly testing Federated Learning of Cohorts, a machine learning technology it believes could help the online advertising industry move away from using third-party cookies to track users. 

Third-party cookies are a commonly used type of cookie that advertisers rely on to track what websites users visit and target them with personalized ads. Earlier this month, Google said that it plans to phase them out in Chrome within two years. The announcement followed similar moves from other browser makers aimed at giving users more control over how their data is accessed by advertisers. 

Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC, is a privacy-conscious alternative to third-party cookies that Google first detailed last year. The search giant’s announcement today that it will soon start public tests of FLoC follows a series of successful simulations conducted by teams from its ad business. Those simulations, Google says, demonstrated that the technology can not only provide better privacy than cookies but also allow brands to continue showing users ads relevant to their interests.  

“Our tests of FLoC to reach in-market and affinity Google Audiences show that advertisers can expect to see at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising,” Chetna Bindra, Google’s group product manager for user trust and privacy, wrote in a blog post today.

The results are significant because to achieve the broad industry buy-in necessary for the entire online ad sector to move away from cookies, a replacement is needed that improves consumer privacy but still allows brands to reach customers with relevant ads. FLoC, Google’s simulations indicate, could eventually very well become that replacement. 

FLoC improves privacy by reducing the amount of user data that is shared with advertisers. Cookies send data about user browsing habits to advertisers, which use the data to organize consumers into audiences, or cohorts in industry parlance, and then target those audiences with personalized ads. FLoC, in contrast, only sends high-level cohort information without providing access to users’ personal browsing data.

“This approach effectively hides individuals “in the crowd” and uses on-device processing to keep a person’s web history private on the browser,” Bindra explained. 

Google plans to make FLoC available for public testing with an update to Chrome that will release in March. Later on, in the second quarter, the search giant will allow advertisers to start trialing FLoC-powered cohort information via its Google Ads service.

FLoC is one of several privacy-enhancing technologies for the online ad industry that the search giant is developing as part of an initiative it calls Privacy Sandbox. Another technology in the works is an application programming interface that could enable marketers to evaluate the effectiveness of ad campaigns using less user data than is needed today. Google is also building software to block data collection techniques that enable advertisers to track users without their knowledge.

Image: Google

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