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Google Privacy Sandbox: What it means for your programmatic ads

Posted by Victor Malachard

Google Privacy Sandbox Programmatic

Google Privacy Sandbox: What it means for your programmatic ads

Google’s Privacy Sandbox looks like it might be the end of programmatic advertising as we know it, with third-party cookies largely set to become a thing of the past, and reliable automated data collation at risk along with them. The only way to prevent this from significantly unravelling online marketing efforts is to focus on shifting data landscapes, sources, and handling on a business-wide scale.

Although the Privacy Sandbox update sounds dramatic, let us not forget that Google’s shift is intended to protect users and companies from increasingly invasive ad processes and security risks. Still, there’s no use denying that Sandbox, more than GDPR, Brexit, and beyond, looks set to impact and even end current programmatic ad processes. This can seem disastrous, yet many companies are finding ways to overcome the issues posed as a result. Change is always an opportunity. 

Google’s announcement certainly came as a shock. Around 1 in 10 digital display ad dollars are currently spent on programmatic inventory in the UK alone. That’s a focus that doesn’t look set to abate anytime soon, with experts predicting that almost 90% of ad spending will go towards this priority by the end of the year. 

Still, significant change is on the horizon, and it’s plain to see that it will be here soon. Keep reading to find out how you can prepare your programmatic landscape for the shift.


What exactly is Sandbox?

First thing’s first: what exactly is this Privacy Sandbox, and what does it mean to your programmatic processes? In truth, there’s still an awful lot of confusion concerning targeted ads in light of Google’s latest announcement, but it’s at least possible to understand the underlying implications of Sandbox as it stands. 

Effectively, this update has emerged out of furore surrounding Google’s decision to ditch third-party cookies in Chrome by 2022. Obviously, an alternative was necessary to allow at least ad tech to continue developing, and Sandbox is Google’s answer to all. Or, so we’re told. 

By rewriting the way we collect and utilise user data, the Sandbox initiative launched by Google last year attempts to replace cookies with application programming interfaces (APIs). These rely instead on machine learning to ensure collection of the personal data publishers and advertisers need without current breaches to consumer privacy.

As-is, this change will be baked into Chromium, the open-source browser that forms the basis of Google’s Chrome. But Chromium is also the foundation of browsers like Microsoft Edge, Opera and Amazon Silk. What’s more, Firefox and Safari (the two big browsers not dependent on Chromium), are likely to follow suit, as each has historically been more privacy-conscious than Chrome. Apple already released an experimental attribution API in May 2019. Ultimately, this is going to be an ‘internet-wide’ shift. 

Admittedly, while many advertisers have been in a panic since Sandbox’s launch last year, little seems to be happening at the moment, with the Sandbox seemingly empty of anything but half ideas and propositions. 

Still, any company relying on programmatic ads based off third-party cookies right now needs to do their research if they’re to keep riding the waves of online digital marketing as we move forward in this Sandbox-based landscape. 

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Programmatic advertising and a shift towards APIs

Given that an API focus is set to be the most significant Sandbox shift, companies must first get their head around what those APIs are, and what each one stands to do from an advertising standpoint. Tangibly, there are no APIs yet in sight within Google’s new toolbox, meaning that actually applying these proposals to your targeted ads could prove tricky. Still, from what we know, the APIs in Google’s grand plans right now include: 

  • Federated learning of cohorts
  • Aggregated reporting
  • Trust tokens
  • Wilful blindness
  • First-party sets

Federated learning particularly aims to replace the function of third-party cookies using machine learning algorithms across decentralised devices for robust data models without personally identifiable information. This makes for data-compliant collation, without necessarily compromising on programmatic ad focuses across hugely varied data landscapes. 

Sadly, federated learning is on the receiving end of some controversy right now, with Google falling foul to accusations of allowing ‘bad actors’ to access data collected this way. Letting Google take sole charge of data collation has also left a bad taste in many company mouths, meaning that getting on top of federated learning on your terms is the only chance you have at making this technique work for you.

Trust tokens have also earned a fair amount of attention since Sandbox’s release. In many ways, these aim to overcome the issues posed by federated learning using ‘trusted’ and ‘non-trusted’ indistinguishable tokens or, in other words, ‘privacy passes’ for web users. While these can’t be used for tracking, they do seem efficient for preventing the fraud many publishers are concerned about where federated learning is concerned. By applying specific programmatic focus to these two APIs, companies should, therefore, find themselves much better able to remain on even footing as Sandbox becomes more and more tangible. But there is a challenge of re-working programmatic algorithms to use these new methods of data collection as sources of information.    


The third-party/first-party dichotomy

Google’s Sandbox and the APIs behind it mean one significant alteration when it comes to programmatic success — a switch from third-party to first-party cookies. 

The focus of Google’s changing landscape right now, third-party cookies rely on information from domains other than those that consumers are visiting and work towards cross-site tracking, retargeting, and ad-serving. In other words, third-party cookies are at the heart of programmatic ads as we know them.

It’s therefore understandable that Google’s move to eliminate third-party cookie use across Chrome browser and beyond has got many an advertiser’s heart thumping. Instead, Google’s Sandbox relies on a more transparent first-party focus, where information is stored by the domain actually being visited. This is good news from a web user perspective as it means that information is used solely to create better individual experiences. But, it’s not such a positive thing where advertisers are concerned. 

As such, companies must find ways to overcome this third-party/first-party dichotomy as soon as possible. In a way, this more tailored focus could lead to even better ad tailoring as we move forward, but reaching that point won’t be easy. In fact, companies will need to think about how to implement first-party cookies in third-party contexts to even make this possible. Luckily, programmatic ad focuses matter to Google as well, so they are taking steps towards this with features such as their federated learning. 

Advertisers may also find themselves under increased pressure to focus on value and user experiences with readily-shared data at heart. Sadly, without considering the tech that can make that possible, companies face adding excessive tasks to their workloads for this focus alone. And, that largely goes against the benefits many businesses enjoy from programmatic ads in the first place.


Building your Sandcastle

Ultimately, continued success right now comes down to your ability to realise that programmatic ads as you know them can’t continue. While spending in this area might have weathered GDPR with little more than a slight dip, Google’s Sandbox won’t be so easy to overcome. That said, experts continue to predict increases within a programmatic landscape. 

By understanding and overcoming the challenges that a shift away from third-party cookies could bring to their efforts, companies could actually enjoy tailored advertisements with higher success rates, transparent company-consumer interactions, and plenty besides. But, the programmatic aspect of these services is, undeniably, set to take a significant hit. 

Does that mean automated ad focus is a thing of your company past? Not at all. Data sets will still be far too large for manual processes to cope with, meaning that businesses instead need to consider alternative intelligence implementations that allow for automation without compromising consumer data. 

Luckily, artificial intelligence is precisely the thing to make that happen. While poorly planned or executed AI focuses could see your programmatic ads falling short, or setting you apart as an untrustworthy company, hiring trained and experienced AI consultancies should prove worth your while now more than ever. With experience and knowledge in the AI necessary to achieve programmatic ads using first-party data inputs, a trustworthy consultancy could help you to weather Google’s latest wave without suffering too badly from a programmatic standpoint. And, they’ll do it all by implementing the ideal updates and creative processes to your existing company landscape.

Are programmatic ads at risk right now? Perhaps, but arming yourself with the correct knowledge and team should still see you gaining plenty of value from this technique down the line. Remember, your competitors face the same challenges. The first brands to develop and implement functional solutions will reap a significant period of competitive advantage. You never know, 2020 could become the year when your programmatic focus hits the mark at last.

Find real world examples of AI deployment in action. Download our practical AI guide now. 

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Victor Malachard
Victor Malachard
Executive Chairman

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