What the FLoC is Google’s Privacy Sandbox?

As we gently walk each other through grieving the loss of third-party cookies, now is an excellent time to take a quick dip in the Privacy Sandbox. Chrome’s cookie phase-out is scheduled to be complete in 2022 which, for digital advertisers, has been a tough pill (or cookie) to swallow because it signals the end of the industry as we know it. But it’s no secret that the ad industry is resourceful and adaptable in the face of change. 

Never one to leave us empty-handed, Google has been working on new APIs to allow personalized advertising, including the Privacy Sandbox. 

What’s Inside? 

Anyone who has ever set foot in a sandbox knows there’s a lot of stuff hidden in there. Big picture, Privacy Sandbox contains a bunch of APIs to secure users’ privacy, while still allowing advertising measurement and tracking. 

Google has a lot to say about all of this, but for our purposes, we’re just going to talk about FLoC.

Lots & Lots of FLoCs

Birds of a feather get FLoC’d together. It’s a bad pun, but, seriously, that’s what’s happening. Might as well learn it now because it doesn’t look like FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) will be going anywhere anytime soon. 

Third-party cookies have been a gold mine for advertisers because they allow us to see exactly what an individual user is looking up online. This opportunity to deliver hyper-specific ads is hard to beat. Of course, Google won’t benefit from wiping out the online ad industry that it makes all its money from. Instead, they’re working to replace cookies in Chrome with technologies that let ad companies target specific demographics while allowing users to remain (somewhat) anonymous. 

When you visit a website, Chrome will tell the site which cohort you belong to (say 135692), which may be populated by Dolly-obsessed Francophiles who ride e-scooters. Maybe you won’t share every attribute of this cohort, but the website you land on won’t know those specifics. 

Google says it’ll wait until thousands exist in each cohort, meaning users will be anonymous by virtue of being hidden in the crowd. And because our interests can change like the state of the world, your cohort can too. 

Ads you see will be based on the cohort you’re grouped into rather than on your individual (personal) data. 

Here’s a basic play-by-play:

  1. A FLoC model is built. Thousands of cohorts are created using a mathematical model. Each cohort corresponds to browsers with similar histories and is assigned a number (cohort 132692).
  2. Each browser (Chrome browser, at least) is assigned to a cohort. User’s data will stay in their browser but be given a cohort assignment based on their browsing history. 
  3. Advertisers and publishers will be able to observe cohort activity on their sites rather than the activity of individual users. Cohort activity can then be shared with ad tech platforms that can select ads appropriate for the users in those cohorts. 
  4. Publishers display ads that are relevant to a user based on that user’s cohort. 

What does it mean for advertisers?

Having to pivot is really nothing new for advertisers. The ad industry has always been at the mercy of technology and changing regulations, so this is just another opportunity to regroup and make sure we aren’t putting our proverbial eggs in one basket (or sandbox). 

Google says FLoC will be great, and we can hope for the best, but only time will tell if this is really the holy grail balance of data security and tracking capabilities. 

We’ve got a little bit of time left before the official rollout. Here’s what to focus on until then!

  • Stay up to date. FLoC is still in development and testing stages so we’re likely to get a better idea what to expect over the coming months. Staying up to date will give you more opportunity to adjust to new expectations around reporting, conversion, and attribution.
  • Create a safety net. Double down on collecting first-party data. First-party cookies aren’t going anywhere (any time soon, at least) and will always hold value for advertisers. 
  • Keep the lines of communication open. There will be growing pains for the whole industry, and maintaining the trust of customers and clients when it comes to privacy policies is crucial. 

Google is ultimately under a lot of scrutiny over this move and only time will tell whether they will actually deliver the pro-privacy, pro-advertising utopia they have so boldly promised.

May 18, 2021