Online advertisers and brands have been using third-party cookies to tailor their ads to the right user for years. But, with an increase in regulations restricting cross-site tracking technology and more consumers opting for user privacy online, the advertising game is changing.
After Google announced its plan to remove support for third-party cookies, advertisers and digital marketers were left to wonder what will replace them on Google’s Chrome browser and ad network.
But the wait is over. Google’s answer is here, and it’s called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).
But how exactly does Google FLoC work, and what does it mean for your website?
Here’s what you’ll learn:
Demand for Internet Privacy Increases
Companies have been using browser tracking to gather information about users and, in turn, improve user experience and ad targeting. However, public sentiment towards browser tracking is shifting, and consumers are now demanding less invasive internet tracking.
How Browser Tracking Works
Browser tracking refers to using tags and other code snippets to collect information about a user’s online behavior and preferences.
For instance, websites use browser trackers to trace the cookies stored in users’ web browsers. Cookies are one of the primary sources of user information, and they may have different functions depending on who is placing them.
With that in mind, let’s look at two of the well-known types of cookies — first-party cookies and third-party cookies.
First-party cookies are the cookies placed on a website by the website owner, and they’re commonly used to improve user experience and save preferred settings.
For example, YouTube can use first-party cookies to save your login information and track what videos you watch to offer tailored content recommendations.
In contrast, third-party cookies refer to the cookies created by someone other than the website you are visiting. Advertising networks often place them on publishing platforms and social media networks to track browsing behavior.
For example, if you visit NYTimes.com, the ads platform may place cookies on your browser to track your activity while browsing the website.
Cookies are one of the best-known methods for tracking and identifying people online, but it’s not the only one. Advertising companies also may use more invasive methods like browser fingerprinting to track user behavior across the internet. Fingerprinting identifies users online by using their browser and device settings.
Consumers Push Back on Internet Tracking
According to McKinsey‘s consumer data protection study, consumers trust companies that limit personal data collection and quickly report hacks and security breaches. The study also found that 64% of consumers clear cookies and browsing history, and 41% use browser settings to disable cookies.
Additionally, non-profit organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have increased efforts to keep consumers educated about privacy issues like device tracking and online identifiers.
The Rise of Privacy Protection in Web Browsers and Search Engines
The demand for online privacy has led people to seek more secure alternatives. As a result, internet browsers and search engines that curtail tracking have seen massive growth.
The private search engine DuckDuckGo surpassed 100 million queries per day in early 2021. Moreover, privacy-first browsers like Brave have gained popularity, racking up to 25 million monthly active users.
The shift towards privacy has also led companies like Apple and Mozilla to remove support for third-party cookies from their web browsers (Safari and Firefox, respectively).
For the tech giant Apple, the online privacy-first approach has even carried over to its line of products. For example, the company advertises the iPhone’s privacy protection features as one of its main competitive advantages.
Google Shifts to Privacy-First Browsing
As consumer preference continues to shift towards placing a premium on privacy, Google is taking a stand as well.
Google Removes Support for Third-Party Cookies
In 2020, Google announced its intention to remove support for third-party cookies on its Chrome browser and ad networks. However, Google will continue to support first-party tracking between websites and their users.
Google also communicated that it would not build replacements capable of tracking users’ identities across the internet. Instead, privacy-protecting APIs that prevent individual tracking will support the Chrome browser.
Google Privacy Sandbox
Google and other tech companies are exploring tracking methods that enable websites to collect data for advertising purposes while protecting user identity. To this end, Google created Privacy Sandbox — a Chromium project aimed at supporting monetization for publishers while protecting user privacy.
The biggest challenge for Privacy Sandbox is finding an online monetization process that doesn’t rely on cross-site tracking.
As the Privacy Sandbox team develops tools to replace cross-site tracking and online fingerprinting, Google will work in parallel to remove support for third-party cookies.
What Is FLoC?
Google formed Privacy Sandbox based on the theory that tech companies and advertisers can use interest-based tracking to monetize online content. As a result, it has invested heavily into developing a technique called FLoC, which is short for Federated Learning of Cohorts.
The technique protects individual users by grouping them with others who share similar interests and online behavior. That way, advertisers and publishers get their share of helpful information while the user retains privacy.
These user groups are called cohorts, and Google FLoC will create them once a week using an algorithm that factors in recent browser history.
Responses to Google FLoC
Shortly after Google introduced Google FLoC, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) took a strong stance against the new tracking solution.
In the article Google’s FLoC is a Terrible Idea, the EFF claims that Google’s solution will make fingerprinting to identify users online easier. The foundation argued that it takes less effort to fingerprint individuals within a small cohort than those within the entire population of internet users.
The EFF also concludes that any type of online grouping can be used for harmful practices such as discrimination and exploitation.
Amazon Blocks Google FLoC
Amazon has also allegedly taken a stance against Google’s cookie-free tracking solution by blocking FLoC pilot tests. According to digital experts, Amazon installed code that prevents Google FLoC from gathering information about the products Amazon users search for, perhaps in an attempt to protect its first-party data.
Google FLoC and WordPress Security
In April 2021, WordPress announced its proposal to treat FLoC as a potential security concern. WordPress stated it wants to combat discriminatory practices and predatory targeting on its platform, which powers roughly 41% of the internet.
To do so, WordPress suggests disabling support for Google FLoC via code. However, it still plans to give those who want to use FLoC on their websites the choice to override the proposed filter.
Several members of the WordPress community have expressed support for the proposed filter but have pushed back on referring to Google FLoC as a security threat.
To learn more about keeping your WordPress website secure, read about the best WordPress security plugins.
At the time of writing, WordPress has not issued a final decision on whether or not to filter Google FLoC by default in WordPress core. But there seems to be strong support in the developer community for blocking Google’s tracking solution.
What does this mean for WordPress users?
There’s a good chance that WordPress core will not support Google FLoC by default. However, if you would like to use FLoC, admins should have the ability to opt-in to use it or override the filter blocking it.
If WordPress decides to block FLoC by default, it will not be due to security risks. Instead, WordPress would be leveraging its position in the online community to combat discrimination and addressing consumer privacy concerns outlined by the EFF.
Alternatives to Google FLoC
Given the strong reactions against Google FLoC, it seems appropriate to ask what the future of website monetization is.
Well, Google isn’t the only company working on cookieless advertising. Other advertising and tech companies are also investing resources to figure out how to support monetization in an age of privacy-first internet browsing.
The SWAN.community Network
PubMatic, OpenX, and Zeta Global pooled their resources to develop the SWAN.community network, which would give consumers more control over their online data.
When users first visit a part of the SWAN ad network, they can opt in or out of viewing ads. By opting in, you’ll share your preferences (under a pseudonym) with participating publishers and their ad tech vendors.
In other words, user data is stored as a first-party cookie and shared across the ad network. Users retain the right to opt out or reset their browsers at any time.
SWAN.community is not a part of the Privacy Sandbox.
Final Thoughts: What Is Google FLoC and How Does It Affect Your Website?
Browser tracking tools such as third-party cookies have enabled website monetization through personalized ads for decades. However, recent shifts in the industry toward user privacy protection have stopped online advertising in its tracks.
Google remains one of the principal online advertising platforms, and it’s currently invested in FLoC as its primary alternative to tracking cookies. For now, the future of FLoC hangs in the balance as testing continues and other options remain under construction.
In the meantime, take a look at Bluehost’s WordPress hosting plans to ensure your WordPress website is secure and reliable.