The Publisher Brief: Google Topics

In January 2022, Google made another change in the Privacy Sandbox solution lineup, by giving FLoC the boot and ushering in “Topics”. But what does the latest proposal mean for publishers? And what can they do to prepare for the change?

The Headlines

  • Topics is a new Privacy Sandbox proposal which replaces FLoC as an interest-based, privacy-safe ad targeting technique. It works on the client-side in the browser, so user data is never stored by Google – unlike FLoC.
  • The proposal works by assigning users to interest groups (like Travel or Fitness) based on their browsing activity during that week. Groups are only stored for three weeks before being deleted.
  • For publishers, the key concerns are that Topics eliminates the benefit of any granular knowledge they have about their users. In essence, Google decides what a publisher’s audience’s interests are, not the publisher themselves.

What is Google Topics?

Announced on January 25th, 2022, Google Topics is the latest proposal to be added to Google’s Privacy Sandbox. The difference here is that Topics is actively replacing a previous proposal, Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC. As Google mentioned in their announcement, FLoC was met with various concerns from both EU privacy regulators and privacy champions across the industry.

Topics works in two ways.

First, the Topics API assigns every publisher website with an interest group from a pool of (for now) around 350 topics. These range from Team Sports to Books & Literature to Rock Music and beyond – though they are notably broad in scope. Topics are curated by real people, meaning sensitive topics will be filtered out by default.

Next, Google Chrome will collect a few of these topics for each user based on the sites they’ve visited most in the last week and make a decision on each user’s ‘top five’ topics. This all happens on the client-side, meaning none of this interest-based data is stored by Google at any point. Users are able to see the complete list of all Topics groups, edit or delete the groups to which they’ve been assigned in Chrome, and even disable Topics interest-based targeting altogether. The browser will store each week’s groups locally for a rolling period of three weeks, after which time the oldest of these will be deleted. In this way, a user’s interests should skew towards recency and relevance.

When a user visits a publisher website which is running Topics, the technology will pick one topic from each of the last three weeks to share with the advertiser via the publisher’s site. From here, ad decisioning can take place in a similar way that contextual advertising always has.

When will Topics be available in Google Chrome?

As one of the Privacy Sandbox proposals, Topics is still in early development and will be tested throughout 2022. According to the Privacy Sandbox timeline provided by Google, Topics should be “launched in Chrome and ready for scaled use across the web” by the beginning of Q4 2022. But, just as we’ve seen with FLoC, the future of Topics as a solution to the crumbling cookie remains to be seen.

Do publishers need to take action to enable Topics?

Yes. Publishers will need to enable a connection to the Topics API in their website code in order to have interest groups assigned to them. Google has already begun documenting the technical requirements for Topics on the Chrome Developer site.

What does Topics mean for publishers? Is this a good or a bad thing?

The issue with Topics as we see it is that Topics effectively eliminates the benefits of the fine-grain interest data publishers have on their first-party audiences.

For example, you might run a sports website and have a section dedicated to Manchester United F.C., so you know any users who regularly visit this section are probably fans of the club, or at least soccer. With Topics, your entire website would be tagged with simply “Team Sports” and that’s what advertisers would see, meaning they lose the granular benefit of knowing exactly what your audience is interested in.

There’s also a flip-side to this which favors large publishers. That’s because big publishers which might normally be classified with a generic topic like ‘Entertainment’ (think video-sharing and community-driven sites with lots of different content) will now receive more fine-grain user information via the Topics groups. By the same token, those smaller, more niche publishers will be limited from making the most of their fine-grain user data as explained above.

Not only do publishers lose the benefit of these granular audiences, but they also rely on the Topics API to make the interest-based decisions for them. What if you’re assigned into the wrong group? What if you embed some content from another site with an entirely different topic assigned to them? What if an advertiser’s sales cycle is longer than three weeks?

All of these questions will need to be answered in time, but for now, it’s wise for publishers to at least look into how the Topics API works and decide whether they want it integrated into their website.

Want to learn more about how Topics might impact you as a publisher, or explore new ways to monetize and maximize the value of your content?

Get in touch today!

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