Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

As Google flexes its monopolistic muscles, can contextual level the playing field?

By Peter Wallace, Managing Director EMEA at GumGum

Google’s announcement last week that it won’t provide user-level identifiers in place of third-party cookies was greeted with more than a few raised eyebrows from major media players. While Google framed the move as altruistic – designed to better meet consumer expectations for privacy – many fear that it increases the company’s vice-like hold on the digital ad industry at a time of huge upheaval.

With the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority already investigating Google’s Privacy Sandbox, the fact that the Chrome giant now appears to be pushing advertisers towards its new FLoC (federated learning cohorts) proposal will do little to allay concerns.

The full implications from Google’s announcement remain to be seen. But with the news alone causing so much uncertainty, it goes to show Google can change tack on a dime. And when it does, it kicks up a sandstorm for everyone else: not least smaller agencies and publishers who are so exposed to the data tactics of the walled gardens.

Beware the GAFA land grab

Of course, it’s not just Google that is sizing up territory in a post-cookie landscape: all the GAFA players are taking steps to leverage the disruption in their favour. Apple is planning to hide user IPs from Google, while Facebook is busy countering Apple’s recent data crackdown and Amazon is shoring up dominance with its connected TV ad options.

With the death of cookies leaving the future wide open, any one of these companies could seize the advantage – bolstering its walled garden and making sure its own ad solution has the advantage. The digital landscape is already very complex, with advertisers having to create strategies across multiple solutions. The walled gardens make it even more difficult to navigate. For an online world that was founded on the principles of freedom, this certainly feels like an unsafe and fractured place to be.

Many have been hoping that ID initiatives, like Unified ID 2.0, will create an open and privacy-friendly framework that will suit everyone in the ecosystem. While it’s still unclear if Google’s announcement has killed off this approach, it should be a reminder that we cannot put all of our faith in universal IDs. Advertisers must equally look to solutions that don’t rely on PII (personally identifiable information) data at all and which can unlock a unified targeting strategy across the walled gardens.

Contextual targeting as a unifying force

Contextual targeting offers an intriguing solution to this dilemma. Relying purely on content insights with zero call for user consent, contextual intelligence is already in demand as a privacy-friendly way to target relevant audiences in 2021 and beyond.

But its benefits run larger than the tech alone. For those who want to avoid being pulled into a GAFA riptide, contextual intelligence is a neutralising force: a current that unifies ad players in the open web rather than wrenching them apart.

Instead of using PII or audience data to deliver ads, contextual tech makes targeting decisions around in-the-moment content consumption. Because of this, it doesn’t harness its users into a proprietary space, like Google’s FLoC or Facebook ads. And it won’t hold you hostage to its changes, or require you to operate by it and a dozen other ecosystems.

Instead, contextual targeting offers a unified, easy-to-use approach that all media players – large and small – can come on-board with.

A democratic future

Since contextual targeting reduces the need for ID solutions, it also neutralises the power of GAFA to dictate the terms. The same goes for being locked into whatever answer Google FLoC offers up in place of personal data.

Of course, the large online platforms may not like the wind being taken from their sails. The post-cookie climate, after all, offers the prize of wall-to-wall market dominance for those who build up walls.

But this is all the more reason for advertisers to rally round. Contextual is widely perceived as a brand-safe and highly precise form of targeting; the more people use it, the stronger it becomes, and the greater value it delivers on inventory.
Contextual technology is becoming steadily more sophisticated, too, opening up opportunities in lucrative areas from OTT/CTV to in-game advertising. The challenge now is for DSP platforms to start working more closely with contextual providers, creating opportunities for greater innovation and integration into digital media DNA.

In doing so, this tech could be the buffer we need – ensuring no-one is edged out and no-one has the monopoly, at a crossroads where the stakes are high.