The Privacy Sandbox conundrum: ad tech vendors remain cautious about Google’s vision

Google’s long, protracted journey toward advertising without third-party cookies just hit another twist.

Ad tech vendors — the largest ones at least — still aren’t sold on the idea. 

If they were, their response to the latest indications of those cookies’ imminent disappearance, after several false starts, would be more decisive. 

Instead, their reaction to being able to test Google’s targeting and measurement alternatives (collectively called the Privacy Sandbox) at scale has been rather muted.

Some, like Adform, have analyzed closely and not started testing the Privacy Sandbox. Others like OpenX are selectively testing certain aspects or actively exploring others. Then there are those like Index Exchange who aren’t in a position to comment on the matter either way. Put all these reactions together, and it’s hardly a strong endorsement of Google’s vision for the ad industry, with just months before it potentially becomes a reality. 

So, what’s making these vendors hesitant? 

Well, it all comes down to one major concern. 

They’re already dealing with doubts about the effectiveness of the replacements for third-party cookies, and now they’re faced with the fact that Google’s machine learning is stepping up to fill the gap.

This kind of uncertainty keeps ad tech bosses up at night. They’re worried whether these new cookie alternatives will be fair and unbiased for everyone involved, or favor Google.

Take the Topics API, for example, a critical component of the sandbox that allows advertisers to target their ads without third-party cookies.

Initial tests seemed promising, but on closer inspection ad tech execs had some concerns. 

Namely, why would Google insist on the interests from the Topics API being used alongside contextual signals and first-party publisher data but then refuse to specify how each one influenced the results?

Unsurprisingly, Google hasn’t exactly been forthcoming on the matter. And the chances are it won’t ever be. Not when it’s clear Google thinks all ad tech execs ultimately care about the results. So much so, in fact, that it’s even offering grants for them to run their own tests in spite of these unanswered questions.

Confused? There’s more.

It turns out while the test campaigns did not use third-party cookies for targeting objectives, they were used for retargeting, frequency capping and attribution. Not a good look for ad products that must work throughout the entire campaign, including measurement.

But hey, here’s the plot twist: Google’s own machine-learning ad products come to the rescue. From Performance Max to modeled conversions, they surprisingly aced those tests. Talk about stealing the spotlight

Ad tech bosses seem to think so. 

They’re worried that all these tests really show that advertising in Chrome sans cookies won’t ever be viable without having to rely on Google’s machine-learning ad products. Worster still that doing so means giving Google control over targeting and measurement, while leaving themselves with limited access to campaign data.

“We are encouraged by ecosystem testing and insights during the early trial period –  and by the growing number of companies preparing to implement the APIs now that they are launching to Chrome Stable and available for scaled use,” said Barb Smith, global lead, for the Privacy Sandbox partnerships at Google, in an emailed statement. “Early adopters will have the most runway to optimize their integrations to achieve the best results and provide constructive feedback on further API improvements. We look forward to utility insights from scaled tests, and encourage companies to not wait to get involved.” – 

This situation has left ad tech executives in a quandary. They are being asked to build a skyscraper without a blueprint or structural analysis – all while the deadline draws near. The longer they refrain from testing the sandbox, the less time they have to complete it if Google continues on its current course.

“As we learn more about the Privacy Sandbox requirements and numerous moving pieces involved, we are continuing to evaluate the situation with our clients’ interests top of mind,” said a spokesperson for Magnite in an emailed statement. “We are steadfast in our commitment to what is best for the ecosystem and are closely monitoring the developments.”

These concerns have been growing since the inception of the Privacy Sandbox. However, in recent months they have become more acute, as Adexchanger revealed in April. True, Google has acknowledged many of them during the latest phase of the sandbox’s rollout. But it hasn’t done enough to ease them. If anything, it has only solidified these worries.

“Given that the first public test results were intransparent and obfuscated, I struggle to understand how the next test phase and the final deadline for removal go hand in hand with this being an open process,” said Jochen Schlosser, CTO at Adform, “It feels like the Sandbox now must be passed; else the deadline cannot be met.”

Unsurprisingly, regulatory bodies, including the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority, are closely attuned to this issue. Taking the lead, Chris Jenkins, in charge of the CMA’s Digital Markets Unit, has been in discussions with ad tech leaders, actively seeking to understand their reservations about the potential repercussions of the Privacy Sandbox’s outlined ideas.

So far, the CMA appears to be satisfied with Google’s assurance of addressing apprehensions related to the sandbox’s potential to stifle market competition.

“The encouraging results from Google Ads’ interest-based advertising tests didn’t use first-party data from Google properties, and relied on a combination of signals – including contextual information, the Topics API from the Privacy Sandbox, and publisher first-party identifiers such as Publisher Provided IDs (PPIDs),” said Dan Taylor, vp of global ads at Google in an emailed statement. “We’re deeply invested in testing the Privacy Sandbox APIs and encourage others to also test early and learn how to uncover the best outcomes ahead of next year, when Chrome plans to deprecate third-party cookies subject to its commitments to the CMA.” 

In short, the sandbox is complicated, and it’s continual.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article quoted a source who claimed that Google’s Privacy Sandbox is designed to only work with their [Google’s] publisher ad server. This is incorrect.  It works for any publisher ad server and works the same, according to Google. The quote has been removed.

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