What Is “Google Topics”? All You Need To Know About Google’s Latest Pivot

Google Topics - Image of the Google chrome browser logo.

The only guarantee we have in this uncertain world is that the ad-tech industry will make a lot of changes. Then roll back on most of them.

This is what has happened this year with Google and FLoC’s.

You may remember Google announced it intended to replace third-party cookies with FLoCs (or Federated Learning of Cohorts to give them their full title). But in early 2022 Google announced that it has made a substantial pivot towards “Topics”. FLoCs are being consigned to the bulging dustbin of aborted Google projects.  

So what are “Topics”? What does that mean for eCommerce companies?

Let’s speculate what the latest Google pivot means for the internet and companies all over the world! Again!

A diagram showing how Google Topics work and are a replacement for third party cookies.
A visualization of how Google Topics works from Google.

What Is “Google Topics”?

The new Topics system is another attempt by Google to move away from third-party cookies. But it works a bit differently to FLoCs, the previous solution that Google announced.

Topics works with your browser, which is likely to be Google Chrome. When you are moving around online, whenever you visit a site that is participating in Topics your browser will note the topics related to that site.

With this information your browser can determine a handful of topics, like “Sport”, “Tech” and so on. These topics are your top interests for that week based on your overall browsing history. These top interest topics then determine the ads you see when you use the internet. Sites do not need to know anything about you to serve you ads based on the topics list from your browser.

Topics are only kept for three weeks on your device and old topics are deleted. There is no use of external servers for this, including Google’s servers.

Google has also stated that they will be adding a lot of user controls around Topics. In the settings you will be able to see the Topics logged in your browser, remove what you like and also disable the feature completely if you want to.

Topics are also “curated” to exclude sensitive categories, like race and gender. The hope is that by providing sites with your “topics” of interest, businesses can continue serving ads that help monetize their sites but without using more covert means of tracking users.

So Google’s pitch is that Topics is less creepy and sites still get to make money. So what is not to like?

Google Topics - Image of someone using Google Analytics on a macbook.
Photo by Myriam Jessier on Unsplash

Possible Issues With Google Topics

Google has created a list of 300 topics that align with the interests of most users. Advertisers can then target these topics to send ads to audiences that are relevant to their campaigns.

But there are potential issues with Topics that could affect businesses, especially eCommerce businesses, that use targeted online advertising.

Topics are matched with users via browsers and devices

This is a key pitch of Topics but also a potential issue for advertisers. If a computer is shared by a family, the Topics list is almost irrelevant. Users cannot be distinguished from each other unless they each sign into their own Google accounts. 

Most people nowadays also shop across multiple devices. With Topics, this means advertisers could lose tracking on that cross-device activity. Although this can be remedied with Google Signals, that requires user opt-in to ads personalization. Which is not guaranteed. For eCommerce businesses this could impair omnichannel visibility. It could also affect O2O strategy for offline retail.

Topics are around for 3 weeks, a potential nightmare for B2B companies

Another key pitch is the fact that Topics are only kept on a browser for 3 weeks. If you are a B2B company that deals with long lead times and delayed purchasing, this could become a big problem. Should Google decide that Topics is its preferred replacement for third-party cookies. 

Tracking the effectiveness of marketing spend is tough for B2B and service companies even now. So if Topics does become the replacement for cookies, these companies may have to make organizational and technical changes. Organizationally, the sales and marketing teams may have to become more integrated. Technical changes may involve combining data from Google Analytics and a sales database to give a holistic view of marketing spend. As well as the effectiveness (or not) of different marketing channels.

Google uses domain names to determine topics for sites its systems do not know

Sites are also matched to Topics by Google’s machine learning systems. This presents an issue. If a site is not recognized Google will use the domain name, not the content, to determine which Topic silo that site should sit in. As you can imagine, there could be some big problems with this…

Image of business man using an iPad.
Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

What Does It All Mean For Businesses?

At the moment, it is important not to panic. But we should all get prepared.

Third-party cookies will be around until 2023. But in the meantime all online businesses need to prepare for a future without cookies. This means preparing for a future where Topics are the primary means of targeting your online marketing. 

The most important thing businesses can do right now is leverage their first-party data and integrate it into their marketing tech. This will not only help businesses to future-proof themselves (slightly) against moves made by big silicon valley behemoths. But it also means you can give users a better digital experience while sticking to your marketing goals. 

Topics may end up going the same way as FLoCs, but the clock is ticking for Google. It needs to come up with a solution that keeps advertisers and users happy. Facebook engineers tried to address something similar to Topics before. But according to a comment made by Facebook engineer Ben Savage “When people take no action to configure their preferences, if automatic inferences are returned based on behavioral data, there is a risk of sensitive information disclosure.” 

Logging people’s interests is still quite creepy on the face of it. So Google may have some more persuading to do with its new Topics solution. Google will also need to address the specific concerns of advertisers if it wants Topics to succeed.

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