Google’s FLoC Promises a Radically Different Web
Advertising knows you better than your friends, better than your family, perhaps even better than your partner.
Look up pizza recipes, and advertising will show you promotions for pizza ovens. Download a marathon training plan, and advertising will show you the latest running shoes. Buy a car, and advertising will show you adverts for other cars because no system’s perfect.
Advertising does this with a simple trick: it watches you constantly. It’s watching you right now. The web is one giant machine for making money, and you’re the fuel.
On the one hand, advertising’s insidious invasion of our privacy is enough to make you paranoid; on the other hand, I really love my pizza oven.
The largest facilitator of advertising on the web is Google Ads — reportedly worth $134.8 billion per annum; it’s Alphabet Inc’s primary source of revenue.
Last year, Google Ads announced that it would be ending its reliance on third-party cookies for delivering targeted advertising as part of a wider industry trend towards greater privacy protection for individuals. This week, we received more details confirming that Google Ads will not replace third-party cookies with comparable tracking technology.
Google Ads intends to maintain relevant advertising, without user tracking, by anonymizing your identity within a crowd. The technical term is a Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), essentially Asimov’s Psychohistory, in capitalist form, some 45,000 years before Hari Seldon is due to be born.
In simplistic terms, someone who buys a pair of running shoes can reasonably be expected to be interested in GPS watches. The complexity arises when grouping becomes more complex: people who watch Netflix on a Tuesday evening purchase a particular soup brand and read the Washington Post, for example. The system requires billions of groupings that are too complex to express in English. And yet Google claims to already be making some progress.
As with any fledgling technology, the implications of its widespread adoption are unclear. FLoC is Chrome-based, so there’s the looming specter of a monopoly. Then there’s the issue of how groups are built; does Google need individual tracking to generate crowds of individuals? It’s unclear, but what is clear is that if Google succeeds — and it’s likely that it will — other networks will have no choice but to follow suit. It seems inevitable that there will be a wide-ranging impact across not just advertising but analytics and marketing as a whole.
The back door that’s being held open is one-to-one relationships. If you visit a site, that site can attempt to entice you back with targeted advertising. This means the next few years will see a growth in the number of companies developing ongoing relationships in the form of newsletters and memberships.
How ever it plays out, a fundamental change to the system that funds most of the web is certain to have a long-term impact on day-to-day user experience.