What is Google Topics?


What the Hell is Google Topics?


On January 25th Google made a major announcement that its controversial Federated Learning of Cohorts (“FLoC”) initiative is now being replaced by a new (slightly different) approach called “Topics”. Topics still allows the browser (Chrome) to track you and the sites you visit and then put this information into “topics” or interests, which will then be used to serve targeted ads based on these topics. To understand why Google made this change, it is helpful to look at the history of Google FLoC, the pushback on FLoC by major industry players and privacy groups, as well as the privacy regulations reshaping the marketing and advertising landscape. But no matter how you look at it, Google Topics represents a gigantic change in the marketplace, forcing brands and MarTech industry players to fundamentally rethink targeting, personalization, and measurement.



How’d We Get Here?


In 2019, Google announced the “Privacy Sandbox” with a goal of building out a “more private web”. To Google’s credit, they built the Privacy Sandbox as an open-source project allowing for industry input and guidance. Then in 2020, Google announced that it would stop all 3rd party cookies in the Chrome browser and set the timing for this change to go live in 2022. This created enormous market confusion and fear since much of the programmatic space was built around the use of tracking cookies for targeting, personalization and measurement. Replacing the cookie would be a new approach called the Federated Learning of Cohorts, or “FLoC”.


FLoC was built to track consumers’ interests within Chrome based on the types of sites and content visited and then place groups of consumers into cohorts based on similar interests. These cohorts would then be made available by Google for serving ads based on those interests. The FLoC cohort would then replace the function of the cookie- which is used currently to track individual consumers and target ads based on this collected data.


Google FLoC promised to be more private because:

  1. It stopped all individual ad targeting and tracking
  2. It killed the use of cookies, which had been used (and abused) by tech industry players to circumvent privacy restrictions



Google FLoC graphic


But, FLoC kicked off a firestorm of industry pushback:

  1. All major browsers (apart from Google Chrome) indicated they would not embrace the new FLoC methodology
  2. Privacy interest groups rightfully outlined how FLoC wasn’t very “private” and could enable more tracking and privacy-related abuses
  3. Brands, agencies, and MarTech players fretted over the loss of the ability to perform 1:1 ad targeting, personalization, and tracking-based measurement. And since Google represents a major portion of just about every brand’s digital advertising budget, the fear was real.
  4. Regulators in the EU indicated that FLoC would not comply with privacy regulations


Given the pushback, Google then delayed FLoC until 2023, while moving into production testing and in-market trials in 2022.


Google Cookies 2023 Calendar

Now, on January 25, 2022, Google announced it was stopping FLoC and replacing it with a new API called Topics. Topics is meant to address some of the privacy concerns raised by the industry, but it really only represents a minor update of FLoC, and probably also was done to move away from the PR nightmare that FLoC had turned into.



So, What is Google Topics?


Topics works by identifying a consumer’s interests, such as “Wellness” or “Auto & Vehicles” based on the sites and content visited by that consumer. This activity is Computers & Gadgets” Fitness” or “Travel & Transportation,” based on your web activity over one week of time. The browser (Chrome) will then store these interest categories and when the consumer visits a website, Topics will provide the site and its advertising partners just three of your interests, comprised of “one topic from each of the past three weeks.” And the ads served will be based on the topics.


Google Topics graphic


The Topics API has over 300 of these interest categories but Google is expected to add hundreds or even thousands of new ones over time. Google promises to not include any topics that are “sensitive” but industry groups have pushed back on Google being the arbiter of what is sensitive and what isn’t.



How is Google Topics Different than FLoC?


FLoC and Topics are quite similar, although this may change over time as Google evolves the topics API. Below is a helpful summary of the differences:


Function/Approach FLoC Topics

 Interest-Based Tracking & Ad Serving

The browser (Chrome) will track what sites you visit, put this activity into interest categories and then allow ads to be targeted based on this knowledge

Same as FLoC

 Learned Interests

Chrome- via FLoC- would broadcast consumers’ interests to any site that asked for that data

Topics API changes this slightly by letting an advertiser on Site A learn about your interests from site B, if and only if that advertiser was also present on Site B (see note below about this possibly creating even more advertising dominance by Google)

 Learned Interests Across Sites

Learned interests were “stable” across sites, which created the risk that AdTech players could uniquely “fingerprint” individual consumers

The Topics API adds some minor “randomness” to learned interests to prevent “fingerprinting” – or at least make it more difficult



Implications for Marketing Measurement


Topics has major implications for marketing measurement. For brands and agencies that rely on individual consumer tracking for marketing attribution, Topics will be major disruption. With Topics (and FLoC before it), it will no longer be possible to identify and track an individual consumer, what ad they saw, and whether they converted. The measurement of the mythical path-to-purchase will not be possible. Further, because Google is a cornerstone to most brands’ digital advertising, it won’t be possible to measure how ads across multiple channels contribute to conversions, because a huge portion of these interactions will now go dark.


For more on “marketing attribution”, see OptiMine’s summary here.



Netting it Out


Google Topics will disrupt the digital marketing and measurement ecosystem:

  1. Major portions of the digital tracking and marketing measurement space will disappear
  2. Brands must now look for new ways to conduct marketing measurement and attribution
  3. Google Topics will cement Google’s advertising dominance by forcing brands, publishers, and ad players to consolidate on Google’s platform


Want to learn more about OptiMine and how we deliver privacy-safe and future-proof measurement to brands? Come visit us at https://www.optimine.com or contact us today!







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