What the Floc? Google Targeting Explained
by David Mahaffey

Feb 14, 2022

Marketers love cooking up new names and acronyms for technology. It’s no surprise that as Google prepares to say, “Sayonara!” to the cookie, we’re seeing replacements for everyone’s favorite audience tracker come out of the woodwork. 

Whatever the cookie replacement is called—it’s highly probable that within the next two years most 1:1 targeting will have gone the way of the dodo. We all know the cookie is crumbling. And it’s of our opinion that the faster marketers come to accept that, the better the industry will be.  

So, what’s going on with Google’s targeting?

We can’t expect Google, which dominates the search market (92% market share) and leads in digital ad share (29% market share), to just say goodbye to granular targeting across it’s ad tech platforms. Realistically, Google has too much data not to make use of it. And for that reason, Google itself is not excluded from inventing a new trackable ID, even though they are responsible for the cookie’s demise. 

FLOC was Google’s first attempt at a cookie replacement. It was intended to place users into Cohorts, which are clusters of users who share similar interests and online browsing behavior.  However, after a year-long beta test, Google has seen that this approach didn’t solve for privacy issues and is sunsetting FLOC, in favor of a new “non-cookie” approach.  This new method of interest-based targeting will be called “Topics”.  

What are Topics? How is it different from cookies?

So what is this new thing?  Well, it’s the same as cookies.  The way it works is pretty straightforward. Google categorizes your interest based on sites you visit, and groups these sites into 300+ topics (with more potential topics to follow).  Google then sends your browsing history to buying platforms such as DV360 or The Trade Desk, so that Arm Candy can target users who are interested in Fantasy Sports (if you look at fantasy sports content).  

This new approach is designed to give consumers more transparency into their interests and how advertisers are targeting them. It will also give them the ability to opt-out of Topics altogether by selecting so in Chrome. Content related to topics that are consumed will automatically be removed after a three-week period unless the consumer opts out sooner.  All of this sounds well and good for data privacy!  

Does this mean data privacy is a thing now?

The truth is, neither of these solutions completely solves the underlying issue. Today’s targeting is based on user demographic, behavior, interest profiles—but in this new case, it’s based on activity. While it solves for no direct 1:1 targeting, the targeting is still based on the concept of content you consume. A person does have the ability to opt-out of having their data tracked altogether, but there is no control over who uses that data if you do opt-in.  Aside from that, all of those data points from behavior on Google can be tied back to paint a clear enough picture of who an individual is within approximation.  The challenge with data privacy is that Google has no real incentive to solve the issue.  They control every aspect of the digital ecosystem, from the publisher to advertising to the supply. Without any targeting, some campaigns begin to make less sense. Which isn’t good for Google. It is in their best interest to keep audience segmentation as targeted as possible, as that is the main value-added proposition of digital media. 

So, what is the solution?  

There likely isn’t one, at least as far as targeting like we do in the present day is concerned.  

What can we do instead? One solution is to focus on contextual targeting. Have a banking client?  Run exclusively on financial news websites.  Put your brand in a relevant atmosphere, instead of trying to force me into something.   

Better yet, understanding trends in outcomes of channels across different campaign objectives and industries. These types of insights—like those featured in Cyris, our proprietary planning technology—are arguably more valuable than audience insights may have ever been.  

Want some help on future-proofing your digital media investment?  Drop us a line—we’re happy to help!