Chrome users will be able to choose which kinds of online tracking software, otherwise known as cookies, they want to allow. Consumers could keep some cookies but disable ones that collect data across many sites. The rub for retailers and marketing vendors is that many of them use retargeting software that displays ads to consumers based on their activity—collected via cookies—all across the web.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google is making privacy-related changes to its Chrome web browser, the search giant said last week at its Google I/O developer conference. The changes will give Google Chrome users the ability to tweak their tracking settings.

Under the modifications, consumers can choose which kinds of online tracking software, otherwise known as cookies, they want to allow. Developers will have to specify how far their cookies can reach. That will make it easier for people to choose exactly which kinds of cookies can follow them and which ones can’t. As it stands, it’s either all or nothing, and choosing no cookies means consumers lose a lot of convenient features, such as logins and passwords to their most-used websites like Amazon.com Inc. or their bank.

With the adjustments, consumers could keep login cookies but disable the cookies that collect data across many sites. Google says it is making the change in the coming months. The rub for retailers and marketing vendors is that many of them use retargeting software that displays ads to consumers based on their activity—collected via cookies—all across the web. For example, if a shopper looked at power tools on a retail site, a cookie might collect that data and use it for a retargeting ad that might display the drills he looked at, as well as similar models, the next day when he checks the weather on Weather.com or visits Facebook. If a shopper using Chrome declines to accept those cookies, with the forthcoming changes, the retailer couldn’t retarget her and may lose sales.

Retargeting ads are served through third-party networks such as the Google Display Network and Facebook, which help retailers reach potential customers on many websites. Plus, they work for many retailers to keep brands and products top of mind to shoppers who didn’t buy the first time they visited a retailer’s site. And that’s a lot of people. According to Adobe-owned marketing software company Marketo, 96% of consumers who visit a retail site aren’t ready to buy.

The customization options are a bold move for Google because its massive advertising business depends on learning about people—such as where they go, what they buy and what they read—and sending them targeted ads. Google’s business and its vision of the internet demand some level of following and data collection, but the company is increasingly coming to grips with the fact that most people want to know they have control over that process, or they’ll just turn it off completely. Google wouldn’t comment on the changes beyond directing Internet Retailer to its blog.

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Still marketers—and consumers—are using Google’s targeting options. Google’s Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RLSA) let a retailer customize its search ad campaigns for consumers who have previously visited its site. 34.0% of retailers have used Google’s RLSA, according to Internet Retailer’s fourth-annual Digital Marketing Survey conducted in 2018. What’s more, roughly 30% of Google search ad clicks stemmed from ads that leveraged Google’s advanced targeting tools, according to digital marketing firm Merkle’s “Merkle Digital Marketing Report Q3 2018.”

Retailers find retargeting useful

Action camera retailer GoPro Inc., for example, uses RLSA to retarget site visitors, especially consumers who visit the site but don’t make a purchase. “RLSA offers us the flexibility to retarget users at the bottom of the funnel to push them through conversion,” says Todd Ballard, GoPro’s chief marketing officer. “[The ads] allow us to reach users at different stages of their purchase decisions,” he says. GoPro didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on how it thinks these new changes will impact it.

Leon Rbibo, president of online jewelry retailer LagunaPearl.com, says he is taking a wait and see approach. “Initially it was shocking to hear the news from Google, especially as we do quite a bit of display advertising and this could potentially impact who gets served ads and when.”

However, he says in his experience, time and time again consumers have shown their preference for a more personal, customized experience—even with advertising. “So you’ll likely have some consumers opt in to more tracking eventually, or display networks will offer some other form of customization or personalization. Consumers will demand it, and marketers will simply stop making buys or decrease their spends if their ads aren’t showing ROI.”

Many online ads aren’t relevant to consumers 

Retargeted ads also can help retailers show more relevant ads to shoppers about products in which they signaled their interest. Digital advertising is often not relevant enough to convince a shopper to click, according to a recent Internet Retailer survey of 1,105 online shoppers conducted by Bizrate Insights. In that research, only 20% of online shoppers feel most of the marketing messages they see are relevant. Another 31% of online shoppers find only half of the marketing messages they receive relevant.

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Rebecca Lieb, co-founder and analyst at Kaleido Insights, says consumers have been growing accustomed to picking and choosing which sites track them since the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation, the European legislation that took effect across the 28-nation EU bloc on May 25. GDPR requires retailers, marketers and others to explicitly state to consumers in the EU how they’re collecting, using and storing consumers’ personal data such as their name, location, IP address and—perhaps most importantly to retail marketers—identifiers that track their web and app use on their web-connected devices.

The regulations are forcing every retailer, marketer and technology company that interacts with European consumers to be more transparent about the data they’re collecting and housing, but it has meant a lot more opting into tracking around the world, not just in Europe, Lieb says. “Users have been cherry-picking those sites they allow to track them for some time now,” she says. That’s illustrated by the message many consumers see today when they are visiting a site for the first time that the site uses cookies.

Rbibo says with GDPR regulation rolling out across the EU, it’s been apparent that retailers and marketers were going to have to rethink their strategies, even with something as seemingly simple as retargeted ads that use cookies to track potential customers. “I think some ill-prepared retailers are going to be in for some short term pain in the form of lower click-through and conversion rates on their display campaigns. They’ll be less targeted, after all.”

Indeed, the Chrome change comes as regulators and consumers around the world are demanding more transparency on how their personal data is being used, as well as more privacy to shield themselves from online surveillance. It also follows a privacy-focused move by Apple Inc. last year. Apple’s “intelligent tracking prevention,” or ITP, which launched in September, limits the use of cookies for ad retargeting to 24 hours, and it deletes a site’s cookies if a consumer doesn’t visit the site for 30 days.

Forcing better targeting

Additionally, misuse of retargeting is what causes many consumers to opt out of allowing tracking, Lieb says. “Cookies are a blunt instrument. So too is retargeting,” she says. “When that same screwdriver, or sofa, or shoe, has been following you around the web for weeks, months, sometimes even years after you purchased it, enough already,” she says.

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The Chrome changes might further force marketers to do a better job of personalization, she says. “There are more sophisticated technologies for tracking and targeting consumers and better customer experiences than stalking. Retailers would be well served to consider other options,” Lieb says. Those other options include device identifiers that can track consumers on mobile devices and device fingerprinting that can identify a specific device (or browser). Unlike web cookies that are stored on a user’s device, device fingerprints are stored in a database by a vendor or marketer.

However, Google is pushing back on fingerprinting, too. “Because fingerprinting is neither transparent nor under the user’s control, it results in tracking that doesn’t respect user choice,” Ben Galbraith, director, chrome product management and Justin Schuh, director, chrome engineering, write the blog post announcing the Chrome changes. “This is why Chrome plans to more aggressively restrict fingerprinting across the web. One way in which we’ll be doing this is reducing the ways in which browsers can be passively fingerprinted, so that we can detect and intervene against active fingerprinting efforts as they happen.”

 

 

Meanwhile, Google Chrome changes could send shockwaves through the advertising industry. About 70% of desktop online browsing happens on Chrome, according to Bloomberg, making Google the default gatekeeper of significant amounts of information about users. A report by Adweek earlier this year that said Google might cut cross-website tracking cookies sent stocks of advertising tech companies Criteo SA and The Trade Desk Inc. plummeting, since their businesses rely in part on internet tracking.

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Some industry observers say the move is a good step by Google to show it cares about user privacy options. “Given the Chrome browser’s dominance, it allows Google to promote consumer privacy like Apple while distinguishing Google from Facebook with its multitude of data privacy scandals,” says Dan Goldstein, president and owner of Page 1 Solutions, a digital marketing agency.

In Google’s vision of the world, websites should be able to identify, remember and track users, as long as those people know about it and can opt out if they want.

“We want users to have a real choice and useful control,” Galbraith said in an interview with Bloomberg. “We’re not looking to do something that’s going to confuse people or is just so buried that no one will find it.”

Giving people more than an either-or choice is similar to other changes Google is making across its company, such as letting users set a timer to clear their location data every three or 18 months.

Both changes try to break the all-or-nothing model consumers have right now: either be tracked completely, or not at all.

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“Blunt solutions that block all cookies can significantly degrade the simple web experience that you know today,’’ Galbraith and Schuh write.

Zak Stambor contributed to this story.

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