Google Limits Access to Ad Data Amid Privacy Demands

With new privacy rules clarifying what data companies can share, Google is limiting access to tools that track ad spending. The company is also limiting sharing its information with third-party advertising companies.

by Gerrit De Vynck and Mark Bergen, Bloomberg News / February 4, 2020
Google headquarters on January 24, 2016, in Mountain View, Calif. (Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — Google is limiting access to key tools that track ad spending, disrupting hundreds of marketers and underscoring the powerful role the search giant plays in the digital advertising industry.

One recent change affects ad-measurement companies — independent firms that monitor the performance of ads across Google, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. Last month, Google cut off those companies from analyzing a popular type of Google ad shown on iPhones and iPads. Instead, the company told advertisers to use its own measurement tools, something marketers have complained about in the past because they would rather trust neutral third parties.

The move focuses on ads that try to persuade people to install apps, a corner of the industry that generates billions of dollars a year in revenue for Google and other tech giants. One industry executive said the step was anticompetitive because Google is favoring its own services and unfairly elbowing out rivals. The person plans to complain to state attorneys general, who are investigating Google for potential antitrust violations. The person asked not to be identified discussing sensitive issues.

Google dominates search ads and, with Facebook Inc., controls more than 60% of the broader digital ad market, according to one estimate. With data on billions of users, Google helps marketers target online messages and measure how many people clicked on ads and took other valuable actions, such as making purchases.

The Internet giant has been pressured for years to share more of this data with outside firms, so marketers can trust the metrics and easily compare how Google ads perform versus other providers. Access to this information is an emerging antitrust issue, especially in Europe, and Google has slowly opened up over the years.

But new privacy rules in California and Europe have raised the bar on what data companies are allowed to share. Google and other tech companies have responded by limiting the information that leaves their platforms. Apple Inc. has also cracked down on what can be shared for advertising.

Privacy laws have given Google “cover” to increasingly force advertisers to play by its rules, said Dina Srinivasan, a former ad-technology executive. “What we need in the U.S. is a privacy approach that solves competition problems and consumer privacy problems at the same time.”

Google executives have privately complained about being stuck in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If the company shares less data, advertising rivals and partners shout antitrust. If it opens up, privacy advocates cry foul.

A spokesman said Google changed the approach to app-install ads because it’s hard to accurately measure the performance of these ads when iPhone users are logged out of their Google accounts. Letting external firms track ads in these cases would rely on techniques that “don’t provide users with appropriate choice, transparency and control,” the spokesman added. AdWeek reported the iPhone and iPad ad changes earlier.

A similar dynamic is playing out in other parts of Google’s vast business. By the third quarter of 2020, the company plans to stop advertisers from pulling data about who clicks on their ads out of Google’s system. Marketers have used this information for years to fine-tune their messages. Google already made this change in Europe and has said it would be applied globally. But complaints from some partners prompted Google to delay the change until later this year.

“Customers pushed back pretty hard,” said Ari Paparo, head of digital ad firm Beeswax and a former Google executive. “With the increasing emphasis on privacy, it seems inevitable that they will make this change despite the negative impact.”

Earlier this month, the Alphabet Inc. unit also said it would phase out cookies — bits of software code that let advertisers track users around the web and send them targeted ads. This approach has sustained a major part of the online marketing industry, and advertisers are scrambling to prepare.

This “will force ad-tech companies to re-imagine their businesses and advertisers to fundamentally shift the digital buying strategies they have been honing for 20 years,” said Brad Nunn, an executive at Media Assembly, part of ad agency MDC Partners Inc.

The Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies both decried the move, saying it could “choke off the economic oxygen from advertising that startups and emerging companies need to survive.”

©2020 Bloomberg News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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