If you’ve been watching the trends in digital marketing over the past year or two, you might have heard that Google is planning to phase out third-party cookies. In fact, the announcement has been made that third-party tracking cookies on Chrome will be phased out by 2022.

Although this might seem like a huge change, the truth is that these cookies have already been phased out on alternative browsers such as Firefox, Safari, or Brave. Apple has also just released their iOS 14 which makes it easier for users to opt-out of targeted marketing.

And with the growing roll call of digital privacy laws such as GDPR in Europe, CCPA in California, and others, big changes to digital marketing are already well underway.

So what does Google’s announcement mean for advertisers? And does it mean that our paid search or display ads will be less affected by click fraud?

Cookies to Cohorts

The plan to drop cookies from Google Chrome is rooted in the growing demand for more privacy online. 

Originally, cookies were introduced to help us remember our settings for sites we had visited previously, for example with shopping carts or login details. 

With this data stored on our devices and in our browsers, other websites can see where you’ve been and get a better picture of your online activity. This makes it easy to track behaviour, and display targeted ads that are more likely to resonate with the individual.

But as we’ve all become more savvy about online advertising techniques, and as more privacy laws are rolled out, consumers are increasingly concerned about the amount of data the tech giants have on us. 

Google’s answer to this is to drop cookies in favour of segmented groups of users with similar interests. These groups are referred to as ‘cohorts’.

The proper term is ‘Federated Learning of Cohorts’ or FLoC.

The theory is that cohorts contain less information about an individual’s specific online habits, but rather puts people into a crowd that is less identifiable.

So, for those who depend on targeted marketing, is this going to be a huge disruption?

Google thinks not.

Targeted vs Segmented marketing

The shift from targeting the individual to segmented marketing isn’t going to be quite the shock to the system as many might fear. In fact this form of segmented marketing has been happening on other platforms such as Facebook for years. 

Although less granular, Google does maintain that targeting will still be around 95% as effective as it currently is. 

The theory is that less tracking means less information held by third parties. And the entire reason for this change is the demands by consumers and regulators to reduce the amount of data on us.

As we’re all consumers, surely anything that limits the huge amounts of data that the ad giants control is a good thing?

Controversial changes

Of course any moves to change the industry, and the way the change is being handled, will attract controversy. Especially when a tech behemoth like Google is behind the wheel. 

Many are complaining that the changes give Google even more control over the programmatic marketing sphere, which they already dominate. There are also worries that the change is just in name, and that the harvesting of data will remain pretty much the same, with some behind the scenes tweaks.

But it’s not just the way browsing data is being logged that will change. Google also claims that their changes will introduce new controls to marketers including new data points. 

And it also presents Google with an opportunity to tackle the problem of ad fraud…

Cookies to trust tokens

One of the major changes underway is the change from third party cookies to trust tokens. Designed to verify the validity of a browser, trust tokens are meant to preserve the anonymity of a user and are not meant to be used for tracking or ad targeting.

Despite this, trust tokens work in a similar way to third party cookies.

A website will issue a trust token to a user that is verified as ‘trusted’, and other websites will then use this data to authenticate user activity and serve ads. In theory, websites will check trust tokens from other websites that they trust themselves.

The issuance of these trust tokens will depend on a number of factors such as users completing captchas, or repeated visits and activity.

Will this reduce bot and fraud activity?

Well, the whole process depends on the honesty of the original trust token issuer. As we’ve already seen with ads.txt, processes designed to cut out fraud can very easily be worked around and the whole issue of ‘trustworthy sites’ can be a bit of a minefield in itself.

Will trust tokens really prevent ad fraud?

Ilan Missulawin, co-founder and CMO of ClickCease, says, “Although the idea of trust tokens being issued to genuine internet users seems like it could offer some relief in the short term, creating AI or even leveraging click farms to work around the filters is going to be child’s play for fraudsters.

“The trust tokens initiative also does nothing to stop repetitive clicks from business rivals, which is a large part of the click fraud problem that we see. 

“Although there does need to be a wholesale change by the major ad platforms in the way they manage fraud filtering, I don’t think trust tokens will be as effective as they hope.

“The truth is that none of the industry attempts to stop ad fraud or to identify click fraud have added up to more than just a sticking plaster on a very big wound. From the data we see, attempts to stop click fraud by the big players aren’t filtering out the right types of behaviour, or it is just not keeping up with the trends.

“The technology in the marketing sector is moving at a blistering pace, and so is the tech behind fraud. Look at the shift to mobile malware and how hard that has been to identify.

“The uncomfortable truth is that, at the moment, third party fraud filters are a necessity for programmatic marketers. And I don’t think that will be changing with the switch to FLoC and trust tokens.”

Only time will tell how effective trust tokens are in the fight against click fraud and bot traffic

The Elephant in the room

Fake traffic and the huge cost of fraud to marketers has been the worst kept secret in marketing for years. It’s long been a bone of contention with those looking to spend their advertising money on the largest search network in the world that Google’s fraud prevention never quite seemed to hit the mark.

So, do these changes mean that ad fraud and click fraud will be a thing of the past?

Despite the changes to the way ads are targeted and data is handled, there is little to suggest that ad fraud will be vanquished for good. Even with trust tokens, without an incredibly disruptive and potentially invasive approach, it could be incredibly tricky to root out the bots or the malware from the genuine users.

One of the main problems is the increasing sophistication of mobile malware. Google even address this issue in their release.

But if there’s one thing that we’ve learned here at ClickCease, it’s that fraudsters are a resourceful bunch. We would wager that even if there are some big changes to the way click fraud is identified and filtered by Google, there will still be ways to get around these controls.

As an example, when Google introduced the Play Protect initiative to reduce mobile malware, sneaky developers just started sideloading their malware. So the software on the app store remains free from infection, but with an update the malware is introduced and can start it’s fraudulent business. 

And when the advertising industry introduced ads.txt to help tackle fake inventory, fraudulent publishers were some of the first to adopt it. It was just a matter of time before bots like 3ve and 404 Bot were able to game this development to their advantage.

That’s not to say that Google isn’t taking ad fraud seriously, far from it. We believe that they do understand that it’s a major problem and are taking strides to reduce its impact on advertisers.

But for many of the ad platforms, especially Google, defeating ad fraud remains a huge game of whack-a-mole.

One thing is for sure. Whatever effect these changes have on your ads or fraud levels, click fraud protection such as ClickCease will work 24/7 to stop those bots and haters from clicking your ads.