Google Plans New Cookie-Replacement

John Lister's picture

Google has rethought its plans to overhaul the way targeted advertising works online. It's the latest attempt to balance user privacy and accurate targeting.

At the moment a large proportion of online ads are powered by third-party cookies. That's where an advertiser or ad network operator uses cookies to track a user's online activity and try to figure out their tastes and interests.

This data then powers the ads they see on many websites, which are shown specifically for them. It's good news for advertisers as they can theoretically do a better job of reaching suitable customers, but bad news for users who don't like being tracked.

Google has already said Chrome will start blocking third-party cookies next year. Because it's also a key player in advertising, it's now looking for a replacement targeting method. Without one, advertisers would have to revert to simply posting ads that related to the topic a particular website or the content of a particular page.

User Groups Too Revealing

Instead, Google wants to continue the idea of analyzing user activity and interest, but run it entirely in their browser rather than on remote servers or by third parties. The idea is to find a way for the browser to pass on enough details for targeted advertising without revealing too much about the user's activity.

The original idea, dubbed Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), would have meant users being put into groups of people with a similar interest. Advertisers could then place an ad to be shown to members of this group, but wouldn't have any details about who the individual users were or what they'd done to get in the group.

Originally Google seemed happy with this technology, claiming advertisers could get targeting 95% as accurate as using cookie tracking. Now it's revised the plans following critical analysis that said FLoC still didn't offer enough anonymity. (Source:

Three Topics Sum Up User

The revised system, dubbed "Topics," means the browser simply looks at the names of the websites the user has visited in the past week. It uses a machine learning algorithm to try to figure out the subjects of these sites from the names, then picks out one topic which it thinks is most relevant for the user.

Instead of getting full browsing history or a profile of the user, advertisers and ad networks will simply see the three topics chosen for the past three weeks. They'll have to use this data (along with the details of the page where the ad will appear) to decide what to show them.

Google says this will greatly increase user privacy, particularly as it will let users see which topics have been selected and let them remove any they don't like. (Source:

The question now is whether advertisers will feel this offers enough targeting that they are willing to continue paying publishers and ad networks - including Google - at the same rate.

What's Your Opinion?

Does Google's new system sound fair? Given the chance, would you block any information about your browsing or interests going to advertisers? Would you prefer better-targeted advertising rather than seeing less relevant ads?

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (5 votes)


DavidInMississippi's picture

Since everyone has different preferences and tastes, it would only make sense for browser programmers and search engine providers to allow each individual to choose for themselves. The browser could track (internally, NOT on the server) a user's history for a week or a month, then pop up a TIME TO REVIEW badge prominently on the interface.

When the user clicks this badge, the user would be presented with a page that says, "Here is your browsing history since your last review. Please rate each topic on a scale of -5 to +5 where -5 means you NEVER want to see ads about this topic and +5 means you are interested in seeing what else is "out there" about this topic. This rating will be conveyed to automated marketers to help shape the ads you see and the recommendations you receive from sites such as YouTube and Amazon. Your data will be totally anonymous and specific only to you. Click THIS box to have NO information conveyed to marketers; this will result in you seeing random ads and recommendations."

Personally, I would be very happy to see ads and recommendations for good food, for tech gear, for travel topics, and for videomaking and web design items. Advertisers showing me ads or recommendations for bras or sewing notions or kids' toys or investment products are wasting their money.

I believe a system like this would be great for us individuals, great for marketers, and for the platforms that sell ads and make recommendations.

And it wouldn't be all that hard to put in place.

russoule's picture

This sounds pretty good, but in practice, I think most would simply say "I don'twant tracking or ads or any other malarky coming from you people."

If you could watch tv without ads, wouldn't you? If you could get a "free" newspaper that contained no advertising, wouldn't you subscribe?

Most of us really don't WANT ads to interupt our flow of thought. That's WHY ad-blockers are popular. I agree with the poster who says there needs to be a rule saying if I have an ad-blocker, the site STILL must show me whatever is on it.

nospam_5346's picture

I always turn off targeted ads whenever possible. I don’t pay attention to the ads anyway. I know what I want when I want something and would rather do my own research.

The ads are broken anyway. I always get tons of ads for things I already bought. Why would I want another one?

buzzallnight's picture

that are undetectable by websites!