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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Google Is Exploring an Alternative to Cookies for Ad Tracking

Google, the biggest online advertising company, is considering a new way to help advertisers track people across the Web and consolidate its power in the industry.

Google could create an anonymous identifier, tied to users of its Chrome browser on a specific device, that advertisers would use to target ads, according to a person briefed on the plan who declined to be identified because the plan is young and one of several options being considered.

The identifier would replace cookies, the tiny files that are the predominant way that advertisers track users across the Web and show ads based on users’ online behavior, but which are widely believed to be dysfunctional.

Google’s idea, first reported by USA Today, comes as advertisers are beginning to panic about finding alternatives to cookies, and as other efforts to establish standards for online tracking fall apart.

This week, a working group to establish a Do Not Track standard for online advertising lost an important member, the Digital Advertising Alliance. Apple’s Safari browser does not allow third-party cookies, and Mozilla has said Firefox will follow suit. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has Do Not Track turned on by default, but advertisers are under no obligation to follow it.

Tracking people on mobile devices is a challenge for advertisers, because apps do not use cookies.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau started a group last fall to explore the future of the cookie and alternatives, and many companies besides Google are coming up with options. Jordan Mitchell, co-chair of the group and a vice president at the Rubicon Project, a digital ad agency, called the current situation for advertisers unreliable and uneconomical and “a lose-lose-lose situation for advertisers, consumers, publishers and platforms.”

Apple popularized the idea of an anonymous identifier, which is part of its iPhone software for advertising in mobile apps. On the Web, it would offer advertisers a similar benefit as cookies â€" building a behavioral profile of people based on the sites they visit. But is easier for users to turn off with a single change in settings, or potentially to use a different ID for Web browsing they want to keep private.

Google is in a particularly influential spot to make such a change. Chrome is the most-used browser, and Google earns 41 percent of digital advertising revenue, according to eMarketer, far more than any of its competitors.

Though the ad identifier would be available to any ad network, advertiser or publisher that wanted to use it, it would also concentrate even more control over the digital advertising industry with Google.

In a statement, Google implied that it was exploring new alternatives to cookies, but declined to discuss specific plans.

“We believe that technological enhancements can improve users’ security while ensuring the Web remains economically viable,” the statement said. “We and others have a number of concepts in this area, but they’re all at very early stages.”