Google is really a brilliant company. I don't mean that in the sense that the people who work there are probably exceedingly smart, though every indication is that they are. What I mean, however, is that it's a brilliant idea.
Build a utility that billions of people will use every day to tell you exactly what they're interested in at that given moment, and then get companies to pay you to display an ad about that very interest right above the rest of the search results.
It's a pretty incredible idea, and it also happens to be a very good business. Most of the money Google makes comes from those little ads at the top of the search results pages after you type in something you're looking for. Those ads brought in roughly $100 billion in revenue for the company last year.
There is one problem, however: Privacy.
Specifically, Google's entire business model is based on tracking just about everything you do online. A Princeton University study in 2016 said the company tracks as much as 67 percent of all activity online. Most people use Chrome to navigate the internet. When they do, they're probably logged into Google. The same is true when they type in a search request.
As a result, Google knows a lot about us. Now, however, Google has said it is committed to no longer track users across the web using unique identifiers. That comes after it said it would no longer support third-party cookie tracking in Chrome.
In a blog post, David Temkin, Google's director of product for ad privacy and trust, wrote:
As our industry has strived to deliver relevant ads to consumers across the web, it has created a proliferation of individual user data across thousands of companies, typically gathered through third-party cookies. This has led to an erosion of trust.
On that point, Google is right. That's a big problem because trust is by far your brand's most valuable asset. To that end, you can certainly argue that anything Google does to better protect user privacy is a good thing.
There is something worth pointing out, which is the part Google isn't saying. Specifically, the fact that the part of Google's business that will be affected by this is almost nothing in comparison to search ads.
Google doesn't have to track anything to show you a search ad, and search advertising is still the largest form of digital advertising by far. That represents 84 percent of Google's advertising revenue and almost 70 percent of the company's total revenue for the last quarter.
In addition, the technology it proposes for replacing third-party cookie tracking, known as FLoC, will still gather information about your web activity. It will just happen in your browser instead of on Google's server, in order to identify you as a part of a group.
Instead of an ad network knowing that you were browsing for new golf clubs and then showing you ads for golf clubs across the internet, Chrome will build a profile of your interests, and then identify you as a part of a FloC. Advertisers can then bid to show their ads to say, 40-year-old dads who like to play golf. That's not precisely how it works, but you get the idea.
And, remember, Google owns Chrome, which is where all of the analysis and group profiling happens. In the meantime, it's effectively closing out all of its competition, which depends heavily on tracking. We can argue about the merits and risks of tracking all day long, but I think we can all agree that giving Google a virtual lock on digital advertising is not in anyone's best interests.
Google gets to take credit for being more privacy-focused, while cutting its competition off at the knees, all at almost no cost to its own business. Of course, Google only wants you to think about the first part.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that Google has been so aggressive about developing the technology that comes after third-party tracking precisely so it can be the one to control whatever comes after third-party tracking. If the business model you built comes under threat, it's pretty smart to figure out a way to be in control of your own destiny.
You might even say it's brilliant. Still, I think we can agree the part Google isn't saying is enough to make you worry.