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The Future of Search Part 1: How the Deprecation of Cookies is Pushing Search Forward
This is part one of a five-part series detailing the near-term evolution and potential long-term future state of search. This first section focuses on Google’s response to the deprecation of third-party cookies, and how the lingering effects from that could trigger a reshaping of search overall.

It’s human nature to procrastinate. Put things off. Wait until the last minute. Some thrive on it – the ability to work well under pressure. Others, though, put things off simply to avoid dealing with them.

Google’s procrastination in relation to the deprecation of third-party cookies falls into the latter camp. They – like most other large, advertising platforms – intended to deprecate by 2022. But they – unlike most other larger advertising platforms – have not followed through.

Their original plan was to develop a solution that straddled the line between exposing every inch of user data vs. anonymizing every inch of user data. The goal being build a bridge between that chasm and setting up shop right in the middle.

Their initial attempt at data transparency – Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLOC) – was riddled with red flags. The bridge they’d intended to build collapsed before completion, forcing them to rethink their plan and shift their eventual compliance deadline to 2023 (or later).

So, why procrastinate? Well, finding suitable tech (as mentioned) is the first issue. Beyond that, there are both near-term (loss of visibility) and long-term (loss of revenue) consequences that need solving. How Google will solve for this, and how it will impact search is yet to be determined.

Solving the Cookie Conundrum

FLOC was Google’s first attempt at reconciling its consumer data transparency issues. It was designed to anonymize individual user data by assigning it to specific cohorts. The cohorts were, in turn, designed to hide the user amongst the crowd while still assigning identifiable affinities to the larger group.

But FLOC turned out to be less than foolproof. There were ways to undo Google’s anonymizing efforts, making user-level data discernable again. Thus, breaking the first rule of any opt-out scenario. That is, when a user opts out, exclusion should be assured.

Solving the Cookie Conundrum … Again

Once FLOC fell apart Google made the announcement it would be putting off the depreciation of third-party cookies until 2023 – an announcement that had the industry shaking its head.

Other platforms (Facebook, for example) had prepared in earnest to distance themselves from third-party cookies. They’ve experienced the growing pains – specifically, a dip in outcome-based efficiency – that accompany such a move. But to their credit, they stepped up to the plate and implemented.

Google on the other hand, is still in the experimentation phase.

They’ve moved away from FLOC towards an approach they’re calling Topics. This new approach is based on their current Topic targeting efforts (and will likely expand upon it). It’s designed to assign users to six total Topics based on recent browsing activity. The user would then be shuffled into different topics as their interests evolve, data being deleted in cycles every three weeks.

Part of the problem is Topics is still unproven and has been – similar to FLOC – met with skepticism. The failure of FLOC, plus the nefarious tendencies of Google (i.e., they’d much rather keep tracking as is) has left many questioning both their approach and their motives.

Google knows it must find a way through all this to legitimize search over the long haul. But they also must please Alphabet shareholders by keeping the ad revenue-generating machine humming.

Balancing those two factors will be difficult, likely resulting in near-term challenges that will need addressing.

Interested in learning about Google’s potential efforts to mitigate damage related to compliance, and how lingering effects could reshape how they view and deploy their capabilities? Read Part 2.