Apple is in the process of introducing a series of features (or perhaps better to say, restrictions) to its Safari browser, along with the new version of its operating system OSX High Sierra, which promise to put serious obstacles in the way of advertisers tracking you across the web. There are countless ways this happens. But you see it most clearly when you go check out a new suitcase to purchase at some online vendor and then see suitcase ads following you around the web. Some people find this creepy and annoying. Others find it amusing and don’t care. Probably few consumers would mind seeing it go. But there’s some deeper stuff going on.
What Apple is doing is placing restrictions on persistent cookies that live on your web browser. These are tiny files, little snippets of data that do all sorts of things. One of the simplest and most helpful is that they keep you logged in to your most favorite sites and keep certain levels of customization in place. You probably would find it annoying not to have those benefits. But they are also what makes that tracking possible. Having ads for a store you visited tracking you across the web is only the most obvious. There’s lots of other stuff going on that isn’t visible to you.
The buzzword for this is what Apple calls Intelligent Tracking Prevention. You need to know a decent amount about advertising and browser architecture to understand the specifics. I haven’t read all the documentation. And even fairly familiar with these things, I probably couldn’t fully understand them myself. I’ll try to provide a general but accurate overview. The gist is that Apple is trying to drastically curtail the use of “third-party cookies.” That’s cookies that aren’t from sites you visit everyday but third parties that are sort of along for the ride and there pretty much only to track you.
The big way Apple will determine what we’ll call “good” and “bad” cookies is through a mix of machine learning to learn how “tracky” the cookies are and how often you visit the site that ‘owns’ the cookie. Let me try to make this a bit more concrete. If you visit a site every day, Apple will give pretty much free rein to that site’s cookies. If you visit less frequently or never, Apple will clamp down hard.
The big time factor dividing line is 24 hours. This makes a lot of sense. If you visit a site everyday you are probably gaining some customization, ease of use benefits from that cookie. If you’ve never heard of the site, they’re tracking you without your explicit permission and you’re probably getting nothing in return.
So here’s where it gets interesting and more than just arcana of ad-tech.
The digital ad industry is flipping out over this. A month ago basically every major ad industry trade group published an open letter to Apple saying its heavy handed approach was threatening to destroy a whole segment of the digital ad industry.
This is from a month ago in AdWeek …
In an open letter expected to be published this afternoon, the groups describe the new standards as “opaque and arbitrary,” warning that the changes could affect the “infrastructure of the modern internet,” which largely relies on consistent standards across websites. The groups say the feature also hurts user experience by making advertising more “generic and less timely and useful.”
“Apple’s unilateral and heavy-handed approach is bad for consumer choice and bad for the ad-supported online content and services consumers love,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by Adweek this morning. “Blocking cookies in this manner will drive a wedge between brands and their customers, and it will make advertising more generic and less timely and useful. Put simply, machine-driven cookie choices do not represent user choice; they represent browser-manufacturer choice.”
The scope of this kind of tracking goes way, way beyond what you probably think if you’re not in the adtech world. In the old days advertisers would use publications as proxies for the identities of people they were trying to reach. CEOs and investors? The Wall Street Journal. People into Tech? Wired and Ars Technica. Affluent, educated liberals? TPM. Now it’s different. Advertisers (or more the major agency holding companies who act on their behalf) sometimes have a defined list of say 500,000 people they want to contact. You can show the advertisers ad to those people and only those people. To be clear, we’re not talking about a demographic class. We’re talking about 500,000 specific people. How can they possibly know who they are? Well, there are vendors who have this data and have the architecture that allows you to use it. (One of the big players is called LiveRamp.) There are databases the have profiles of individual people – more datapoints, more value. So email, that’s one. Name is another. Address, device ID. The more of these you have the more confident you have that it’s that specific person. Whereas the publisher was once the gatekeeper now the data vendor is the gatekeeper.
So let’s review.
Apple wants to position itself as the defender of privacy and quality user experience. So it’s cracking down on cookies. (The European Union is doing similar things in the Eurozone. So that gives more force to the changes that go beyond just Apple.)
The digital ad industry is freaking out. Do you care?
Well, the consensus within the ad tech industry press seems to be that this will actually strengthen the monopolistic hold which Google and Facebook have over the ad industry and the web itself. Why would that be? Well, how often do you visit Facebook? And how often do you do a Google Search or got to Youtube, Google Maps, Gmail or all the other Google services? Probably quite a lot. Probably most of you do one of them almost every day. The smaller players, companies purely focused on tracking could be hit very hard. But Google and Facebook will probably come within that 24 hour window pretty easily. So Apple’s move could take an industry where Google and Facebook are already the hugely dominant players and wipe everyone else.
Good for Google and Facebook.
But here’s another possibility. Recently I was talking to someone who’s spent years in the digital ad industry who sees it a little differently. This person saw the whole move as actually aimed at Google. I’m not sure if this person is right or not. I’m not sure how considered a take it was. I’m less interested in whether this is the current intention as what it shows us about what could happen and how the interests and positions of the various tech monopolies lines up. If this person is right the logic would go like this.
Google (actually now the holding company Alphabet) is the second largest company in the world by market capitalization. (Apple is the largest.) It’s done that overwhelmingly by its control of profits from advertising. The advantage in advertising comes from data and tracking. The whole digital advertising industry depends on those little snippets of data we call “cookies”. It’s amazing to think how many hundreds of billions of dollars depend on this little lynchpin piece of digital data architecture. Get rid of the cookie and everyone in the digital publishing industry is truly screwed. What’s good for Google is that cookie technology is fundamentally controlled by the browser. The Chrome browser, which is owned by Google, has nearly 50% market share.
When I talk about Apple doing this or doing that they can only “do” anything through their own browser, Safari, which has significantly less market share. One industry metric puts Safari’s share of the market at just over 30%.
But those percentages obscure the real story.
On desktop Safari is only barely a player. The same industry metric puts it at under 10% of market share on desktops. On Smartphones Safari has over 50% share and on tablet that jumps to over 70%. The reason should be obvious: control of the iOS operating system which run iPhones and iPads. Add to this that the more affluent consumers tend to be on Safari, mainly because more affluent consumers tend to have iOS devices and to a lesser extent because they use Mac desktops. What all of this means is that while Apple can’t control the whole Internet architecture it has it within its power to seriously disrupt the cookie architecture over a significant percentage of the web, especially for mobile devices and more affluent consumers.
My friend’s theory is that Apple wants to start creating turbulence within Google’s business model, even if it’s at first only at the margins. Remember, Google now competes with Apple in the hardware market. And critically, advertising is a space Apple has never seemed interested in playing in. Virtually every Apple business is focused on payments and subscriptions – pricey hardware, iTunes music and video which is anchored in Apple TV, Apple Music, etc. If the digital ad industry explodes, it’s not much skin off Apple’s back. In any case, Apple’s never been big on the open web in any case. They want you in curated, controlled spaces – either in the much more tightly circumscribed OSX environment or iOS apps.
And here’s one more part of this equation. How does this affect digital publishers?
Here’s where it gets especially interesting to any publisher. We rely on tracking in as much as tracking is now pervasive on the ads running on basically every website, including TPM. But really tracking has been a disaster for publishers, especially premium publishers.
I’ll use TPM as an example. But it’s only for the purposes of illustration. The same applies to countless other publications, particularly quality publications as opposed to content farms. TPM has an affluent, highly educated, generally progressive audience. They also tend to be political influencers. Our readers also have a strong brand affinity with TPM. Our core audience visits day after day. All of those attributes make our audience very desirable for many advertisers. So great, even though we’re small, advertisers want access to that kind of audience. So we can command good rates.
Tracking has shifted that equation dramatically. (And again, TPM is just here as illustration. This is an industry-wide phenomenon.) Let’s say we take the whole core TPM audience, this set number of people. They have these attributes I mentioned above. Tracking now allows the ad tech industry to follow those people around the web and advertise to them where they choose. So an advertiser can identify “TPM Readers” and then advertise to them at other sites that aren’t TPM. Or they can find a group that has the attributes that I describe above and track them around the web regardless of which site they’re on. You don’t have any reason to care about that. But we care about it a lot because it basically takes from us any market power we have. Tracking means almost all publishers are being disintermediated in this way. This is one big reason the platforms and the data vendors are scarfing up all the new revenue.
So in many ways, disruptions in tracking are good for publishers. Actually basically in all ways it’s good. In this way, we have a vaguely common interest with Apple since we see our business future as tied to paid services, memberships, etc. Apple does too. In practice, the little players have the least ability and resources to protect themselves during periods of market chaos. But in theory at least, if Apple’s self-interest led it to disrupt the cookie architecture and wreak havoc in Google’s business model, that would likely be good for publishers.
In any case, these are all reasons why we have focused our energies on moving toward paid memberships and subscriptions, even though we continue to get at least half of our revenue from paid advertising. Technology has placed the ability to extract the greatest profits from advertising into the hands of the players that do not shoulder the costs of creating the content that make it possible. The industry more generally is controlled by a handful of dominant players trying to engross as much of the profits as possible in something of a zero sum game with each other. That’s a battle where we as a small publisher are the warfare analogs of helpless civilians in the midst of great power conflict. We want to isolate ourselves from that as much as possible. Every publisher should. But in the advertising world they have little power to do so.