In today’s digital advertising environment, cookies and tracking pixels follow you all over the web, tracking every site you visit, every button you press, and every item you purchase. Even worse, all of this activity is then compiled into a massive user profile that can then be shared with hundreds, if not thousands, of other companies within a massive digital ad ecosystem. Thus, even a site that you never visit may know a lot about your online behavior and user activity – a scary thought for anyone who wants to preserve their privacy online. With this in mind, Apple is now readying the launch of a new ad tracking solution (“Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution”) that it says will protect user privacy while at the same time, ensuring that companies can still advertise online using conventional marketing channels.
A new ad tracking solution for Safari
According to Apple, this new ad tracking solution will come to its popular Safari browser sometime before the end of 2019. In the meantime, it will be available as an experimental feature in Safari Technology Preview 82, which was released in mid-May. To turn on this new ad tracking solution requires that developers take only a few quick steps: just enable the “Develop” menus and navigate to the submenu called “Experimental Features.” From there, all it requires is a quick click, and web developers can see the new ad tracking solution in action.
In a lengthy blog post, WebKit (the browser rendering engine used by Safari) provided a detailed overview of how the new ad tracking solution will work, and exactly why it is far superior to today’s ad tracking solution. Using graphic illustrations that feature chocolate-chip cookies, WebKit shows how information about user behavior is shared across the web, as part of a complex digital advertising ecosystem using cookies. In the current ad tracking model, advertisers want to make sure that they can track the effectiveness of any new ad campaign, while websites that host these ads want to make sure that they get credit (“attribution”) for any final sales.
For example, let’s say an advertiser wants to run Google ads. This advertiser would want to know the effectiveness of this strategy, as well as all the little steps that lead to the final sale (i.e. the “conversion paths”). Once a user clicks on the Google search ad, what happens next? That’s why cookies and tracking pixels are so important to today’s advertisers – it’s the single best way to track users throughout the entire process. Advertisers also add in a lot of other steps – like creating custom campaign IDs for each users – to ensure that they develop a very robust profile for each user.
From a purely privacy perspective, though, this current ad tracking model collects far too much personally identifiable information that impacts user privacy negatively via very precise ad targeting. Advertisers have gone too far when it comes to cross-site tracking (i.e. the ability to follow users as they browse elsewhere online), and also too far when it comes to sharing this data with third parties.
What the new ad tracking solution changes
As a result, Apple says it’s time to re-think the entire online advertising ecosystem. Its new ad tracking solution (“Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution”) is meant as a compromise solution, offering the very strongest privacy protection possible, while still giving advertisers enough information to judge the effectiveness of an advertising campaign.
As Apple sees it, the only information that an advertiser needs to know is that a user (but NOT a personally identifiable user) clicked on an ad and eventually made a purchase related to that ad. Everything else – all the little micro-steps along the way – is superfluous. Moreover, as WebKit explains it, an effective online advertising model does not require that Site A know that you purchased something on Site B. This type of cross-site tracking is what is so dangerous from a privacy perspective. Only Site B should know that you purchased something on Site B.
Thus, the new WebKit ad tracking solution is designed to offer a different approach to data collection. It will still use attribution and conversion data, but it will do so in a way that minimizes the ability of advertisers to create sophisticated profiles of users after clicking on an ad. For example, the new ad tracking solution will store ad clicks and then issue conversion reports, but will delay the release of this data by anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. This will help to prevent the real-time tracking of users, and it will also serve to anonymize the data. All advertisers will know is that, sometime in the past 24 to 48 hours, an online ad on a specific site was successful at driving a conversion.
Apple as a new champion of online privacy
This move to support this new click attribution model within Safari is part of a broader strategic move by Apple to become a champion of online privacy. In the past, Apple has spoken out publicly about the data privacy abuses at companies like Google and Facebook, and Apple is clearly eager to show that all of its products – such as the Safari web browser – are designed with user privacy in mind. In fact, Apple says it will present this new ad tracking solution to W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) as a possible future standard for the web. The move to support this new Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution model comes as the Mozilla Firefox browser is positioning itself as the browser of choice for anyone concerned about online privacy.
Skeptics, of course, are wary of Apple’s new solution. As they see it, the new ad tracking solution is still very much a compromise solution designed with advertisers in mind. Advertisers are getting very skittish about the whole backlash against the lack of web privacy. As advertisers see it, this is leading to the notion that web privacy is only possible if there is a web free of ads. So Apple is stepping into the debate, saying that, essentially, there is a third way: It’s possible to run ads online and respect user privacy at the same time.
So get ready for Firefox and Google Chrome to respond to Apple’s latest move. Suddenly, privacy is top of mind when it comes to web browsers, with each web browser trying to out-do each other when it comes to adding new privacy protections. When this new ad tracking solution for Safari finally goes “live” by the end of 2019, we’ll be able to see the ultimate impact of Apple’s new strategy.