As the cookie era draws to close, Tanzil Bukhari looks at the tools marketers will soon be using much more widely.

Google’s decision to block third-party cookies in the Chrome web browser within the next two years continues to reverberate around our industry.

While Apple and Firefox had already taken steps in blocking third-party cookies, the two of them together make up just 10% of the browser market. Google alone accounts for nearly 70% on desktop, and 41% on mobile. In other words, if you’re accessing the internet, there’s a good chance Google is involved.

But the writing has been on the wall for cookies for some time now. GDPR coming into place heightened consumers’ concern regarding their personally identifiable information. This is echoed by IBM research that suggests 81% of consumers say they have become more concerned about how their personal data is used by companies; 75% are becoming less likely to trust companies with their personal data.

Since the fall-out from Cambridge Analytica, data regulations are – and have been – a key focus for governments the world over, putting pressure on tech companies to proactively increase their privacy efforts. This move by Google was therefore more a question of when, rather than if.

This shift has a clear impact on marketers who have refined a cookie-based approach to serve targeted ad experiences. For some, this may all feel unjust after years of refining this technique and developing the tools to deploy it. But despite claims of an impending “cookiepocolypse”, and several bleak forecasts for the industry, the changing winds offer a long-term opportunity for both advertisers and publishers.

Part of the solution lies in combining technology and human expertise to evolve semantic and contextual targeting. This isn’t a silver bullet but, combined with GDPR identity solutions, this approach will play a significant role in driving performance and better user experiences in the future.

Setting the context: the challenge of language

Google believes that the future of digital ads is hinged on context too. Google’s Privacy Sandbox will use browser-based machine learning and other technologies to deliver targeted ads without the over-detailed – or for many consumers “creepy” – user tracking of the third-party cookie. Instead, Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) will deliver targeted ads based on “flocks” of thousands of people with similar interests, rather than tracking users individually.

Mass-scale contextual targeting to date, however, has been challenging because the nuances of language are extremely complicated. The internet is made up of thousands of languages each featuring countless dialects and idiolects. Recognising meaning and tone, understanding acronyms, grasping the correct interpretation of words or phrases with multiple interpretations – across different languages – are all huge challenges that those working in the field of semantics seek to tackle.

However daunting this task, headway has been made. Advances in technology mean that augmenting context with semantics is more effective, and brand safe, than ever before. It’s a viable alternative approach to cookie-based targeting.

Marrying human expertise and artificial intelligence

Ads placed through contextual targeting enable brands to optimise spend by placing them alongside relevant content. This harkens back to the era when you’d place your sunscreen ad next to the Sunday paper’s holiday supplement, as opposed to today’s process in which you search for “sunscreen” and find it popping up in your news feed for the next week.

Contextual targeting takes the earlier, less invasive, approach. But artificial intelligence scales contextual targeting with accuracy that would have been unfathomable just a few years ago, let alone decades ago.

Today, brands can go much further than placing their product next to keywords. They can base placements on tone and content to boost relevance and brand safety. Contextual targeting also ensures publishers can monetise content fairly and are not penalized due to overly restrictive targeting or block lists. In-depth text analysis with both machine-learning and human-experts can enable this granular placement across thousands of publishers, despite the gargantuan scale and complexity of the language found within their diverse content pools.

But most advertising companies are only scratching the surface of the potential that contextual and semantic analysis, turbo-charged by artificial intelligence, can offer.

A better balance between brands, consumers and publishers

The post-cookie world looks brighter for advertisers than we may have first thought, and may also provide significant benefit to consumers and publishers.

Ironically, Google's move may be the impetus the industry needs to effectively challenge the duopoly. Contextual amplified with semantic analysis, as mentioned, eliminates the penalty cookie-based targeting inflicts on some publishers. It also may put more power in the hands of premium publishers who can monetise their content with greater precision.

The contextual approach isn’t about eyeballs over everything, it’s about adding value to the content and delighting readers with something that genuinely builds upon what they are engaging with. Brands in turn can remain confident that their ads are in the right place, served at the right time, while reducing the risk of burning-out consumers through overzealous cookie tracking or inflicting brand damage due to placements next to unsuitable content.

After a decade in which data has become an ever-growing concern for brands and publishers, the cookiepocalypse gut-reaction for many was doom and gloom. But what’s clear is that marketers don’t have to start with a blank page. Advances in contextual targeting have been taking place for years and new technology will help us unlock even greater opportunities.

In fact, it’s looking increasingly like Google’s announcement, rather than a death knell, was the catalyst the industry needed. With a focus on context and semantics, the 2020s will see a more collaborative, pro-consumer, pro-publisher and pro-brand safety approach to ads. And with that, everyone wins.