Google Cracks Down on Marketers’ Access to Data

Third-party measurement firms fear being shut out

Google is tightening its grip on advertising data, and some industry sources fear the policies could hamper their ability to market online.

Just this week, Google began talking to ad technology partners about restrictions on how they gather data when running campaigns on the Google Display Network. Some sources said the timing was odd, coming on the heels of Facebook's launch of Atlas, an ad server and data platform that many say is the biggest rival to Google's dominance. Still, other sources said Google is just reinforcing a data regime it has been working on for some time.

In the conversations this week, with companies like Krux, BlueKai and Lotame, Google told data management platform players that they could not use pixels in certain ads. The pixels—embedded within digital ads—help marketers target and understand how many times a given user has seen their messages online.

"Google is only allowing data management platforms to fire pixels on creative assets that they're serving, on impressions they bought, through the Google Display Network," said Mike Moreau, chief solutions officer at Krux. "So they're starting with a very narrow scope."

These third-party data firms are still allowed to use pixels if they also execute the ad buys, acting as the demand-side platforms, but the problem is many marketers use multiple demand-side platforms to buy ads and only one data management platform, Moreau said.

Impact on Ad Buyers Could Be Big

One of the potential impacts is that marketers won't be able to effectively track campaigns that run across the Web from Google to AOL to Yahoo—they might not be able to connect the dots and efficiently allocate marketing dollars, industry sources said. Marketers could wind up buying more impressions than they need from Google if they can’t monitor the frequency of ads being served, Moreau said.

He also said that the talks are ongoing and Google has been open to listening to the concerns of the data executives to get them the information they need.

The wider fear, however, is that cracking down on pixels on the Google Display Network is just the start, and there could be a bigger effect on marketers if Google instituted similar policies throughout the DoubleClick Ad Exchange (AdX).

"Right now it's a relatively small percentage of marketers buying impressions through Google Display Network," Moreau said. "If it expands to AdX, it starts to become really significant."

Google's data policies are important because they effect how marketers choose to execute online campaigns, and any barriers to gathering data could encourage them to use more of Google's services where there is naturally less friction, sources said. Google, much like Facebook, could become a walled garden of data.

Another data company exec said that Google could threaten the lifeline of their business.

"Google is generally trying to change the way we consume data," an industry source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It could cause issues for the third-party data market, which could no longer provide measurements for clients."

Google said that talks with data partners this week did not signify changes in its policies. The outreach was about enforcing current policies.

"We routinely run checks of our systems," Google said in a statement today. "If partners aren't compliant with our current policies, we'll notify them and work with them to make any needed adjustments."

Google Looks to Stop the Leakage

Google is taking steps to prevent data leakage, according to Adam Berke, CMO of AdRoll. Leakage happens when data firms operate in a gray area, collecting user information that Google considers proprietary.

"Even before this Facebook Atlas announcement, Google was starting a process of getting its house in order with respect to third parties and data collection on their display network," he said.

Google's adjustments could be part of its broader strategy around identity technology, creating the next-generation data tools to enable cross-device marketing to consumers jumping from phones to laptops to TV. This is the next frontier of digital advertising that both Facebook and Google are positioning themselves to dominate, considering they likely have the most lucrative data on the most mobile users.

"Google is moving forward with more interesting applications of identity, which it can't do if data leakage is a problem," Berke said.