The ad industry continues its quest toward fewer cookies and more consistent user IDs


In the real world, everyone can taste a cookie. But, in the world of web browsers, only the domain that drops a cookie — a small identifying text file — into a user’s browser can read that cookie.

That fact — and the dominance of “walled gardens” like Facebook, Amazon and Google — has led to two major initiatives to create a user ID around a single cookie: the Advertising ID Consortium and the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) DigiTrust. Though separate, they share a central goal: avoiding the complicated process of cookie matching and improving the speed at which ads load.

How cookie syncing works

If Site A sends a cookie to a visitor’s browser, for instance, only Site A can read that cookie. Site B and Advertiser A both create and deposit their own cookies, but they cannot read Site A’s or each others’.

As a result, demand side platforms (DSPs), data management platforms (DMPs), supply side platforms (SSPs) and others need to sync their cookies to each other — so they know when they are dealing with the same user for ad targeting.

Let’s say a visitor goes to a website that serves ads. The website sends an ad request to a DSP, which drops into the visitor’s browser its third-party cookie that contains the DSP’s ID for that visitor.

The DSP also calls to a DMP for targeting info, and includes its DSP visitor ID in the call. The DMP creates its own cookie for the visitor’s browser, or sees if it already has one there. Its cookie contains its own DMP ID, which it now matches to the DSP’s cookie/ID.

Similarly, the DSP matches its cookie/ID to the DMP’s. The DSP and DMP then also exchange cookie-matching tables in large batch files at specific times, such as once daily.

This cookie syncing allows an advertiser to retarget a visitor with an ad for blue sneakers when they go to a new site, for instance, after earlier looking at a product page for blue sneakers on a previous site.

The problem with cookie syncing

That this system works at all, much less in a few fractions of a second, is remarkable. But it has several key flaws.

First of all, every part of the ad ecosystem has to cookie-match with every other part, which represents a tremendous amount of data updating overhead.

Second, the cookie match rate is not perfect. Match rates of about 60 percent are considered decent, but this means about 40 percent or more of all users are not matched in a given pass by a given ad tech vendor. This greatly diminishes the accuracy of targeted marketing.

Third, while the matching is done within fractions of a second, it can delay the prompt loading of a page with its ads, thus potentially affecting user experience.

“The key area in which publishers lack control,” says DigiTrust on its web site, “is in all the third-party requests from ID syncs.” A typical publisher’s web page can receive dozens — if not a hundred or more — third-party requests, including many for syncs.

“If we eliminate the need for ID syncs, then publishers can take back control of their pages and only let the vendors they trust appear on their websites,” says DigiTrust.

Fourth, cookies are used only in web browser environments, and there are serious limitations on third-party cookies — like those from DSPs and DMPs — in mobile web browsers.

And, finally, login-based massive platforms like Facebook don’t have this problem within their environments. Since they track logins, they can accurately track users within these “walled gardens” — but, outside, it’s a mess of cookies.

The Advertising ID Consortium

Because of these issues, a variety of ad tech players decided they were tired of letting the big walled gardens have all the fun, while they were left to endlessly sync up all those cookies.

In 2017, the Advertising ID Consortium was born, initially founded by LiveRamp, MediaMath and AppNexus. While the impetus was doing away with all this cookie syncing and finding a common ID, the mission now includes the idea of “people-based” identity across all devices, based on the IdentityLink solution from identity resolution provider LiveRamp.

IdentityLink connects a variety of datasets about millions of users, including offline data, to create an anonymized profile of a single user that is based on the idea that a real person is living in the real world and online.

Consortium members have now focused on using a few cookies, notably ones from DSP The Trade Desk, from ad tech platform AppNexus and from the non-profit initiative, DigiTrust.

Consortium members can read those cookies by utilizing the IDs from The Trade Desk, AppNexus and DigiTrust via API, and then referring back to the IdentityLink ID to track a user across channels.

The IAB’s DigiTrust

DigiTrust, a non-profit collaboration of ad tech platforms and publishers that became part of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Tech Lab last year, is participating with the Consortium but also has its own ecosystem.

It issues a cookie that can be read by participating companies through the DigiTrust ID via API. Additionally, the same DigiTrust cookie can be issued by a given web site from JavaScript on the site’s pages, allowing that cookie to be considered first-party by browsers.

The DigiTrust cookie contains an encrypted token that provides an identifier for the user, which can include the user’s preferences for consent. Both DigiTrust and the Consortium say that they comply with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

DigiTrust claims it has close to 100 percent accuracy in identifying a user, a much more accurate rate than what is available through cookie matching. And, of course, that is comparable to the 100 percent recognition in Facebook, Google and other walled gardens.

While the Consortium intends to provide cross-device, cross-channel identification, DigiTrust founder and IAB SVP of Membership and Operations Jordan Mitchell told me his organization’s immediate interest is the web browser. But he allowed that DigiTrust might, someday, extend its identifier to non-web devices.

Audience coverage

Currently, DigiTrust has about 50 platforms — such as DSPs, DMPs or SSPs –participating in its initiative, Mitchell said, plus “millions” of publisher websites. Overall, he said, DigiTrust’s cookies reach about 95 percent of the globe in terms of ad volume and about 65 percent of users.

“But it takes a long time for platforms to change their reliance” on their legacy systems, he said, so DigiTrust’s approach has not yet reached its potential.

The Consortium is backed by more than a dozen ad platforms. While it didn’t provide its coverage stats, Mitchell told me “it’s pretty clear” that DigiTrust has a “much greater” audience coverage than the Consortium.

This story first appeared on MarTech Today. For more on marketing technology, click here.


About The Author

Barry Levine covers marketing technology for Third Door Media. Previously, he covered this space as a Senior Writer for VentureBeat, and he has written about these and other tech subjects for such publications as CMSWire and NewsFactor. He founded and led the web site/unit at PBS station Thirteen/WNET; worked as an online Senior Producer/writer for Viacom; created a successful interactive game, PLAY IT BY EAR: The First CD Game; founded and led an independent film showcase, CENTER SCREEN, based at Harvard and M.I.T.; and served over five years as a consultant to the M.I.T. Media Lab. You can find him at LinkedIn, and on Twitter at xBarryLevine.



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