Google Launches Free Attribution Product to Associate Offline Purchases With Online Ads

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg, Washington Post:

To power its multibillion-dollar advertising juggernaut, Google already analyzes users’ Web browsing, search history and geographic locations, using data from popular Google-owned apps like YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and the Google Play store. All that information is tied to the real identities of users when they log into Google’s services.

The new credit-card data enables the tech giant to connect these digital trails to real-world purchase records in a far more extensive way than was possible before. But in doing so, Google is yet again treading in territory that consumers may consider too intimate and potentially sensitive. Privacy advocates said few people understand that their purchases are being analyzed in this way and could feel uneasy, despite assurances from Google that it has taken steps to protect the personal information of its users.

This feature was initially launched as part of Google’s Analytics 360 suite last year, but a free version is now being made available as well. According to this Post story, Google says that the way both Attribution products work is by using a broader data collection set, and that various formulas are used to “double-blind” purchases.

However, even if store owners and Google employees never see who purchased what, this still feels wrong on so many levels. For this to be effective, there has to be some association made between a purchaser, whether they have seen an ad, and how that campaign was delivered — through social media, a general website, and so forth. Therefore, there must be enough information to correlate the three factors, which is enough information for specific purchases to be tracked back to an individual. If there isn’t that level of granularity, the service is pointless, isn’t it?

The efficacy of Google Attribution leads to another problem: Google is both the seller of advertising, and the company reporting on whether it’s effective. Yuyu Chen, Digiday:

The issue of Google and Facebook grading their own homework is still a big concern for marketers, as recently underscored by WPP CEO Martin Sorrell. Because of the inherent conflict of interest, Crossmedia CEO Kamran Asghar said his agency would never use attribution services from Google or Facebook.

“We do our best to avoid any vendors — be it media or tech — that pose a conflict of interest,” said Asghar. “Google is a media company, and, therefore, clients should monitor it — and all channels — with credible third parties who are independent of selling media.”

Facebook launched a similar offline conversion product last year. Both products rely on treading a very fine line between determining the success of an ad campaign and tracking users on an uncomfortably fine level, and I think they’re overstepping that line in a big way. This feels downright creepy, and it’s the kind of thing only Google and Facebook can do because they’re entrenched into the fabric of the web. That should probably scare you in its own right: these two companies know exactly who uses the web better than anyone else. And, now, they know your offline activities too.

When Apple launched Apple Pay, they made a point of stating that they don’t track transactions over time. I don’t think Apple’s privacy protections necessarily prevent Google and Facebook from associating purchases with ad views, but it can’t hurt to consider using services from companies that build privacy protections into their products and services, instead of those that try to find the thinnest tightrope they can walk between what is and is not considered creepy.