Google Marketing Live: A note on digital advertising transparency

Following on from the recent Google Marketing Live event, I wanted to take a moment to explore one topic which seemed to be a general theme throughout the conference: online advertising and the relationship of transparency with it’s users in 2019.

I also want to highlight a couple of really useful tools that might help users understand a little more about what data Google collects, and the control that we have over this (if you don’t know too much about what Google knows about you, you might be in for a bit of a shock).

Why is digital advertising transparency important?

Firstly, some context behind the Google Marketing Live ‘tone.’ It would probably be fair to say that online advertising in general is facing a bit of an identity crisis in 2019. In the wake of GDPR, the online community is asking itself what kind of environment we want to build. Is there a healthy balance between allowing advertisers the scope to promote their businesses and products online, without infringing upon the digital rights of users? How should we deal with brands who bend the rules and misuse technology within advertising (Google’s note on fingerprinting technology in browsers makes for an interesting read).

Whether you’re somebody who uses the internet once a week to check the football scores, or a dedicated online gamer who is constantly connected, it’s likely that we are all now a part of an online community, as this ONS data on frequency usage shows.

With a free and open internet, it is us – the users, who have the ability to shape the kind of internet we want in the future. We are right to be concerned about our privacy online, and we should hold brands to account who misuse our data – cases such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal deservedly make our front pages.

The worry is that it is these stories of government organisations losing our data, or of big brands misusing personal information that create a sense of digital fatalism (a term I first heard Derek O’Halloran coin), whereby we accept the status quo, and we resign ourselves to this misuse and lack of responsibility being ‘part of the internet.’ But it doesn’t have to be.

That sounds pessimistic – are things that bad?

I do think there’s cause to be a bit more positive and optimistic about the state of our online community. It is the increased pressure we have put on large brands to manage our data responsibly that has led to a series of healthy, progressive developments.

Most famously, Google has faced a series of fines and investigations regarding how it allows users to find, and manage, their data within it’s platforms.

It is not surprising then, that the tone throughout all of Google’s Marketing Live 2019 was one of ethics and responsibility amongst online advertisers. Most notably, Google announced a ‘new level’ of ads transparency, highlighting tools such as My Activity, Ad Settings, Why this Ad?, and Mute this Ad, before also announcing a potential browser extension which helps users understand why ads are being shown.

As one of the largest advertisers (of online and offline channels), I think it’s a good thing that the increased pressure Google is facing has led to this being a, if not the, talking point of Google Marketing Live. We thought it could be worthwhile highlighting the role that some of these tools can play for users (if you’re a bit of a data nerd like me, it’s also fun to see how accurate this kind of stuff is too).

Google’s Ad settings.

The first place we’d advise users to check if they want to learn more about how you’re ads are being personalised, is your Google Adsettings. At the very least, it makes for an interesting conversation with your work colleagues when you discover that Google knows all the weird and wonderful things you’re into.

Looking at how my ads are personalised then, all of the above is actually quite accurate. Sadly, I do now fall in the 25-34 age bracket, and I’m in the process of renovating our kitchen which explains the Wickes and B&Q inclusions (and the Papa John’s one too, if I’m honest).

However, Google are clearly offering users a way to opt out of this kind of data collection. For example, you can turn ad personalisation off, and within your Google Account settings, you can choose to disable settings for Google to save the data which informs this.

My Google Activity.

If you didn’t know much about Google’s tracking and thought that your Adsettings were scary, wait until you see ‘My Google Activity.’ Essentially, this is an overview of your activity on all Google platforms and devices.

If I look at my activity yesterday on Google’s products, it included 603 individual items, such as website visits, searches, YouTube videos, ads, or map searches.

You can then head further into the rabbit hole and find out what each of these items were, for example:

Again, if you find this all a bit much, you can tell Google that you want to have your activity deleted automatically, or after a certain time period within your My Activity area.

Bonus round: Google Maps Timeline.

This one isn’t strictly to do with advertising, but I do think it’s amazing and not enough people know about it. Most people now use Google Maps to get around, but not everybody knows that Google will store this information and allow you to access it easily in their Google Timeline feature.

I find this a pretty cool reminder of the places I’ve been, and you can change the timeline too to see specific dates. I’ve got a Google Pixel phone too, so I’m fairly sure this is even more comprehensive than it would be if you had an Apple iPhone for example, which has its own built in map functionality.

Strangely, it seems it even picked up my recent holiday to Dublin too, with a handy ‘visit’ to the middle of the Irish Sea:Again, this is another product you can turn off and restrict if you want to.

Why we should care.

As a digital marketer with a decent amount of experience in Google’s products, I know and accept that there is an invisible exchange each time I use a Google product. I get to use an advanced, innovative search engine, or the very best map software, and in exchange Google can use that data to improve it’s advertising, which is how they make revenue.

I think the problem however (as their recent fine demonstrates), is that Google perhaps take this knowledge and acceptance for granted, and do not do enough to communicate to users of all ages and technical literacy that their data is being collected, and that they have the right to manage this accordingly.If you work in digital marketing, I think it’s important to keep up to date with this conversation. Over the next generation, we’ll likely see social media platforms and search engines face further regulation and scrutiny, but it’s important to remember we do play a role in this.

Yes, there is a social contract between companies such as Google and Facebook and it’s users, but marketers must ensure that we adopt an ethical and responsible approach to digital advertising.

Our aim must be to promote brands and products to users in a manner which they have knowingly agreed to, and are accepting of. Companies and agencies who fall foul of this aren’t just betting against the ICO, for example, they’re also risking our free and open internet for future generations, and nobody wants that.

Google’s Marketing Live was an interesting insight into how we should think of digital marketing in 2019 and beyond – advertising that is responsible and ethical in its approach, as opposed to just being sales focused.

Written by David Berry

Strategy & Insights Manager