Google last month restricted access to consumer data all over the world, saying the move was necessary to comply with Europe's new General Data Protection Regulation. In the process, it cut off most companies in the business of evaluating brands' returns on investment for digital and some non-digital ads.
Some changes involving elimination of YouTube third-party tracking pixels aren't directly related to GDPR, though they're widely perceived that way because they kicked in around the same time as other changes involving DoubleClick tags. The latter changes have initially rolled out in Europe and are rolling out globally, but Google declined to disclose its schedule for where and when.
Now, only seven companies are approved to integrate their data through Google's Ads Data Hub. Thousands of agencies and others could previously use various tags to get and integrate anonymized Google user data. And only one of the seven, C3 Metrics, is a so-called "multi-touch attribution" provider that calculates sales return on ad spending across Google and non-Google platforms, including traditional media.
Others must rely on Google Analytics, which in its premium version tracks TV performance along with Google search, display and video platforms, but leaves out other digital and traditional media. Nielsen and ComScore appear to have gotten an exemption that lets them keep integrating their data with Google's for audience measurement, but not ROI analytics.
An analysis by C3, reported in a new study by Sequent Partners, shows how much that can affect the analysis—with Google doing way better when it grades its own homework.
For an undisclosed retailer with a diversified digital and traditional media plan, C3 found that Google-owned media delivered $1.90 in sales return for every $1 spent. But C3 projects Google Analytics would show Google properties delivering $363.48 of sales per ad dollar spent—201 times better—because sales that should be attributed to media other than Google or TV end up getting credited to Google. Google hasn't seen data in the study and declined to comment.
That dramatic boost to Google comes largely from search, which gets credit for the last click in cases where data about what prompted people to do the search is lacking.
Google takes in about 43 percent of the digital media dollars spent in the U.S., according to Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser, so losing access to its data leaves a big hole for anyone trying to measure return on ad spending.
"Ad reporting is an important part of the digital ecosystem, and we are committed to partnering with advertisers and partners to help refine strategies, including investing heavily in expansion of the Ads Data Hub," says Google spokesman Alex Krasov.
The changes shouldn't have taken companies by surprise. Google announced some of them as early as January 2017. Google expects to add an unspecified number of additional vendors to the list of those approved to integrate with the Ads Data Hub in months ahead.
Exemptions for Nielsen, ComScore
Meanwhile, exemptions for Nielsen and ComScore should help the big-spending marketers who use their cross-platform audience data to feed marketing-mix models. Those tools rely more on statistical analysis of big data sets than tracking individual user media and purchase behavior to measure sales impact from advertising like attribution vendors do. Mix models, however, often can't measure impact of smaller parts of the marketing mix—such as many digital and mobile media buys.
Like the seven companies approved so far to integrate with Google's data hub, Nielsen's Digital Ad Ratings (DAR) and ComScore's Validated Campaign Essentials (VCE) need to integrate their user data with Google's, to sort out duplicates in audience numbers, for example, or to track user demographics across digital and traditional media. They calculate audiences in terms of TV-style gross rating points across media, which are used to feed marketing-mix models.
Nielsen and ComScore aren't listed by Google as approved to integrate their data with its Ads Data Hub, which stores its user data, and don't appear to have access to Google's data for their own attribution services. But the DAR and VCE audience-calculation services have been exempted from Google's data-integration blackout, according to people familiar with the matter.
Nielsen says DAR is unaffected by Google's recent moves and the company remains in talks regarding the digital giant's new data policies. ComScore declined to comment, but says VCE is unaffected by Google's recent changes.
Why not just let Google do it?
Some marketers who spend 75 percent or more of their budgets on Google will be fine just letting Google do the analytics, says Alice Sylvester of Sequent Partners. "But if you want the rest of the digital stream measured, or other media, Google is not going to represent the other elements well, because they don't have the data for it," Sylvester says. "That's why we prefer independent attribution."
It's not clear how long it will take more third-party players to get approval to integrate their data with Google's. C3 Chief Operating Officer Jeff Greenfield says his company began the time-consuming process in September and still has a team on phone conferences with Google weekly to make adjustments, so he believes only a limited number of firms can be accommodated.
"Some people believe the monetary point of view for [Google] is that they're going to eliminate independent measurement, and their own data is always going to show them doing better," Greenfield says. "I disagree with this."
He believes Google is building a competitive advantage with its ADH and strong GDPR compliance that will allow it to do things competitors can't. And he gives Google high marks for lots of prior notice. Still, after at least two extensions to the original January deadline this year, many people were surprised when the policies went into effect last month, Greenfield says.
Google's recent moves also raise questions about how some companies' pending and new applications for accreditation from the Media Rating Council will be affected, as well as whether some services with existing MRC accreditation, from Google or those using its data, may need to start over.
At minimum, Google's new Ads Data Hub and its own new methods for measuring audiences with it appear likely to require accreditations and audits, says MRC CEO George Ivie, though he says Google hasn't started that process yet.
Third parties that change their processes to collect or integrate data using Google's ADH may also need to make new applications or get parts of their services recertified, he says.
'Walled gardens' may go higher
"Maybe this is an unintended consequence of the good things of GDPR, which is protecting people's privacy, that these walled gardens may be going up a little higher because of this," Ivie says. "Occasionally it's going to disable our ability to audit third-party measures and force us to audit and validate only the first-party metrics. I don't think that's optimal, or what people like the [Association of National Advertisers] intended, but that may be what happens."
That doesn't mean all the changes put the industry back at square one on media transparency and accountability, he says. "If we weren't this far along, we'd be even further in the dark."
Google's moves shouldn't affect third-party measurement or accreditation of viewability, Ivie says, because that doesn't require personal data. But GDPR-related moves by Google and others may result in changes to more advanced fraud-detection methods—tracking so-called sophisticated invalid traffic—triggering a need for new applications or re-accreditation, he says.
Scott Knoll, CEO of Integral Ad Science, one of the major players in the space, says there are enough technologies available for fraud detection that Google's moves shouldn't affect that area.
P&G, whose Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard has pushed hard for Google and others to open up to third-party audience measurement, isn't too concerned about impact of the recent changes.
"We are committed to transparent MRC-accredited verification and measurement, and we have every expectation any short-term issues will be resolved," says spokeswoman Tressie Rose.
For its part, Google doesn't believe moves to stop accepting third-party measurement pixels on YouTube will affect MRC accreditation there, Krasov says, and some of those pixels may yet get a reprieve.
YouTube continues working with a small group of vendors, including ComScore, DoubleVerify, IAS, Moat, Nielsen, Kantar and Research Now, she says, to "evaluate the re-certification of their pixels."
Update: This story has been updated to clarify that not all of Google's recent changes – such as a decertification of YouTube tracking pixels that now appears to be on hold for several third-party measurement companies – are related to GDPR. The ADH, described as a repository of Google data, holds that data only temporarily during integration with third-party data, according to a person familiar with the matter, so that description was deleted. The term "anonymized" was added to describe data Google shares with third parties. Not all the changes described were originally announced in January 2017, so a sentence describing that timetable was modified. Google was originally reported as having not responded to queries about exemptions for Nielsen and ComScore, though a spokeswoman felt she had, and a sentence was added noting that Google has not seen data in the C3 and Sequent analysis, and declined to comment on it.
C3 Metrics, the only multi-touch attribution provider that works across digital and traditional media and currently has approval to integrate with Google data, ran a study using a campaign for a large brick-and-mortar retailer -- using its own analysis and how the numbers would likely play out using Google's premium analytics, which also incorporate TV but not other digital or non-digital media. Google does a lot better in its own analysis, because searches that lead to sales but were triggered by media Google Analytics doesn't measure tend to get credited to Google search, according to C3.
Charts by Chen Wu/Ad Age