Google is testing a new replacement for third-party cookies

Topics API is a browser-based approach and will replace the previously proposed FLoC.

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Cherlynn Low
January 25, 2022 1:00 PM
Example illustrations of what users can see about 3rd party cookies (left) vs Topics (right). In Chrome, Google plans to make Topics easier to understand and manage for users.
Google

With the demise of third-party cookies on the horizon, advertisers and the internet's gatekeepers are scrambling to come up with better ways to serve users relevant ads. Google launched its Privacy Sandbox in 2019 to look into suitable alternatives, announcing FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts) last year. The plan to roll out FLoC was delayed, and Privacy Sandbox faced regulatory scrutiny in the UK and the US. Today, the company announced it's testing out a new approach called Topics API, which will replace FLoC. 

Topics API relies on the Chrome browser to determine a list of top five topics a user is interested in, based on their surfing history. It'll determine what the topics are by comparing known websites (that you visit) against a list of about 350 topics drawn from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Google's own data. Then, when partner publishers need to know what topics a viewer is into, they can use Topics API to ping the browser for that data and serve relevant ads based on that. 

Say, for example, you've visited a lot of sites for hiking or working out. Chrome will count those towards your top interests for that particular week and share them with participating publishers who can then show you ads for, say, athleisure or camping gear. Topics will select one area of interest from each of the past three weeks to share with each site and its advertising partners. Google says topics are "kept for only three weeks and old topics are deleted." The data and processing happens on your device "without involving any external servers, including Google servers." 

There will also be options in Chrome for users to see the topics assigned to you, remove those you don't like or disable the feature altogether. At the moment, since Google has only just announced Topics and hasn't started user tests, it hasn't shared whether Topics will be opt-in or opt-out for users.  

The list of topics is pre-set, and Google says it "will not include potentially sensitive categories, such as gender or race." This should theoretically prevent unwanted browsing history from counting towards and showing up in your interests. 

Google is targeting the end of the first quarter this year to launch its trial, and after publishing the explainer on how it expects to use Topics API today, it'll be accepting feedback from partners, interest groups and regulatory authorities. Based on that, the company may adjust Topics API before its first trial, and if all goes well it could launch the feature by the third quarter of the year. 

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