How Real A Threat Is Google's AdID?

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) wants to replace cookies with something new—that, of course, Google will control. That's the gist of a story in USA Today on Tuesday (Sept. 17). Citing an inside source it doesn't name, the newspaper reports that Google is working on an "anonymous identifier for advertising" called AdID that "would be transmitted to advertisers and ad networks that have agreed to basic guidelines, giving consumers more privacy and control over how they browse the Web." Um, right.

That's all very high-sounding, and may be fine if you're an advertiser using cookies to track people looking at ads. That's because increasing numbers of people surfing the web are blocking, erasing or otherwise defeating the purpose of third-party tracking cookies that were never actually intended to be used for tracking web audiences in the first place. But a Google campaign to replace cookies is a potential problem for retailers who just use cookies to keep track of where shoppers are on their sites. After all, if you're Google, what you care about is ads. If Google starts lobbying to kill cookies, retailers will either have to reinvent them or start doing some complicated things to replace what they do.

The irony is that, with some exceptions, retailers aren't seen as part of the Great Cookie Problem. Retailers use cookies for shopping carts, to help shoppers search and navigate easily, to make appropriate offers and product recommendations. Often enough, customers have not only agreed to let cookies be used, they've even signed on with a loyalty account that's explicitly for collecting customer information.

And from the description in USA Today, the Google assumption seems to be that on a retailer's web or mobile site, those will be the retailer's own cookies. So if Google just tries to convince the world that third-party cookies should be replaced with AdID, it should all be fine—right?

But of course it won't be. Retailers use third parties for site-performance metrics and other outside services. In some cases they use them for banner or text ads for other advertisers—we still haven't figured out why Target (NYSE:TGT) runs ads on its site that have nothing to do with Target and occasionally are for Target's direct competitors.

(Google actually serves up a banner ad on many pages on Target's e-commerce site. Presumably that wouldn't be a problem, since Google will be happy to let Google use Google's AdID.)

All this suggests that either Google hasn't thought through what will happen if it tries to do away with cookies, or whoever leaked the Google AdID story was really jumping the gun.

That second one may be the most likely case. Google's official response to a question from the newspaper was as bland and generic as you'd expect: "Technological enhancements can improve users' security while ensuring the Web remains economically viable. We and others have a number of concepts in this area, but they're all at very early stages." Google isn't usually quite that bland when it actually has something coming out of the pipeline in the near future.

And there's at least one other reason to think that maybe this isn't quite as far along as USA Today and its source believe. That name, AdID? Turns out there's already something in the advertising business called "Ad-ID." It's already being used, and it's important enough that its use in digital advertising is mandated by the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, the television performers' union.

We found that out by doing a simple search on "adid." It showed up in the second page of results. You'd think that if Google was really planning to roll out something called AdID any time soon, its lawyers would at least have Googled it.