Google is testing a way to tie online ads to brick-and-mortar store purchases, a move whetting marketing appetites while fueling privacy worries.
A product called “Google Attribution” was unveiled at a marketing conference this month in San Francisco by the Internet giant.
Google has long been able to determine when users click on ads and make purchases, but linking online and offline habits takes its analytics a step further.
Google senior vice president Sridhar Ramaswamy, who announced that Attribution is in test mode with a limited number of partners and would be rolled out to more advertisers in coming weeks, touted the tool as being able to answer the long-challenging question of whether marketing campaigns are working.
“Google Attribution makes it possible for every marketer to measure the impact of their marketing across devices and across channels,” Ramaswamy said. “Data-driven attribution uses machine learning to determine how much credit to assign to each step in the consumer journey — from the first time they engage with your brand for early research down to the final click before purchase.”
Real-world customer e-mail addresses or loyalty plan information can be woven with Google data from services such as AdWords, Google Analytics and DoubleClick Search to provide “a complete view” of marketing performance, the company said.
Using artificial intelligence, or machine learning, to better analyze and understand consumer behavior to target ads and promote sales was a major theme of the conference.
For several years, AdWords has enabled advertisers to measure visits to real-world stores stemming from online campaigns, Ramaswamy said.
“Still, measuring store visits is just one part of the equation,” he added. “You also need insights into how your online ads drive sales for your business.”
Real-world transactions matched back to Google ads are handled in “a secure and privacy-safe way,” with store sales information reported in aggregated and anonymized forms to protect individual privacy, the company said.
Tying online activity to offline shopping decisions has been a “holy grail” for advertisers for quite some time and comes with worrisome privacy implications, American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst Jay Stanley said.
Attribution threatens to intrude on a core tenant of privacy, that people’s dealings with one party would not spill over into affairs with other parties with which they interact, Stanley said.
“This is an evolution, not a revolution; another step toward increased monitoring of individuals,” Stanley said. “Each step raises the question: ‘Where does this all stop?’”
Stanley expects Google to be on its best behavior when it comes to handling its growing trove of information about users, but said that even the best of intentions could crack under the “enormous hydraulic pressure of the profit motive.”
“We have the full fury and genius of the capitalist system being driven toward monitoring people in ever-increasing detail and companies are competing to do so,” Stanley said. “It will not stop without some sort of rules in which we as a society express our values through legal protections.”
Google and Facebook Inc dominate the online ad world, and what one does to prove its worth to advertisers is likely to be copied by the other, Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group said.
Attribution promised to give Google a way to assure advertisers they are getting their money’s worth at the firm’s online venues.
“The big problem is that showing conversion from ad consumption to purchase has been horrible,” Enderle said of online marketing. “This has been a problem for a long time. Google is trying to make a metric so they get credit for it when you do purchase after viewing an ad.”
Data showing which ads are translating into real sales should mean that the relevance of ads people see online would improve as marketers abandon misaimed or ineffectively tailored messages, Enderle said.
“You are going to be hit with ads for things that you might actually want to buy, so you are going to spend a lot more money,” Enderle added.
Worries about privacy sparked by linking offline and online activities are a decade or so late, because the time to protest was when data collection began in droves, he said.
“There really is no downside to this application,” Enderle said while discussing Google’s marketing metrics move.
“This is the good side of collecting data; it is what else is being done with the data that should be unnerving and that we really don’t know,” he said.
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