Private Browsing and Google

30 Jun 2024 » Opinion

Earlier this year, Google reached an agreement to delete billions of records. This time, the reason was how private browsing was perceived vs. what it really was. This post will explore the technical aspects of private browsing, the lawsuit, and how it can affect digital marketing in general.

What is private browsing?

All modern browsers offer a feature called “private browsing”, although the marketing term may differ from browser to browser. For example, Google calls it Incognito, while Microsoft calls it InPrivate. In any case, the claim is that you can browse the Web anonymously and leave no trace behind. Many browsers take it to the next level and block 3rd party cookies, while they are accepted in normal browsing.

To add some additional context, in the case of Google Chrome and at the time of writing, Incognito mode greets you with the following disclaimer:

Others who use this device won’t see your activity, so you can browse more privately. This won’t change how data is collected by websites you visit and the services they use, including Google. Downloads, bookmarks and reading list items will be saved.

I am sure you have already noticed how generic some explanations are and how easily they can be misinterpreted, especially if you do not understand the technology behind the Web.

How it works

The principle is straightforward. During normal operation, browsers store cookies, a copy of the visited webpages (also called cache), and the browsing history in databases. Simple file-based databases can be used to store this data, both SQL and NoSQL.

So, when you open a new private window, the browser creates a temporary database, where browsing data for that window is stored. Once this window is closed, the database is deleted. Anybody opening the browser later will not see any cookies, any cache, or any browsing history from the private window. In other words, the goal of private browsing is to prevent someone else using the same device from knowing what you have done online. That’s it!

For us tech people in digital marketing, private browsing is very handy to test or simulate multiple visitors with just one browser. Each private window gets a new set of cookies, i.e., generates a new visitor. I suspect users of websites with content for adults use it often too, and I was told that it is also common among gamblers.

Controversy and lawsuit

The problem was with how it was understood by most end users. I hope you have noticed that there is nothing server-side in the description I gave above. In other words, web servers do not know whether you are browsing with a normal window or a private window. There seems to be a script that detects private browsing, but it is more a hack than a standard. Browsers may prevent this script from working at any time. In summary, websites should not know that you are using this feature.

However, and there lies the problem, people thought that private browsing made you a ghost so that you could browse websites without leaving a trace both client- and server-side. This misconception was particularly expected when it came to display advertising: Google should not be able to personalize the ads, as private browsing was expected to prevent it. The reality, as we know, is that tracking operates normally in private browsing, all it does is detect a new visitor and continue with it. And this is what has been challenged in the class-action lawsuit.

I am not a Google fan (I am no detractor either), it was actually my main competitor when working as an Adobe Analytics consultant, but I have to say that I side with Google in this case. The text describing Incognito mode is very clear and it does what it is supposed to do. I believe users had unrealistic expectations.

In any case, it looks like Google did not want to generate too much noise and waste a fortune in attorney fees, and has decided to delete the records they have from private browsing and block 3rd party cookies in Incognito mode. I do not know how they are going to identify the records from private windows, as there is no way to do so. Maybe it will look for short visits.

Consequences for digital marketing

There is a long-awaited death of 3rd party cookies, although they have proven to be more resilient than anybody thought. However, given that Chrome’s Incognito windows will now block 3rd party cookies, there will be some consequences in display advertising: your campaigns will be less accurate and the conversion rate will drop, as a bigger portion of visitors will receive less personalized advertising.

As we know, the only way to be ready for the future is to have a good pool of 1st party data and use it wisely. Tools like Adobe Experience Platform will become more important. On the other hand, I agree that we are still far from this ideal situation.

In any case, I would keep an eye on news like this one. I would not be surprised if we see another lawsuit that will affect all of us in the digital marketing world again. I cannot predict which will be the next one or what the outcome will be, but I am sure it will have an impact.


Photo by Travis Saylor

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