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A PPC guide to privacy-focused audience targeting

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A PPC guide to privacy-focused audience targeting

Google granted more time before cookies retire, but advertisers still need to build audience frameworks for the future.

on August 31, 2022 at 6:00 am | Reading time: 7 minutes

PPC campaign managers have had tight control over their account management, data insights, and optimization tactics for almost two decades. But everything is changing.

Query data is already scarce, keyword match types are blending into an amalgam of broad match, and signal loss continues to impact performance data and audience management.

With campaign types such as Performance Max and the lack of visibility into performance, PPC managers need to utilize every available targeting and optimization tool in their arsenal.

Dedicated audience strategies can provide additional control and specified targeting that delivers results. In my previous article, we reviewed the benefits of a well-defined audience strategy.

Now, let’s review your options for creating and managing privacy-focused audiences for PPC campaigns.

Adjusted timeline for cookie apocalypse

It’s worth noting that your timeline for the cookie apocalypse has been extended. The Google Chrome/Privacy Sandbox Team previously stated that third-party cookies would retire sometime in Q3 of 2023. Now, they have extended that timeline to 2024. According to the announcement from Chrome:

“By Q3 2023, we expect the Privacy Sandbox APIs to be launched and generally available in Chrome. As developers adopt these APIs, we now intend to begin phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome in the second half of 2024.”

Google needed more time to prepare properly for the retirement of cookies. They are still working on the framework for a post-cookie world. Also, with their stock price fluctuations, I think Alphabet (Google’s parent company) did not want to negatively impact the product (Google Ads) which drives close to 80% of their operating revenue.

Whatever the reason might be, the result is still the same: you have more time to plan for the post-cookie world. However, this doesn’t mean that you should stop building your measurement and audience frameworks, because this will happen eventually.

PPC audience-building options

There are a few ways to build your audience data within Google and Microsoft.

PPC platform third-party pixels

The most direct way to build audience data is via each platform’s tracking pixel. Third-party cookies currently have a shelf life of about two years. I encourage you to start creating a new privacy-focused framework. But for now, if you want to rely on tracking pixels, you can – but the clock is ticking.

Google has recently released a new version of the Google Tag. The new version of the universal tag will serve as the core implementation pixel for all Google marketing properties including Google Ads, Google Analytics, and SA360. Currently, you can use Google Ads and Google Analytics to configure your Google Tag.

Microsoft Ads also provides their Universal Event Tracking (UET). This universal tag provides analytics data for websites, such as conversions, sales, and revenue. Also, you can use the UET tag to build audiences within the Microsoft Ads platform.

Direct upload of audience data

Both Microsoft Ads and Google Ads support direct uploads of audience data into their platforms. On both ad platforms, advertisers can upload a CSV file that contains first-party customer data.

Many advertisers are not yet using this method to create audiences in PPC. They are still creating audience segments and remarketing lists based on their website pixels.

As I mentioned, this strategy will work for the next 18-24 months approximately. But advertisers need to start building an audience framework that is durable when cookies are not available.


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First-party audience targeting

Once you have audience data propagating into the ad platforms, then you need to create audience segments to target your ads to the right people.

Customer match in Google and Microsoft

Uploading a CSV with your customer data is only the first step in creating an audience strategy.

The PPC platforms use your customer profile data to discover user accounts created within those ecosystems.

Google Analytics 4 audiences

I’m focusing on Google Analytics 4 (GA4) because Universal Analytics (UA) will sunset on July 1, 2023. Historical analytics data will not transfer into your new GA4 account from UA.

Even if UA remains your source of truth for a while longer, you should start building performance history in GA4 right now.

Audience segments can also be created within GA4. Advertisers can build audiences based on website user behavior tracked in GA4. These audience segments can be ported into Google Ads when the two platforms are connected.

Audience expansion tactics

Once your customer data is populating within the PPC platforms and you have created audience segments based on this data, then you are ready to expand on this foundation.

Similar audiences

Both major PPC platforms provide ‘similar audiences’ segments. Using your existing customer segments, Google and Microsoft will find users with similar habits and browsing histories to your target audience. According to Google:

“Google Ads looks at the recent search activity of the visitors in your remarketing list to help aggregate search behavior of the visitors in your list. Based on this information, the system automatically finds new potential customers whose search behavior is similar to that of people in your remarketing list.”

Similar audiences is a third-party audience since it relies on profile data from the PPC platforms. However, these audiences should be relatively durable even after cookies retire.

The profiles are built on numerous data points based on search history, account profile data, and browsing history that should maintain post-2024.

Affinity and in-market audiences

These two audience types also rely on data from the PPC platforms. These segments:

  • Do not need to be built off on first-party audiences.
  • Are created from on-platform usage of Google and Bing and should be moderately durable.

In-market audiences refer to individuals who are in the market for a product or service currently. These are usually needs-based or short-term interests that could align with your brand. Often these individuals are actively searching for your product or service but may not have discovered your brand yet.

On the other hand, affinity audiences are usually based on someone’s long-standing passion, interest, and engagement with specific topics.

These two types of audience segments are similar but they do perform differently. If these audience types are not part of your strategy, you should test each to see which works for your campaign.

GA4 predictive audiences

GA4 has some unique capabilities around audiences. One of the interesting features is predictive audiences. These segments blend your onsite audience data with predictive algorithms within GA4 to determine potential actions that users could take.

Here is the current list of available predictive audiences in GA4.

  • Likely 7-day churning purchasers.
  • Likely 7-day churning users.
  • Likely 7-day purchasers.
  • Likely first-time 7-day purchasers.
  • Predicted 28-day top spenders.

Topics API and the privacy-first future

Topics API is an entirely new way of curating and creating audience segments. This feature is still being beta tested within the Privacy Sandbox. There have been a few cookieless tactics proposed by Google, but I think this has a good shot of making it to the general public.

There are two parts to how Topics API functions:

  • Based on your browsing history, Chrome determines topics/interests that represent you and your interests. Topics are kept for only three weeks and old topics are deleted.
  • Brands can target specific topics to deliver advertisements to relevant audiences.

According to Google, Topics API is privacy-safe:

“And, by providing websites with your topics of interest, online businesses have an option that doesn’t involve covert tracking techniques, like browser fingerprinting, in order to continue serving relevant ads.”

Hopefully, the algorithms that determine an individual’s topics of interest have improved. Google Ads offered a previous version of topics/interest targeting within the Display Network and performance within those campaigns was usually much weaker than other audience-based targeting options.

Start crafting your first-party PPC audience framework

Advertisers have received an extension on their pixel-based audience strategies. This does not mean you should become complacent when crafting your first-party audience framework.

Keep moving forward toward a framework that is not solely reliant on third-party pixels. PPC managers always want more control over their campaigns and a structured, thoughtful audience framework is the backbone of successful PPC accounts.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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