A Win for Users and a Headache for Marketers

2020 has been interesting for several reasons, and search marketing is no exception. Between privacy-focused web initiatives, political unrest on the web, and economic changes driven by a pandemic, search marketers have a lot to adapt to. 

We’ll dive into why marketers—especially PPC or paid ad marketers—will have to adapt or have their marketing campaigns die.

Privacy & Apple

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June 2020, Apple announced iOS 14 and some new privacy-focused features that might impact how effective your paid ads can be—at least with users on Apple platforms. While these changes might not be earth-shattering today, they are another step in a privacy-focused, personal data-less advertising future.

Starting with iOS 14, users who are using Safari on a device running the latest iOS software will be prompted whenever an app wants to access their personal data, and the user can reject the app’s access at that time. Developers now need explicit approval from users to track actions in their apps. In addition to this, on both iOS 14 and Big Sur, users using Safari can get a privacy report on precisely what trackers are being used on a website and what data is being collected.

Here is a quote on the new feature from security company Sophos that sums it up nicely:

Developers will also be required to cough up data on exactly what third-party software development kits and other modules they’ve incorporated into their apps, what those components do, what data they collect, who they share it with, and how it will be used. Think of the charts like nutrition labels, Apple said on Monday: they’re a way for developers to transparently share security and privacy details.

Users now know who is tracking them and what information is being accessed; they can then opt-out of being tracked on that app. With iOS having roughly 20% of the mobile phone market as of 2019, there is a potential for a massive loss in data, making paid ads more expensive to run and potentially less effective. 

Not only that, but users who are on iOS 14 or Mac OS Big Sur can see what type of data this app collects and how it uses it right from the app store itself without having to download the app beforehand. If your app is overreaching in terms of privacy, users might not even download your app to begin with, now that they are armed with this new knowledge.

Sure, not everyone will care about or even look at this privacy stuff, but some will, and no one is likely to opt in to being tracked. This new insight into what apps are doing with user data could open users’ eyes, and some will likely avoid apps that overreach on tracking.

While I don’t believe these new security features of iOS or Big Sur are signs of a coming apocalypse for paid ad campaigns, they don’t help, especially when you consider the effect other privacy-protection measures like GDPR have already had. Platform owners are likely to be forced into adding more privacy-focused features—either by public pressure or governmental. All this can make your ads less personalized to users, and potentially less effective from the cost/return perspective.

While these new privacy-focused features will inevitably cause some headaches for paid ad practitioners, they can adapt. Just look at SEOs. For years SEO campaigns have had to rely on less and less data and have required new methods for filling in the gaps that have developed over the years. Our data isn’t as granular as it was ten years ago, but SEO lives on, and with some flexibility, the paid ad industry will too.

Privacy And Web Browsers

In addition to Apple’s changes, web browsers are also taking privacy more seriously to the detriment of your marketing data.

Google recently announced that Chrome would, by default, not send referral data about how a user came to your site from another site; you will only be able to see the hostname. If you were used to seeing visits from anothersite.com/page-one, you would only be shown that visits came from anothersite.com, not the specific page that sent them. This could end up causing major issues for SEOs, or anyone in marketing trying to tie give attribution to a lead, sale, or click. We used to be able to get page-level referral data, but these upcoming changes would remove that insight almost completely.

Firefox recently announced they would be attempting to block long-time tracking cookies by resetting tracking cookies every 24 hours on their browser. If you were relying on tracking users for long periods, you are out of luck.

The two most popular ways to interact with the web—using apps or a browser—are getting more private, which means your marketing needs to adapt.

Politics and Platforms

Let’s also not overlook the political nature of our ad platforms. Facebook is a glaring example of this, as it faces a boycott from advertisers over its political action or inaction. If you are Nike or Dell, you can afford to make a political statement and not buy Facebook ads until changes are made. But if you’re a mom-and-pop setup who relies on Facebook ads for your business, you might be put in the position of going against your moral standards for fear of losing your livelihood. This can apply to any network that drives revenue for advertisers. Instagram is a vast ad platform, but is also owned by Facebook. LinkedIn or YouTube (also owned by Google, which can present its sticky situations) could become just as politicized overnight, and you risk your brand being associated with an “evil corporation.”

SEO isn’t impervious to political winds changing; it just hasn’t happened yet. If it did, SEOs would need to adapt. As with the boycott of Facebook’s ad platform, imagine if Google was hit with a similar boycott of their services, even their organic search. If a website wanted to participate in this boycott they would need to make their entire site unavailable to Google, and request Google does not index the site’s pages into their search index. Removing Google as a source of organic traffic would likely be disastrous for any website as Google is the largest search engine in the world. If this were to happen, SEO’s would be charged with finding new ways to drive organic traffic, or make up for that lost traffic. Either way, we would need to evolve along with the industry.

Marketing Budget Woes

According to Statista, ad spend in the US could be cut up to 50% in 2020 due to Coronavirus. If your company relied on paid ads for a significant amount of your traffic, cutting that spend could become a problem, even if you no longer have the marketing budget to support the ad program you’re used to.

Paid ads act like a water hose, where paying for the ads acts as turning on the faucet. You start paying, your ads start running, and you have visibility. When you turn that faucet off, your ads stop running, and your visibility from paid ads is zero. If you relied on that channel for the majority of your income, this becomes a problem.

Take a look at this recent example in a story by Bloomberg. It tells the story of a psychotherapist who has relied on Google ads to drive new business. With the pandemic and the surge of “online therapy” startups, those paid ads are seeing new competition and getting too expensive for the small psychotherapist to bid on. They are now stuck between overspending on ads because of competition, or losing new business from that channel altogether.

Adapting to budgetary woes is particularly tricky because nearly everything costs money. When money is tight, you don’t want to waste money trying things when paid ads used to deliver you consistent income. But that doesn’t mean you can’t divert the remaining budget to diversifying your marketing efforts. Depending on your budget, you could hire an SEO agency to help develop into a longer-lasting channel for consistent leads even when ad spending fluctuates. This is why it’s so important to make sure your site is getting leads, traffic, and revenue from a wide variety of sources — you don’t want to invest too heavily in one channel only to see that channel dry up.

A New Era of User Trust

Ultimately, the upside to these new privacy-focused pushes is that it will hopefully end up being a better experience for our users. They will be more informed about their relationships with businesses and websites, and we can build more honest connections with users moving forward. The industry has a chance to adapt and come out stronger than ever.

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