The announcement comes as Google attempts to weather an outcry from advertisers over how their ad dollars are spent. Google is working to move past an advertising boycott of YouTube, its lucrative video site, after news reports that ads for mainstream brands were appearing alongside extremist content, including sites featuring hate speech and violence.
Google for years has been mining location data from Google Maps in an effort to prove that knowledge of people’s physical locations could “close the loop” between physical and digital worlds. Users can block this by adjusting the settings on smartphones, but few do so, say privacy experts.
This location tracking ability has allowed Google to send reports to retailers telling them, for example, whether people who saw an ad for a lawn mower later visited or passed by a Home Depot. The location-tracking program has grown since it was first launched with only a handful of retailers. Home Depot, Express, Nissan, and Sephora have participated.
“Google — and also Facebook — believe that in order to get digital dollars from advertisers who are still primarily spending on TV, they need to prove that digital works,” said Amit Jain, chief executive of Bridg, a digital advertising start-up that matches online to offline behavior. “These companies have to invest in finding the identity of the consumer at the moment when that shopper is at the cash register.”
Tuesday’s announcement gives Google a clearer way to understand purchases than just location and allows them to understand purchase activity even when consumers deactivate location tracking on their smartphones.
Google executives say they are using complex, patent-pending mathematical formulas to protect the privacy of consumers when they match a Google user with a shopper who makes a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store.