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Yesterday, Apple announced a new ad attribution model, which aims to hit the right balance between online user privacy and enabling advertisers to measure the effectiveness of their ad campaigns. This model, named Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution, is implemented in WebKit and is offered as an experimental feature in Safari Technology Preview 82+.

Ad attribution model and its privacy concerns

Online advertising is one of the most effective media for businesses to expand their reach and find new customers. And, ad click attribution model allows you to analyze which of your many advertising campaigns or marketing channels are leading to actual conversions.

Generally, ad attribution is done through cookies and something called “tracking pixels”. Cookies are small data files stored by your browser to remember stateful information, for instance, items added in the shopping cart in an online store. A tracking pixel is basically a piece of HTML code which is loaded when a user visits a website or opens an email.

If proper privacy protections are not employed, websites can use this data for user profiling. What is worse is that this data can also be sent to third parties like data brokers, affiliate networks, and advertising networks. This collection of browsing data across multiple websites is what is referred to as cross-site tracking.

How Apple’s ad attribution aims to help

Apple’s ad attribution model is built directly into the browser and runs on-device. This will ensure that the browser vendor will not be able to see what advertisements are being clicked or what purchases are being made.

The ‘Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution model’ works in three steps:

Storing ad clicks

According to Apple’s alternate Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution, the page hosting the ad will be responsible for storing the ad clicks. It will do this via two optional attributes: ‘adDestination’ and ‘adCampaignID’. The ‘adDestination’ attribute is the domain the ad click is navigating the user to, and ‘adCampaignID’ is the identifier of the ad campaign. Neither the browser vendor nor the website will be allowed to read the stored ad click data or detect that it exists. This data will be stored for a limited time and in the case of WebKit, it is 7 days.

Matching the conversions against stored ad clicks

The second step of matching the conversions against stored ad clicks will allow advertisers to understand which of their ad campaigns are the most effective ones. Conversion is basically getting the user to perform the desired action according to your advertisement, for instance, a customer adding an item to the shopping cart or signing up for a new service.

In this model, tracking pixels are used as a way to determine what all actions are taken by the user benefitting the business. Data like the location of the user, time of day, the value of the conversion, or some other relevant data are passed to the browser through different parameters. Apple ensures that no sensitive data like names, addresses, or other are stored.

Sending out ad click attribution data

In the last step, the browser reports to the website or marketer the existence of the conversion. After the conversion is matched to an ad, the browser will set a timer at random between 24 to 48 hours to send a stateless POST request to the advertiser. And, within this time it will pass the ad campaign and other parameters to the advertiser.

Apple is previewing this model in Safari Technology Preview 82+. It is also proposing this model as a standard through the W3C Web Platform Incubator Community Group (WICG).

The model has received mixed reaction from users. Some think that this model can help in reducing online tracking. A Reddit user supporting the initiative said, “Ad companies are not having trouble attributing campaigns. The problem is that small, uncoordinated “privacy” features cause Ad Tech companies to become far more aggressive in how they track users. It’s not the companies that lose here, it’s you.

A standardized, privacy-centric method for companies to accomplish attribution will help end the arms race and move back to a more consumer-friendly model. Small edges are worth a fortune in Ads. This is like the war on drugs. Clamping down and assuming ad companies will walk away is way too optimistic. Instead, they will move deeper into the shadows at whatever the cost.

Others think that it is not a browser’s responsibility to help online advertisement and should be on the users’ side. “I certainly have never wanted my browser to report ad click attribution,” another Redditor remarked.

Read the full announcement by Apple for more details.

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