Google’s Latest Measurement Restrictions Will Make Life Harder for Mobile Marketers

Changes significantly restrict third-party verification for iOS search downloads

The latest restrictions pose potential disruption in what is now a $64 billion sector. - Credit by Sources: Google, Getty Images
Headshot of Ronan Shields

Amid heightened pressure to meet public demand for data privacy, Google has quietly gone about implementing further restrictions within its vast marketing ecosystem. And this time, mobile app marketers will feel the pinch.

The online advertising giant will start implementing changes this month to Google App Campaigns (formerly known as Universal App Campaigns) within its Google Ads platform that make it significantly harder to independently track conversions. Sources say these changes were implemented late this week, and tangible results expected to emerge this week.

The adjustment to the search-to-app install offering within Google Ads makes it more difficult to establish a link between search traffic and downloads of iOS apps. And given the context of the move–Google has announced it’s withdrawing support for third-party cookies within its Chrome web browser by 2022–advertisers are concerned more is to come.

“Third party measurement is incredibly important to our advertisers and we are committed to helping app marketers evaluate campaign performance,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to Adweek after this story published. “App advertisers can choose from seven certified App Attribution Partners that are able to measure attribution for App campaigns, as well as track conversions on the vast majority of inventory.”

AAPs cut off from iOS search performance data

The new restrictions mean iOS app installs that were driven by search traffic on Apple devices can no longer be reported by third parties. As a result, advertisers that want to promote an app will no longer be able to use an app attribution provider, or AAP, to verify which source of mobile search traffic generated a return on investment.

Effectively, advertisers will now have to trust the reporting within the Google Ads platform (formerly known as Google AdWords), according to sources. The Google Ads platform helps advertisers purchase inventory across Google’s owned and operated properties. It is worth noting that third-party verification of app downloads driven by in-app inventory from sources such as the Google Display Network and YouTube is still available.

However, sources note that depreciating iOS conversion data—i.e., what search traffic drove an app download—poses a significant challenge. Several sources noted that such traffic is key to driving campaign KPIs.

Some estimate it could depreciate campaign result visibility by more than 50%. “Search is by far the dominant source of high-performance traffic,” said one source, who requested anonymity because of their employer’s PR policy.

Google began notifying its AAPs of the restrictions in July, telling them it will now use machine learning to attribute app installs and ad interactions via a browser and that some of these attributions will be “modeled,” meaning third-party verification isn’t possible.

According to Google, the changes mean app ads will show up on more searches by iOS device users and lead to improved campaign performance. Previously, Google only served ads and reported app installs from searches by iOS device users who were logged in to its mobile browser.

This was only a fraction of the total installs driven by such campaigns, and matching additional conversions would have required fingerprinting, a means of tracking that Google vociferously opposes.

Android not affected

However, critics of the updated policy assert that this is yet another case of a “walled garden” provider marking its own homework when it comes to campaign performance.

The changes will not affect conversion reporting for search ads on Android devices, but sources who requested anonymity for fear of professional retribution voiced concerns that it is just the tip of the iceberg.

In an email to Adweek, Mark Kellogg, head of product operations at Google AAP outfit Kochava, described how the latest restrictions reduce marketers’ ability to intelligently spend their ad budgets.

“The shift by Google to restrict visibility into data attribution comes at a cost to the entire ecosystem, especially to marketers,” Kellogg said. “Understanding where our data is coming from and what to do with it is crucial to helping brands grow and measure the performance of their ad spend and ultimately grow their user base.”

Dissension in the ranks, but few willing to speak up

Some assert this is a case of Google using the cloak of privacy to further its dominance of online ad spend, so much so that several sources were reluctant to voice their concerns about Google on the record.

Others worry that even further restrictions are on the horizon for mobile app marketers as iOS provider Apple likewise restricts marketers’ access to data.

In a joint statement issued last week after Google announced its policy on third-party cookies, the 4A’s and the ANA expressed “disappointment” at Google’s “unilateral” approach to making major policy decisions. A spokesman for the two bodies declined to comment on Google’s latest move.

One senior executive from a performance-based mobile agency, who requested anonymity given the negotiation power of Google as an ad inventory supplier, told Adweek the latest measures are likely to affect brand spend, more so than outfits that pay per outcome.

Meanwhile, Matt Barash, head of strategy and business development at AdColony, told Adweek such developments will affect performance advertisers by prompting them to find “new creative strategies.”

“It won’t dissolve the entire attribution funnel, but it could prompt, near term, some consolidation across AAP partners as digital becomes more bifurcated,” Barash said.

Prompted by privacy?

Google has in the past asserted that user privacy is the core reason it has adopted machine learning to measure the effectiveness of advertising, though advertisers have been adamant in their continued calls for third-party verification.

There were 12.3 billion app downloads in the U.S. in 2019, according to research from App Annie. Marketers in finance, gaming, retail, streaming and social media are the ones that make the most use of mobile apps.

Meanwhile, AppsFlyer—an AAP that announced earlier this week $210 million in Series D funding, valuing the company at $1.6 billion—forecasts that total mobile app install ad spend will top $64 billion this year.

Specifically, marketers in North America are forecast to spend almost $13 billion to bolster their app install rates. “While both the ad spend and install growth rates maintain the same ratio through 2020, marketers will have to be increasingly efficient in their marketing efforts amid rising media costs,” according to AppsFlyer.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from Google.


@ronan_shields ronan.shields@adweek.com Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.