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Commentary: How blocking Ekam will be a self-goal for Google

By not allowing Ekam to measure content on its platforms, Google is not only thwarting India’s effort of having a transparent digital measurement system but is also gradually killing its own revenues. Advertisers today are concerned about brand safety and they’re unlikely to advertise on a platform that does not tell them on what content the ads are being played

One of the major reasons India is still struggling to put in place an independent digital measurement system is Google’s unwillingness to allow third-party content measurement on its platforms.

The global internet giant is fine with sharing the ad viewership data with Ekam, the upcoming digital measurement currency, but it does not want to tell advertisers on what platform their ad was seen or whether genuine users saw that ad or if the viewership was propelled through bots.

The reason being given by Google is that it does not collect and will not allow collecting user-level data, respecting the privacy of users. It believes that no one should know which user is watching what.

Because of this reluctance, Google is single-handedly thwarting the right of India’s advertising and media industry to have a transparent digital measurement system.

Also read: Commentary: Ekam stuck — is ISA hand in glove with Google and Nielsen?

The irony is that Google is currently undergoing a process of getting accreditation from the Media Rating Council for their ad metrics at a global level. But at the same time, it is refusing to give access to Ekam.

Ekam has proposed to collect viewership data using SDKs in YouTube, which is meant to collect data at the user-level. Google is saying it will allow the same in case of ads but not for content. This implies that Google is not averse to measuring user-level data, which they will do for advertisers, except for what content their ads are played on.

Impressions on ads are, in any case, measured and hence it will not make any difference in Ekam’s regime except that an advertiser will be able to know their ads’ performance metrics across platforms on one interface.

While all other platforms, including Facebook, seem to have largely agreed for integration of Ekam’s SDK in their content, Google is hiding behind the privacy wall.

Why Google’s defiance is likely to backfire

Google’s defiance in not sharing the content-level data is likely to have a wide-ranging impact, which could eventually hit its own ad revenue growth in India.

India’s digital advertising spend is currently pegged at over Rs 11,000 crore. A major chunk of this ad revenue goes to Google.

So in a scenario where advertisers are constantly worried about brand safety and want to associate with only a certain type of content, it becomes imminent for Google to tell brands where the ads are being displayed.

Advertisers such as Unilever and P&G have in the past red-flagged Google’s policy, and the latter even pulled out of YouTube for almost a year until April 2018 on the issue of brand safety. P&G even changed its YouTube strategy, which involved switching from “pretty broad distribution” on YouTube to advertising on “far fewer channels”, which meant that the FMCG giant cut the ad spend on YouTube.

From the Rs 11,000-crore digital advertising market in India, Google and Facebook command about 85% of the spends while Indian publishers get around 10-11%, which is about Rs 1,200 crore. The revenue is growing annually at over 40% as concerns around brand safety and transparency on Google and Facebook are increasing.

Google’s stand is that why should Ekam club two different things. If we are all in for ad, let’s do ad measurement. If you want to do content, do it without us. If Google doesn’t want to share content data, its ad revenue will eventually start shifting towards more transparent platforms. And, Ekam minus Google will hurt Google only.

Why is ISA toeing Google’s line?

What is strange is that the advertisers’ industry body, Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA), is perfectly fine with Google not sharing content-level data. Toeing Google’s line, the ISA wants Ekam to roll out with ad measurement and figure out ways for content measurement later. So if Google is not allowing content measurement now, there are slight chances it will let it happen in the future.

If P&G can put pressure by pulling off its ads from YouTube for some time and eventually make Google agree for a third-party audit on transparency, why is ISA not making Google fall in line?

Whose money is it and who is on the losing side? It is, of course, advertisers but why do they want to waste it without any third-party measurement and without understanding what each platform is delivering?

Google’s measurement is not independent nor is there any third party audit on the number it provides to the advertisers. Nobody knows what the actual page views or ad hits are. Currently, the industry goes by whatever number Google claims.

Another argument put forth by Google against allowing content measurement is that it is mostly of internal use for broadcasters as it allows them to know how their shows are. Hence, the content measurement will not help fight brand safety.

This is a flawed argument because, with the content rating, an advertiser will know which content did the ad play on and which content delivered better results. It will tell advertisers whether their ads were served on right kind of content.

As the social network depends more pre-roll and mid-roll ads to videos on its platform, marketers like P&G are mindful of whether those are videos they want to be associated with.

If Facebook, globally, has tools to let advertisers know which publishers’ videos their ads may appear on with options to block individual publishers, and it has an ad-buying programme that puts a velvet rope around some publishers whose videos Facebook considers to be brand safe, and it can allow Ekam to measure content, why cannot the industry ask Google to allow content measurement?

Ekam must be trusted

Currently, as it seems, privacy is a good excuse for Google to stay away from third-party measurement and say they can only allow collecting aggregate-level data.

Doesn’t Google collect a user’s movement information, whether he or she is going to a mosque or a temple? One will have to take aggregate data only from them and nobody else will be aggregating it. Do the industry stakeholders have audit rights to their aggregation? If they can collect individual-level data then why cannot anybody else? In fact, they are using it for advertising their own products and services, including search. Needless to say, Ekam will not use the data for this reason.

If Google is collecting user-level data and can keep it safe, it will have to trust a responsible third-party also, which is an industry body. So, it is not about not collecting private data. Now, it is becoming another issue of distrust. If everybody does not trust third-party, it will never happen.

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