If cross-device tracking is a room, then Facebook and Google are the elephants – except Google is the only elephant that isn’t talking.
Facebook hasn’t been shy about its cross-device intentions. At the time of the Atlas acquisition in 2013, its ads product director, Gokul Rajaram, noted that Facebook’s goal is to “be able to measure cross-device insights” and “to be the best ad-serving platform on the Internet.”
Lately, the race to make this happen has accelerated. Facebook, it has been widely rumored but not yet publicly confirmed, will bake logged-in user ID into its rebuilt Atlas ad server. Some industry experts think this replaces the increasingly irrelevant cookie, allowing Facebook to track ads along the path to purchase, deduplicate impressions and perform other functions that allow for more consistent and reliable ad serving, campaign measurement and attribution of conversion.
The impact on media-buying practices could be large. Megan Pagliuca, VP and GM for digital media at Merkle Inc., wrote in a recent AdExchanger column. "To date, neither [Atlas nor DoubleClick Campaign Manager] has been strong in either mobile or cross-device capabilities but, as they integrate identity, they have the potential to provide long-awaited salvation from inaccurate measurement that has prevented budgets from moving to mobile and digital overall."
But a cross-platform measurement system is only as good as its reach, and sizing up the two rivals in terms of multidevice logins is a challenge.
During the Q2 2014 earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg let this drop: “Over 1 billion people use Facebook on their phones every month and more than 80% of the top apps on iOS and Android now use Facebook logins. So we think we’re in a great position to be the cross-platform platform that lets developers build apps across every platform.”
If we assume that every one of those 1 billion people are logged in across devices, then we’re talking about roughly 800 million users, although it’s likely the number is less than that, considering that not all mobile users also have access to a second screen.
Facebook’s desired position and objectives are clear. The question is: What about the other behemoth, Google?
A Google representative told AdExchanger, “We have nothing to say about cross-device at the moment.”
But with or without confirmation on how many logged-in users Google has across devices, it’s possible to hypothesize.
One industry source that spoke with AdExchanger estimated Google’s logged-in cross-device user count as somewhere between 600 million and 1.2 billion, a conclusion based on the numerical intersection between Android users, iOS users, the Google login rate of iOS users and the number of logged-in desktop users for Google products.
There’s quite a chasm within that range, but Google isn’t talking, and right now, that seems to be the best estimate out there.
Based on available information, Adelphic CEO Michael Collins told AdExchanger that he thought “600 million sounds realistic.” Collins speculated a bit further, noting that there might actually be two numbers to consider: the total sum of cross-device logged-in users Google could technically deliver and the amount of users it could deliver in a privacy compliant manner – potentially horses of very different colors.
“Those numbers are probably very different, and Google is very concerned about privacy and for good reason,” Collins said. “But from a technical standpoint, I’d say the first number is probably much bigger.”
Collins also made the point that even for players with significant logged-in user data like Facebook and Google, linking deterministic IDs isn’t the only name in the game. “If Google is also doing probabilistic, then getting to 1.2 billion is feasible.”
The last time Google released stats on its Gmail users was 2012, when it claimed to have 425 million active users, a number that could only have gone up since then, especially considering growing Android penetration. According to IDC, Android has almost 85% of smartphone market share worldwide, and in its Q2 2014 earnings call, Google bragged that there are now 1 billion active Android users.
Although Android users don’t have to register their phones with a Gmail address in order to use them, it’s fairly difficult to get around that step. (Note: It’s possible to de-Google your Android device if you purposely don’t sign in at setup, refuse to enable backups and either root your phone – in other words, gain root access to the Android OS and remove all Google apps – or find likely alternatives for each Google offering, such as MapQuest rather than Google Maps, Yahoo Mail rather than Gmail, Firefox or Opera rather than Chrome, etc.)
One estimate shared with AdExchanger by an industry expert clocked logged-in Google users at somewhere between 30% and 40% on Apple’s iOS, although that number could be higher since Google changed its policy several months ago to make it so that when a user signs into one Google app, that person is effectively signed into all Google apps.
As of last year, Google had 540 million active 30-day Google Plus users, meaning that at some point each month, each one of those users tapped into a socially enhanced piece of Google Plus. And research released by comScore in mid-August ranked six Google app offerings in its list of the top 25 apps by unique viewers: YouTube (#2 right behind Facebook at 83.4 million users); Google Play (#3 at 72.2 million users); Google Search (#4 at 70.2 million users); Google Maps (#6 at 64.5 million users); Gmail (#7 at 60.3 million users); and Google Plus (#16 at 28.8 million).
But no word from Google on how it plans, if at all, to use that data for cross-device measurement.
“Maybe they’re holding back and learning,” said Kim Glaser, director of product at Run. “Google is good at learning what other companies are doing, seeing the chinks in their armor and building something stronger than that.”
Likely, the question is not if Google will come out with a cross-device solution, but when, said Surag Patel, VP of global product management and marketing at Experian company 41st Parameter.
What’s also fairly certain is that Google, when it does release a cross-device offering, isn’t going to go off half-cocked.
“Google is in a very powerful position and they have a lot of data, but any solution they put out is going to be very highly critiqued,” Patel said. “Google is being overly careful, as they should be. Their approach is most likely being very carefully vetted against what can be done from a privacy perspective.”