How iOS 14 Impacted Google Ads in 2021

In case you are new to digital marketing; or you have been living in a cave for the past year; or maybe you’re just trying to understand what is happening with your tracking, we hope to demystify the issue with conversion tracking. Apple’s release of iOS 14 came with limited tracking visibility into Safari browser and forced iOS apps to ask permission from users for various tracking capabilities. In addition, Facebook updated its platform to allow a maximum (and default) attribution window of “7-day click-through / 1-day view-through” for tracking. (link) These two acts of self-imposed regulation launched online advertising into a new paradigm, limiting visibility into data and performance for a very significant portion of the digital marketing landscape.


If all of this sounds like “garbally gook” or “technical jargon,” we wouldn’t blame you. You might be wondering what the big deal is. Or why can’t the data nerds be left to worry about it. Why do sellers need to stay up on how big tech is rolling back conversion tracking data? 


Media budgets rely on the use of data to inform digital advertising performance. For the past few years, big tech has spoiled us in our ability to track and analyze data to see where sales were coming from. Now they are limiting that visibility we once enjoyed. Those days will likely never return, at least not in the same way, whereby big tech platforms readily supply marketers with that data. Digital marketing teams will now have to take matters into their own hands, to understand the best allocation of media and marketing dollars.


This article aims to address two questions:

  • How iOS updates affected Google Ads?
  • What can merchants do to help interpret data in a post iOS 14.5 world?

iOS 14 — Why Did Apple Take This Step?


For most Apple users, iOS updates have historically been relatively mundane. Updates usually included security improvements, updated aesthetics, bug fixes, and so on. iOS 14 was a different story, with the updates being noticeable for users and advertisers alike.


What was different about iOS 14 as compared to previous updates? According to Apple, the goal of their iOS 14 updates was to “improve user transparency and control over how apps access your location, photos, microphone, and camera”. Through this update, Apple is addressing a chief concern that a majority of the population have been expressing - a lack of privacy in terms of their data, and who has access to that data.


How significant of any issue is privacy for the general population? According to Pew Research polls, privacy is a major concern for many Americans:

​​

Ponder those results for a bit. A whopping 81% of Americans expressed concern about the fact that they have little to no control over the data that companies collect. Another 81% said that they felt that the risks of these companies collecting their data outweighed the benefits. 79% said that they are concerned about how the data is being used, and 59% expressed concern about their lack of knowledge in terms of how companies are using their data. 


Axios polls revealed similar concerns among the population. Most poll respondents (78%) said they feel they are targeted in online ads based on their web activity. And 50% said they think they're targeted for online ads based on their offline conversations. While it is unquestionably a good thing for both users and advertisers to have ads that a user receives be more relevant to the user’s interests; most users do not like to feel like they are being watched and tracked at all times. The problem is not the ads, the problem is the lack of control of what happens with their data.


Apple took a major step in addressing these concerns with its iOS update. So, what did Apple actually change to improve privacy?


iOS 14 - The Most Significant Changes


Apple’s iOS update included several significant components centered around privacy and transparency. Let’s start with the big one.


App Tracking Transparency 

App Tracking Transparency lets the user control which apps are allowed to track your activity across other companies' apps and websites for ads or sharing with data brokers. While the name may not ring a bell, all Apple users are likely familiar with this pop-up whenever logging into an app after iOS 14:

If you choose Ask App Not to Track, the app developer can’t access the system advertising identifier (IDFA), which is often used to track. The app is also not permitted to track your activity using other information that identifies you or your device, like your email address.


As you can imagine, many users are now opting to not share their data. According to data from Flurry Analytics, the overwhelming majority of US users chose to not share their data with apps - with opt-in rates as low as 6%. This shook up advertising in a very significant way, across Google and Facebook alike - causing significant declines in performance from advertising. Why was this the case? Advertising platforms build “segments” of users based on their behavior across the web. If a user were to engage with apps about dogs; visit websites about dogs; and watch videos online about how to train their dog - the advertising platform can be reasonably certain that that user would fit nicely into the “Dog Lovers” or “Dog Owners” audience. Now, let’s say that the advertising platform can only see 4% of those web/app interactions. The amount of confidence that it now has that the user fits into the “Dog Owner” audience is quite a bit lower, meaning advertisers aren’t able to serve their ads to the most relevant audience.


App privacy details on the App Store

In the App Store, on each app’s product page, users can learn about some of the data types the app may collect, and whether that data is linked to them or used to track them.

This enhanced transparency gives the user greater confidence, and addresses the concern from the poll mentioned earlier in this article, “59% expressed concern about their lack of knowledge in terms of how companies are using their data”. Users now have more knowledge about the types of data an app wants to track, which informs their decision to not only download the app, but to opt-in or to not opt-in to tracking.


Additional Privacy Controls 

In addition to the above shakeups to privacy and transparency, Apple has also made some of the following updates:

  • A recording indicator is now displayed whenever an app has access to the microphone or camera - addressing the concern of “​​50% said they think they're targeted for online ads based on their offline conversations” - whether this was truly happening or not.
  • Approximate location can now be shared with an app, rather than sharing your precise location
  • Limited Photos library access gives you the option to share only selected photos with an app whenever an app asks for access
  • App and web developers can now offer the option for you to upgrade your existing accounts to Sign in with Apple

iOS 14 — What Was The Impact on Google Ads?


Impact on Reporting

If a user doesn’t want to offer their activity and behavior information to an app (we will use Duolingo, the language-learning app, as an example), they will opt-out of tracking which, as we saw earlier in this article, is the vast majority of users. Let’s say that the user rejected tracking, continued into the app to polish up their Spanish skills, clicked on an ad that they received after their lesson, and then proceeded to buy the product. Because they rejected tracking in the first place, the conversion event isn’t linked back to the campaign that served the ad. As a result, your campaign’s performance will not look as good as it could, not because it is seeing poor performance, but because conversions are not being properly attributed to the campaign. A campaign that previously would have gotten 10 conversions per week may then see this decline to 3 or 4, depending on the opt-in rate for tracking. This leads to the issue of optimizing campaigns on incomplete data. A Google advertiser might end up pausing or reducing the budget of a campaign that is performing really well in actuality because they aren’t seeing over half of the conversion events that came through.


As a result of the problem of “missing data” - the use of third-party tracking tools grew in importance as a means of “triangulating” the advertising data. Relying solely on Google Ads for performance reporting is no longer as reliable as it previously was, so we encourage businesses to explore 3rd party tracking tools such as Northbeam, Glew, Wicked Reports or Rockerbox


Impact on Performance

For the most part, Search Campaigns seemed to be unaffected by the iOS 14 update. This makes sense, as these campaigns target keywords, rather than a user based on their interests and affinities. At OMG Commerce, we saw Search Campaigns see the same conversion rates after iOS 14 as they did before iOS 14.


Shopping Campaigns saw more significant decreases in performance, in part due to their ability to show on the Display Network (seen below). Due to more limited tracking, the ability for Shopping Ads to perform well on the Display Network declined, with conversion rates declining by 30% on those platforms for Standard Shopping campaigns. Conversion rates for Shopping campaigns that showed in Google Search remained unchanged.


Display and Discovery campaigns seemed to be relatively unaffected, for most of our accounts - due to proactive planning and adjustments along the way to maximize performance. YouTube campaigns saw decreased performance for Top of Funnel targeting, while Remarketing saw similar performance pre and post iOS 14.


iOS 14 and Beyond - Solutions for Businesses


While Google Ads saw some slight hiccups as a result of the iOS 14 update, Google seems to have emerged relatively unscathed, unlike platforms such as Facebook.


If you are looking to get started with Google Ads, Search Campaigns and Shopping campaigns limited to the Search Network (excluding Display Network and YouTube from your campaign settings) should perform just as well as they always have. Display, Discovery, and YouTube remarketing campaigns continue to perform well, while Top of Funnel campaigns may see mixed performance, depending on your audience and the type of targeting you are looking to utilize.


We strongly encourage you to consider utilizing a third-party tracking platform to ensure that each advertising channel is getting the credit that it deserves (not too much, and not too little). We see these tools as one added set of information, to be used alongside Google Analytics and in platform data (the data in your Google Ads or Facebook account). Through triangulation of the data found in these tools, a merchant can begin to analyze performance. And can make an informed decision on where to shift media and marketing dollars. As of the writing of this article, our recommendation is Northbeam.io and Glew, due to its user-friendly interface and accurate reporting, which our clients have been very pleased with to this point.


Additionally, the change in availability of third-party data due to iOS 14 means that it is more important than ever to have strong first-party data. We suggest that businesses gather as much data as possible through social media, their websites, email campaigns, surveys, and more. As you gather first-party data, you can use this to construct Similar-To Audiences and Customer Lists.


All of these updates can be daunting for any business owner. OMG Commerce was able to navigate through iOS 14 without significant decreases in performance due to an emphasis on planning, communication, and constant improvement. To learn how OMG Commerce can help your business navigate through the current environment, click “Let’s Talk!” in our navigation. Good luck in 2022!


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not represent OMG Commerce as a whole.


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