Advertising Guest Columns
4 mins read

The anonymous web: How publishers can identify anonymous website visitors

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Digital publishers are being haunted. They’re being haunted by the prospect of “ghost” web users who surf onto their sites and leave no trace. Without being able to verify visitors on the anonymous web, publishers will lose an important source of audience data that allows them to programmatically sell hyper-relevant advertising inventory to brands.

This “horror show” has come about in part because of the phase-out of third-party cookies (recently delayed). Privacy regulations such as GDPR and CCPA, as well as growing awareness amongst web users, have made privacy a top priority for companies that operate internet browsers. As a result, third-party cookies are being banned or severely restricted from all major browsers.

For similar reasons, smartphone providers are beefing up privacy controls around their Mobile Device IDs, which help verify users as they move between apps and online. In recent changes to its iOS, for instance, Apple has made its Identifier for Advertisers opt-in when formerly it was opt-out. This move has slashed opt-in rates to between 4% and 38%, depending on which statistics you read. iPhone users have effectively fallen off publishers’ radars.

Further exacerbating these challenges is the fact that the use of “fingerprinting” in browsers is also being curtailed. This approach tries to build a picture of a web or app user based on their digital fingerprint, markers like a devices’ browser version, language setting and IP address. However, browser companies including Apple, Google and Mozilla are now targeting device fingerprinting as a privacy-invasive practice that they plan to eradicate. Another window onto the web has slammed shut.

Large walled gardens such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have much less to fear. These sites can continue to leverage their first-party data from user logins to verify visitors to their sites, meaning they will continue to have monetizable data to fuel the programmatic advertising industry. They are also looking at new, privacy-first ways in which they can gather user data – such as Google’s Privacy Sandbox.

For most publishers, such innovations may in time help them verify users within their partners’ advertising stacks, but it will still leave them haunted by ghosts visiting from the open web. And as every lost user diminishes the value of their advertising proposition this is an issue that publishers will be keen to solve fast.  

To put flesh back on the bones of the internet’s ghosts, publishers need to find a privacy-first replacement to third-party cookies, Mobile Device IDs and fingerprinting solutions that allows them to verify anonymous website visitors, everywhere. Such a replacement will require the whole ad tech ecosystem coming together to create a solution that works for all.

One important element of this solution will be an ID to join the dots of user activity to create a 360-degree view of both ghost and authenticated audiences without transacting any Personally Identifiable Information (PII). How can this be done?

Part of the answer lies in publishers’ own first-party data – the information publishers collect directly from their customers. Publishers can use this information to generate their own identifiers for users on their site(s). However, they then need to be able to link these identifiers with the “ghost” users on the open web. This isn’t something publishers can do alone, but by teaming up with telcos there is a promising way forward.

This is because telcos have a complete and cross-device view of all their subscribers’ network activity – a view that’s protected behind the highest levels of security available anywhere. All’s that’s needed is for publishers to tokenize and pseudonymize their first-party identifiers and then send them to telcos to verify whether the identifiers belong to certain ghost users or not.

The approach ensures consistent recognition of the same user for consented first-party profiling and accurate analytics. Once again, publishers will be able to access the full holistic view of audiences to match them with the right inventory.

Beyond “ghost-busting” telco-verified identifiers offer publishers with a path to monetize future offerings. As the verification takes place on the telco partner’s network, it is available wherever a digital interaction occurs. That means the ID will be able to verify users on other digital services such as connected TV offerings and audio/visual streaming and download sites.

Third-party cookies and other trackers may well be on the way out, but that doesn’t mean publishers need miss out. By focusing on their first-party data and leveraging new telco partnerships for verification, ghosts can be made whole again.

Tanya Field
Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer, Novatiq

Novatiq is dedicated to creating advertising as a service, not an interruption. It provides privacy-first identity solutions that enable telcos, brands and publishers to reach their audiences at scale, safely and securely, overcoming the challenges of the anonymized web. Novatiq is the only company within the advertising industry to offer first-party customer intelligence from telco operators, enabling the creation of cross-device profiles to verify and engage what would otherwise be ‘ghost’ users. Its patented Fusion platform provides consented first-party audience validation, creation, and activation in all digital advertising environments. This new approach to consented IDs puts privacy first, improves user experience, drives better campaign performance, and enables a new generation of personalized digital services. For further information, visit