Criteo launches cookies in iOS, but mobile dominance may be more elusive

By James Robinson , written on April 29, 2014

From The News Desk

Paris-based Criteo was an early pioneer in retargeted advertising on the desktop Web. But there’s a different market to conquer in 2014. Today, more than half of the time spent online now occurs via mobile devices. Safari accounts for roughly twice as much mobile Web traffic as Android devices, but has thus far automatically disabled third-party cookies used to help track our browsing behavior. Like others, I’ve question in the past whether mobile advertising means we are entering a post-cookie world.

Today, Criteo has announced the launch of third party cookies for iOS, which it sees as the final piece in reinventing its traditional retargeting services for a mobile browsing environment.

As Criteo’s Chief Product Officer Jonathan Wolf tells me, not being able to deliver personalized ads on iPhone and iPad has been a major blind spot for the company, which went public at the end of 2013 and today has a $1.7 billion market cap.

Criteo launched in-app advertising in January, but Wolf says that the mobile browsing environment remains most crucial for retail advertisers. Major retailers are starting to build branded apps, but the company’s clients aren’t seeing a huge amount of purchases there, instead witnessing a corresponding spike in buying on the mobile browser. “The vast majority of retail spend is still happening there,” he says. In the US at least, the average iPhone user is older and wealthier, making these browsers an important part of the online retail equation.

The browser is the priority. Wolf is outright skeptical of stats that put us spending well over 80 percent of our time inside apps. “These stats include things like games, which shouldn’t necessarily be measured against usage of the browser. Playing Xbox never counted against computer use,” he says. The mobile browsing experience could definitely be improved, he concedes, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re just not buying things inside our apps as much as some data suggests.

Criteo built this new iOS technology from scratch and then put in safeguards to make sure it was transparent to mobile Web users in how it would be tracking them. “We’re showing off our European roots here,” Wolf laughs. Criteo’s advertisers will install this new technology on their websites and when browsers come across these pages they will be given two chances to opt out of being tracked by third party cookies.

Given the very real fixations upon privacy and concerns about mobile surveillance, Criteo almost risk making it too easy to opt out. They’re bringing third-party cookies to iOS with the sorts of opt-out features for browsers that have always hailed as an ideal scenario, but have hardly ever being implemented. It’s possibly mean-spirited to knock someone for being too transparent, but the two-screen approval risks bouncing users from the site before they’ve started and it is also a show of goodwill that potentially handicaps them against competition.

Launching cookies in iOS, alongside Criteo’s new in-app ads, allows the company for the first time to have a complete picture of all of our behavior inside of one particular gadget. It is still siloed information, but it is better than it had before. It gives Criteo all the tools it needs in the mobile realm, which Wolf says recently was responsible for only a fraction of company revenue.

“It solves the problems of this huge shift. Many of our clients already are, or are about to, see traditional desktop sales decline with this massive shift to mobile,” Wolf says.

Criteo remains a desktop retargeting giant and today’s news serves an important function in situating the company to translate that desktop dominance onto mobile. The risk for the company here is whether it is too focused on trying to replicate exactly its success from one platform onto the other.

Since Criteo first launched, retargeted advertising has gone from being the cutting edge to seen as somewhat of a brute force. It's often creepy to follow people around the Internet with something they might’ve looked at once. On mobile, Criteo comes up against other big adtech companies who’re developing other solutions that combine retargeting and other more sophisticated audience targeting methods.

Cracking the retargeting puzzle on iOS is a big part of winning the mobile advertising wars, but runaway success for Criteo just isn’t that simple anymore.

[image adapted from thinkstock]