Google Is Now Tracking Purchases At Physical Stores

Google, and third-party advertisers, know what's in your IRL shopping cart

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
May 24, 2017 at 1:32 PM ET

Google already often knows what you buy online, but now it wants to know what you buy at physical retail stores.

According to the Associated Press, the tech giant announced Tuesday that it’s updating its store visits tool (introduced in 2014) by allowing advertisers to track how much money people spend at brick-and-mortar stores after clicking on their digital ads — only to target those customers with more digital advertising.

Google said it has measured more than 5 billion store visits globally, and that people who click on search ads are 25 percent more likely to buy something at a physical retail store. Tracking will only be done on people who are logged into Google services on the web, and matched to their collective purchases on debit and credit cards. YouTube will be the first platform to use the tool, and advertisers will be able to track and measure how often videos ads correlate with retail purchases.

Since Google has access to about 70 percent of U.S. credit and debit card sales, it can match as clicks with this data and determine if online video ads are working. Tracking will only pick up collective purchases and money spent, according to Google — it won’t be able to examine individuals and specific products. However, experts say aggregated data can be converted back to data that can identify individuals and specific purchases.

One issue that might stem from this new tool is the attention from hackers. Miro Copic, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, told the Associated Press that “the privacy implications of this are pretty massive, so Google needs to tread very carefully.”

Google is not the first Internet company to track real-world spending. Facebook also has similar retail measurement features for advertisers, but has the upper hand with it being a social network. More people spend more time on social media where ads are easier to integrate with both desktop and mobile interfaces, whereas Google search ads work better in desktop browsers rather than mobile.

Google’s new store visits tool is also meant to keep away ad dollars from other competitors such as Amazon and Pinterest, which don’t offer store visit data, yet.