Digital Publishing Guest Columns
5 mins read

Opinion: Google closing the Incognito loophole is an opportunity, not a disaster

desk with monitor and keyboard

TL;DR: Like seeking shelter from the rain under a bridge, building a business model around a loophole is not a long term strategy. Dealing with the aftermath of closing the Google Chrome’s Incognito mode loophole gives publishers the chance to embrace more user-centric models and engage directly with their audience in order to generate revenues from readers while also protecting their privacy.

There has been a lot of publicity over the past few months about Google’s much-publicized closing of a loophole in the company’s Chrome browser – specifically one that allows website owners to detect whether a visitor has enabled Chrome’s Incognito mode to view their site.

Many digital publishers claim this move undermines the industry’s efforts to prevent people from circumventing a publication’s paywall. Before the loophole was closed, publishers could determine if a visitor had Incognito enabled and effectively block them from viewing content on the site until they disabled the setting; now, they argue, visitors using Chrome can view a news site without that visit being counted towards their monthly allocation of free articles before the requirement to subscribe kicks in.

Google’s stance is very clear – closing the loophole is part of the company’s mission to improve user privacy. As Richard Gingras, Vice President of News at Google noted in a series of tweets, “Chrome is doing what it should do: protecting the privacy of Incognito users. This includes protecting against detection of Incognito use in and of itself — as the Internet privacy community appropriately insists on. Again, this was a privacy loophole: a bug, NOT a developer feature.“

While the publishing industry’s perspective is understandable, the vitriol – however eloquently phrased – that is being hurled at Google is, in my opinion, unwarranted. While it is accurate that the Incognito mode does enable visitors to potentially circumvent a paywall, it actually serves a far more common – and practical – purpose, namely avoiding ad tracking.

Ever since the advent of GDPR and the Cambridge Analytica scandals of 2018, we as a public have been made extremely conscious about how much of our information is available to websites – whether or not we wish it to be. That has, in turn, led the public to turn even further away from online advertising – why else is the publishing industry working so hard to explore other reader revenue streams to replace their rapidly declining advertising revenue? Chrome is hardly the only browser to recognize this – Opera’s built-in VPN, the Tor browser, and even Safari’s intelligent tracking prevention all serve a similar purpose.

Lesson 1: Users want their privacy. Most Incognito use is to avoid ad tracking, not paywalls.

I’m not suggesting that publishers ignore the negative impact altogether, but rather see this development as an opportunity to address the bigger truth it reveals, namely that metered paywalls are not working out in most cases – and they haven’t been for some time.

Remember – subscriptions and paywalls are not the same thing. A subscription is the sign of a visitor’s willingness as a loyal reader to regularly consume something they really like or really want. Paywalls, in contrast, are user-hostile, effectively punishing visitors who may well qualify as customers, forcing them to accept a subscription model or not allowing them to access the content they prefer. Paywalls represent a missed chance to establish and nurture value, intensifying a publication’s relationship with the user and, in the end, recruiting new subscribers.

If the closing of the Incognito loophole does threaten the future of paywalls, then it’s an opportunity for digital publishers to explore alternative reader monetization options that are more effective and user-centric.

Lesson 2: Consider this a blessing. If metered paywalls aren’t working out for you as a publisher, now is the time to figure out what will work.

Building a business based on a loophole is, of course, not a viable long-term solution. Rather, the focus for publishers should be on developing a strategy designed to build sustainable revenue. Some may resort to reducing the meter count on the paywall even further, or requiring mandatory registration before visitors can view the content. In our perspective, however, that’s a step backward. Instead publishers are going to have to ask users for more direct revenue – but it will have to be on the readers’ terms. As Gingras says: “Google provides extensive resources for publishers to grow reader revenue…That’s important. But not at the expense of privacy protection.”

What this comes down to is something that I have been advocating for some time – focusing on a business model that is user-centric, making the consumer of content the top priority. It is time to put convenience at the center and allow truly frictionless access to content, offering models that accurately reflect the user’s consumption behavior and preferences. I have previously compared this monetization model to a mango – and it is surprisingly accurate.

The mango analogy demonstrates how subscriptions provide an initial burst of revenue, but then begin to plateau, whereas low-friction models that offer users the choice as to how to consume – and purchase content – are slow to start but build over time as they continue to engage new customers, creating a sustainable, additional revenue stream. The choice of which low-friction model to employ will, of course, depend on the publication – and its audience. For some it might be charging for an ad-free viewing experience, or selling premium articles a-la-carte; for others it might be offering multi-tiered levels of payment depending on the age or type of content; for some it will be a combination of these and others.

Lesson 3: Ask readers for more direct revenue – but more on their terms.

Whatever the case, lamenting demise of what was only ever a temporary loophole serves the best interests of neither the publisher themselves or their readership. Instead, as Claudius Senst, head of consumer subscriptions at Business Insider put it: publishers should stop “playing cat-and-mouse games with readers determined to get around the constraints.” Engaging readers by offering them the content they value, in terms that are acceptable to them, will be key to longer-term profitability.

Cosmin Ene, founder and CEO, LaterPay

About: LaterPay’s “use now, pay later” approach empowers publishers to monetize the vast space that lives between ads and subscriptions and turn users into paying customers. Its patented technology enables micropayments without upfront registration, creating a running tab through which users can consume paid digital content and services with one or two clicks – a frictionless experience that turns traffic into transactions.

Download WNIP’s comprehensive report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

Photo by Niclas Illg on Unsplash