Google to Close Incognito Loophole; Publishers Scrambling to Protect Paywalls

Paywall strategies are becoming more popular and effective, as publishers figure out how to monetize their content without relying so heavily on digital ad revenue. Good on them.

Now though, they face a big challenge.

Google is about to close a loophole in its Chrome browser that allows publishers to see when a reader is browsing incognito. This functionality is important for paywall strategies; if they can’t tell a reader is using a private browser, they can’t track how many free articles they’ve already been served. And limiting the number of free articles is an important part of most publishers’ paywall strategies.

“Google is closing a loophole that revealed when people were browsing in ‘incognito’ mode, but the fix will leave some publishers defenseless against a certain breed of freeloading readers who can now jump their paywalls,” writes Garett Sloane in Ad Age.

“This will affect some publishers who have used the loophole to deter metered paywall circumvention,” said Google’s Barb Palser, who announced the fix will happen by the end of this month.

“While a small tweak, this latest move by Google is just another in a long line of updates that provide more anonymity to users but also impact the way publishers do business,” Sloane notes.

Privacy is increasingly important to consumers and quite rare in this age of digital gangsters. Anonymous browsing helps maintain user privacy by not recording cookies or site visits. It’s totally understandable why people might choose to go this route.

Yet Sloane notes that simply using a private browser doesn’t stop data from being collected, and possibly connected back to the user.

“Here’s how it works: A person fires up a private browser session in Chrome. On websites that run ads from Google’s online ad marketplace, anonymized cookies are dropped on the browsers associated with the user,” Sloane explains in a previous article. “If the same person logs into a Google service like Gmail or YouTube, the act of signing into Google makes it possible to connect the earlier web activity to the now identified user. (Unless, that is, the cookies expired or were manually deleted by the user.)”

So it’s not perfect …. but it does provide users an easy way around metered paywalls. If a publisher can’t tell that you’ve already been served your free articles for this month, they can’t block you from accessing more.

According to Claudius Senst, who heads consumer subscriptions at Business Insider, this may force publishers to rethink their paywall strategies.

“The change won’t affect Business Insider’s paywall, Senst says, because the site doesn’t have a meter on the number of articles a visitor can read. It puts a paywall only on select stories it makes available exclusively to readers with Business Insider Prime memberships, which cost $99 a year,” Sloane notes.

In fact, Senst says he applauds readers who find creative ways around their paywall. It means they are interested and engaged, and that’s one step closer to a subscription.

Other publishers may not feel the same, especially if it means retooling the paywalls they have in place. For readers, it means we can expect to see the sign-up funnel on our favorite sites evolving.

Technology never stands still, and neither do the people who use it. Publishers are running fast to stay one step ahead of (or at least jump onto) this latest train.