• Just when publishers thought they were getting the hang of this new digital world, Google changed the rules again.

    At the end of July, the tech giant issued version 76 of its Chrome browser, which currently enjoys two-thirds of the browser market. The new version makes Incognito mode invisible again, taking away a capability that allowed publishers to offer metered paywalls for their content.

    Google’s position: if a user wants to be invisible, they should be able to stay invisible.

    Incognito versus metered paywalls

    The Incognito mode is mostly known as the preferred way for users to visit sites when they don’t want to leave cookie trails. But, as it turns out, it can also be used on many publisher sites where there is a “metered paywall.”

    A metered or soft paywall lets a visitor see a set number of pages for free each month, after which the “hard” paywall blocks additional views until the visitor subscribes. The number of visits is tracked in the visitor’s cookie. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post are among the publications that employ a metered paywall.

    By using Incognito mode, visitors’ cookies aren’t available for reading or writing, and thus the publication can’t tell how many times that visitor has been to the site. For many metered paywalls, this means the visitor can view that publication’s content an unlimited number of times.

    To prevent that, publications with metered paywalls have been able to detect when a visitor came in using Incognito mode, and could throw up a hard paywall that required a subscription.

    Now, that’s no longer possible if the user is employing Chrome in Incognito mode.

    “Spy vs. Spy”

    Andrew Frank, VP at Gartner Research, told RampUp, “this kind of arms race between visitors, publishers, and browser makers resembles Mad Magazine’s comic strip ‘Spy vs. Spy,’ where every move by one side is diabolically countered by the other.” Except that, instead of being humorously futile as in the comic, the current tit-for-tat is creating what Frank described as “an adverse environment for publishers.”

    Given Chrome’s market share, publishers now appear to have only two options: free content supported primarily by ads, which is a tenuous business model at best, or hard paywalls that require all visitors to subscribe. No more soft paywalls, where visitors get a certain number of views each month before the hard paywall pops up.

    One major consequence of Google’s action, Frank said, is that Facebook is now more appealing to publishers.

    This fall, the social networking giant is rolling out a news tab inside its network, where publishers do not have to pay a share of subscriptions—at least for now.

    Tiered access, free registration

    Additionally, Facebook can handle the authentication and view-tracking within its network to determine whether a given user has reached the limit of, say, five views this month for a given publication. If publishers can’t offer a meter paywall on the open web, they could offer one within Facebook, Frank pointed out.

    He suggested that a longer-term solution could be a universal log-in run by an industry group or an accepted third-party. The global log-in, in fact, is a possible identity solution that the IAB Tech Lab’s working group on IDs has been exploring since January.

    Otherwise, he said, the only other option to a hard paywall or an ads-only model is a tiered access starting with free registration, where a user might register for free to get a certain amount of views per month—as long as there is a confirmation link sent to the registered email address to avoid fake addresses—and then pay after that.

    Google has suggested free registration as one possible solution, Danielle Coffrey, SVP for strategic initiatives, News Media Alliance, pointed out. This would mean publishers would need to have everyone registered, she said, and “it’s not something we’re interested in doing.” Her organization represents about 2,000 news organizations.

    Cable TV model

    An obvious reason against this, she pointed out, is that required registration, even a free one, “would hurt ad impressions” because it would lower the number of visitors.

    Frank also proposed another model that online publishers could emulate: cable TV.

    An Internet Service Provider (ISP) like AT&T or Verizon, he said, could become “a sort of cable system for publishers,” where a single fee paid to the ISP gives access to a broad range of publishers. This could overcome the fact that “paywalls work well for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but not as well for smaller publishers,” just as some cable networks do better than others when subscription is required.

    If Google doesn’t revise its fix in Version 76, advertisers will probably shy away from any metered paywalls. That’s because they would have little or no information on the visitors or even the numbers of visitors to whom they are advertising, since millions might hide in Incognito mode.

    If Incognito remains invisible, all data in metered paywall publications “becomes suspect,” Frank pointed out, resulting in depressed prices for inventory.

    ‘More generous meters’

    In addition to free registration or hard paywalls, Google has also suggested reducing the number of free articles someone can view before logging in, although it’s difficult to see how publishers can do that without cookie tracking of the free articles.

    Or, the tech giant says, some publishers could offer more generous meters as a way to develop affinity among potential subscribers, recognizing some people will always look for workarounds. In other words, relax about the number of free pages viewed and just assume some visitors will be invisible.

    In any case, Google says, publishers should “monitor the effect […] before taking reactive measures, since any impact on user behavior may be different than expected and any change in meter strategy will impact all users, not just those using Incognito mode.”

    ‘Biting the bullet’

    The real solution, said Philip Smolin, Chief Strategy Officer at ad platform Amobee, is “biting the bullet and finally retraining consumers to understand that good content isn’t free.”

    “Until publishers give consumers the opportunity to pay for content or opt in to a respectful advertising experience,” he noted, “problems like these are going to keep occurring.”

    The News Media Alliance’s Coffrey said her organization’s members are working on a technological solution, although any detection that a visitor is in Incognito mode would probably again be countered by Google in this “Spy vs. Spy” struggle.

    At the same time, she said, the Alliance is also asking Google to reinstate Incognito’s visibility, but only when it encounters a metered paywall.

    Amanda Martin, VP of Enterprise Partnerships at programmatic services marketing agency, Goodway Group, suggested that this exception for metered paywalls “might be a hard sell.” It’s more likely publishers will go full paywall, or full ads, she said. It’s difficult to tell at the moment, though, since version 76 was only released a few weeks ago.

    It’s yet another situation where publishers are “being pushed into a corner,” she added.

    Amanda Martin is speaking at RampUp New York on using people-based identifiers in the programmatic bidstream, improving customer experiences across the open internet. Register now so you don’t miss out!

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