Google’s release last week of the Chrome 76 browser, which addresses privacy concerns yet could potentially unlock metered paywalls, has some publishers re-evaluating subscription strategies. The metered paywall remains the predominant subscription model in the Americas. 

According to an international survey of 18 prominent news publishers conducted last week by INMA, the Chrome 76 browser and its implications raise questions about paywall revenue models and further complicate publisher relationships with Google.   

What the change is about

One of the new features of Chrome 76 will make incognito browsing undetectable to media Web sites by blocking the ability to read or write cookies on a device. This makes it impossible to know which visitors: 

  • Are paying subscribers (as long as they don’t log in).
  • Are visiting in Incognito Mode. 
  • Have reached their monthly quota of free articles. 

The change primarily affects soft, metered paywalls, which are already leaky. As one European media executive told us: “As we have the freemium model, I do not expect significant impact on our subscription base. However, Chrome 76 may slow down the growth in the short term while we learn to understand the impact and adapt to it.” 

The development has a geographically disproportionate impact as the meter remains the primary paywall model for North American and Latin American publishers.  Metered paywalls represent one-third of all publisher paywalls. (The underlying research revealed what is metered and deducted from that that all meters could be unlocked, but it did not check what will actually be unlocked.)

Google Chrome accounts for 70% of the global desktop Internet browser market, according to Statista. Desktop represents 42% of a typical publisher’s traffic, according to Chartbeat.

Incognito browsing of paywalled content is already blocked on some U.S. news media Web sites, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and The Dallas Morning News. But with this change, the codes used to detect Incognito Mode will be rendered useless, making it possible to bypass soft paywalls.

The challenge posed by the Incognito Mode in Chrome is one of many ways users can bypass soft paywalls. In the INMA members-only newsletter on reader revenue, we covered the research documenting high success rates for deleting cookies (or using reader modes in browsers). 

Google’s response

Google says publishers that block incognito browsing are taking advantage of an unintended loophole. On its blog, Barb Palser, Google’s partner development manager/news and Web partnerships, wrote: “With the release of Chrome 76 … the behaviour of the FileSystem API will be modified to remedy this method of Incognito Mode detection. Chrome will likewise work to remedy any other current or future means of Incognito Mode detection.” 

Google is telling news organisations that one way to get around its “remedy” is to require all readers to become registered users. Said Palser: “Sites that wish to deter meter circumvention have options such as reducing the number of free articles someone can view before logging in, requiring free registration to view any content, or hardening their paywalls. Other sites offer more generous meters as a way to develop affinity among potential subscribers, recognising some people will always look for workarounds. We suggest publishers monitor the effect of the FileSystem API change before taking reactive measures since any impact on user behaviour may be different than expected and any change in meter strategy will impact all users, not just those using Incognito Mode.”

Publisher economics: pros and cons

To some in the news industry, this supports fast-rising registration models and is well-timed for Google given privacy concerns. Google posits that registering and logging in users is the correct business practice for advertisers and will benefit the subscription business of publishers since they would be able to provide more detailed analytics and more precise funnel activities. 

Yet not all publishers are ready for such a drastic move, which they believe could profoundly impact reach, revenue, and quality journalism. 

A senior U.S. media group executive told INMA that many North American news publishers rely on anonymous users numbering in the millions and questions whether this is the right time to force their hands with the registration card. Some hope to sit at the table with Google to brainstorm a way forward with publishers that avoids unilateral moves that are so potentially disruptive. Some are experimenting with new paywall models. And some are considering using “Subscribe with Google.”

But changes in CPM strength and a general move toward targeted digital provide strength to a counter-argument for taking a major leap and changing payroll models. A senior Australian news executive put it to us this way: “Clients want one-to-one targeting, which requires authenticated addressable audience. To do that, you need registration. That’s not to mention the benefits for subscription.”

However, “the introduction of Chrome 76 will limit the possibilities of personalisation and offering advanced propensity models… . It may have a negative impact due to the targeting expected by advertisers,” the European media executive.

And a U.S. media executive noted that even always-logged-on authentication solutions (think Google and Facebook) would not work for subscribers who approach Web sites in Incognito Mode. He also said while he believes in selling audience quality, revenue is heavily weighted toward programmatic.

The Australian news executive conceded that for those who rely on an anonymous audience in a metered model, it is a tough battle. “Google will win that fight because they are on the side of privacy,” he said. “Another example of how the scandals of Cambridge Analytica, etc., have in fact strengthened and emboldened the walled garden of Google.” 

INMA survey of publishers 

In the INMA survey of 18 publishers conducted last week, four aspects stood out as a reaction to the Chrome 76 Incognito Mode implications: 

  • Strategy: 50% are working on a strategy for dealing with the change in incognito browsing, while only 17% say they have a plan in place.
  • Revenue: 41% believe revenue will decrease as a result of the Chrome 76 Incognito Mode implications. Companies do not believe subscriptions (75%) or CPMs (61%) would be impacted. 
  • Relationship with Google: 33% thought the move would make the Google relationship more problematic, while 56% see no change in relationship status.

Conclusions

It is an understatement to say publishers around the world are taking notice of Google’s move. Some are angry. It has been a move that has left some unprepared. But there are solutions ranging from negotiation with Google to examining revenue and digital strategy models to pay-to-publish arrangements.

From our interactions with INMA member publishers, here is what we conclude:

  • The Chrome 76 Incognito Mode change will impact publishers with a metered model, which remains the prominent paywall in the Americas.
  • Google is applying a global fix to a browser used differently by region and business model choice. 
  • Short-term, the issue with affected publishers is about perceived unilateralism with the Google Chrome move. 
  • Long-term, there is acknowledgement that advertising models are moving toward authenticated addressable audiences, which requires registration. 

What remains to be seen is what comes next. Does this change nudge metered publishers to consider other paywall models or consider ramping up registration efforts? Can metered publishers work with Google to find ways to work within the new system? Or does this move ratchet up publisher complaints about the outsized power of platforms? 

The Chrome 76 move is another reminder that publishers control very little of their own distribution ecosystem. How to work with platforms to sync objectives is more needed than ever.