Being an online publisher has never been more difficult. Web browser providers have pared down on ad-targeting capabilities in recent years, adding to publishers’ struggles to monetize traffic and attempts to reduce reliance on third parties.
Now Google is taking user privacy a step further, unveiling new features last week to clamp down on what it deems unacceptable audience monitoring within its market-leading Chrome browser. The features will close a loophole that let website owners detect visitors even when they were using incognito mode.
Up until Chrome 76, the latest version of the browser coming on July 30, publishers could recognize when website visitors were using incognito mode by checking for what’s called the FileSystem API. If none was detected, the publisher knew that user was visiting incognito, a feature that inhibits publishers’ ability to collect audience data—which publishers need to charge advertisers a premium for better targeting. Some publishers have used this information-gathering tactic to prompt incognito users to either use a different browser mode or log in using registered details.
Users have an expectation of privacy
Describing the workaround as an “unintended loophole,” Barb Palser, news and web partner development manager at Google, explained the change in a recent blog post.
“In situations such as political oppression or domestic abuse, people may have important safety reasons for concealing their web activity and their use of private browsing features,” Palsner wrote. “We want you to be able to access the web privately, with the assurance that your choice to do so is private as well.”
Palser went on to acknowledge that many publishers attempt to circumvent incognito mode for legitimate reasons, such as preventing visitors from bypassing paywalls or registration requirements, which are usually intended to limit the amount of content they can access for free.
However, as such business models are often at odds with Chrome users’ desire for privacy, Google recommends publishers use alternative monetization methods, such as cutting the number of articles visitors can view before having to register or pay.
Palser added, “Our news teams support sites with meter strategies and recognize the goal of reducing meter circumvention, however, any approach based on private browsing detection undermines the principles of Incognito Mode. … We remain open to exploring solutions that are consistent with user trust and private browsing.”
In protecting user data, Google is playing catch-up with Apple, which has arguably been the most vociferous privacy advocate with intelligent tracking prevention enabled in its Safari browser since 2017. This feature, however, has also been cited as a sizable contributor to why publishers find it difficult to monetize web traffic from iOS devices.
Google did announce earlier this year at its annual Marketing Live event that it would allow Chrome users to delete third-party tracking cookies without also losing information like login details.
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One buy-side source speaking with Adweek on condition of anonymity said that while such moves are responsible in terms of protecting the public, they also erode the premiums top-tier publishers can charge for ad placement.
“You have to start thinking about how publishers can be awarded more effectively against a marketing outcome,” the source said. “If you can’t get the behavioral data … it means the value of context is diluted.”
Another source at a global media owner who asked not to be named—the source’s employer uses Google’s ad stack—described browser makers’ attempts to comply with a patchwork of global privacy restrictions as “a nightmare.”
The person further went on to express cynicism as to the browser makers’ consumer advocacy, adding that publishers are often left to shoulder the burden of privacy compliance.
“You’ll have some pretend attempts to protect the consumer and their privacy, but it really just strengthens the hand of those with the lobbying power,” the source said.
The source added, “In a world where third-party data is weakened or reduced, we have to start looking at how we can work with them to see how we can start proving marketing outcomes.”
Publishers are seeking alternatives to reliance on third-party cookies when it comes to ad targeting, such as the Washington Post’s new machine-learning tool Zeus Insights. Meanwhile, News Corp. has been working on the global rollout of its own audience-targeting platform News IQ.