Recent Developments in Ad Blocking and Incognito Browsing

ad blocking incognito detection

Whether it’s Google Chrome’s built-in ad blocker or Apple Safari’s intelligent tracking prevention, changes to internet browsers can change the fabric of the internet itself.

At least, as far as digital publishers are concerned.

When Chrome commands over 62% of the browser market share, seemingly minor updates to this browser can have real effects on publisher revenue. In the last two months, Google has made headlines with two rumored changes to Chrome: one affecting ad blockers, the other affecting incognito browsing detection.

Here’s what you need to know.

January 2019: Google’s Ad Blocking False Alarm

Google raised eyebrows In January when a proposed update to Chrome’s extension platform threatened to “break” extensions that block onsite content, namely ads. The changes would force ad blocking plugins to rely on a new API, severely limiting their ability to block ads.

User backlash was immediate, prompting Google to quickly walk back this potential tweak. Google Chrome engineers assured developers that future API changes would leave content blocker functionality intact. Ad blocking lives on.

For publishers, the momentary idea of an internet without ad blockers may have been a nice thought. While not the existential threat once predicted, ad blocking still puts a dent in publisher advertising revenue.

But the user outcry should serve as a reminder that intrusive ad experiences were what drove many users to ad blockers in the first place. As publishers propped up declining CPMs by weighing down their sites with more advertising, savvier users began to take back their onsite experience by blocking ads, laying the foundation for an “ad blocking arms race” between sites trying to serve ads and the readers trying to circumvent them.

In the meantime, publishers will have to deal with declining ad revenue tactfully: by cleaning up onsite ad experiences and addressing ad blockers while supplementing their revenue elsewhere. But when it comes to establishing new revenue streams, Google Chrome’s other recent change may have added an additional hurdle.

February 2019: Chrome Closes a Path to Incognito Detection?

At about the same time Chrome was walking back their content-blocking changes, another big Chrome story caught publishers’ attention—particularly those with metered paywalls.

On February 15, 9to5Google reported that Chrome is on the verge of closing a method that allows sites to detect whether a user is browsing in Incognito Mode. This update would make it easier for users to stay private. It would also make it easier for them to avoid paywalls.

Readers have long used incognito browsing to view more articles on paywalled sites, but it’s only been more recently that publishers have begun detecting incognito users and blocking their access to content. Following the lead of the Boston Globe, the New York Times has recently experimented with requiring mystery visitors to drop incognito mode or register for a free account.

Detecting incognito/private browsing is especially important as their paywall meters trend downwards. While early paywalls frequently allowed 10, 15, even 20 articles—far beyond the reading appetites of most visitors—publishers from the Times to The Economist are tightening up, lowering their meters to just a handful of articles per month. While a lower meter means more people will pay, it also means more people will go incognito to get more free content—especially if publishers are powerless to detect it.

It’s rumored Chrome 74 (expected April 24) will contain a version of the incognito fix, while it reportedly won’t be enabled by default until Chome 76, likely to be released a couple months later. Of course, this is just one update from one browser; it doesn’t spell the end of incognito/private detection. Like the ad blocking arms race before it, new ways to deter incognito users will arise, as will ways of countering those methods, and so on.

Dealing with Ad Blocking and Incognito Users

So how much revenue will ad blocking cost you? How will incognito affect your subscription conversions? It depends on your audience. If you have a particularly technical audience, they’re more likely to value privacy or be up-to-date on ad-blocking plugins. Perhaps they’ve even created one of their own.

Regardless, it’s critical to have a strategy in place for dealing with visitors who arrive at your site behind an ad blocker or private browsing mode. These quick tips can help you combat ad blockers, deter private browsers, and even drive more revenue from your non-blocking audience:

  • Give your ad-blocking or incognito visitors other options. There are still ways for publishers to reliably detect the presence of ad blocking extensions and private browsing modes. As Digiday reports, Future Publishing reduced their ad blocking rates from 54% to under 11% when they gave their ad-blocking visitors additional options. You could display a call-to-action asking visitors to whitelist your site, or you may even block their access completely until they do so.
  • Emphasize the importance of your content. If you have high-quality, substantive content, play this up in your messaging. According to Digital Content Next’s latest Direct Audience Revenue Case Study, publishers like Slate and The Guardian saw increases in memberships and one-off contributions by pairing hard-hitting stories with calls-to-action that stressed the importance of their journalism. When you detect an ad-blocking user, telling these visitors what your advertising funds may help convince them to drop blockers.
  • Build audience relationships. Some people know how to sidestep paywalls and pay anyway. This might be because they believe in the mission of the publisher or are just appreciative of the content. In fact, an American Press Institute study of why people pay for news found that 24% of respondents chose to pay for news in part because of a willingness to support journalism. While it might not happen as often as you like, if a reader has a relationship with you, it becomes more likely that they’ll pay up. Even if they know how to avoid paywalls.
  • Get the email address. Email remains a singularly-successful way to build stronger audience relationships. Once you have the email address, you can nurture readers with your content, and in the meantime, you can monetize them with ad revenue. When you detect visitors with ad blockers or users behind private browsing, you can alter you email capture strategy to more aggressively court these visitors.
  • Monetize your email. If readers block your ads online, email gives you an additional chance to drum up ad revenue. In-email advertising is typically less likely to be thwarted by ad blockers, and with the right targeting, can drive higher CPMs than their counterparts on your site.

For more tips on maximizing the value of your ad-blocking visitors, grab PostUp’s Ad Blocking Playbook.

Editor, PostUp PlayBook