- Google AdSense Review
- Media.net Review
- Chitika Review
- Yahoo! Publisher Network (defunct)
- Microsoft pubCenter
- in-text contextual ads
- display & self serve networks
- content recommendation networks
- affiliate networks
Google AdSense Background
Google's AdSense program is generally seen as the gold standard of contextual ad programs. Google owns about a third of the global online ad market & has a higher share in some locations as well as some categories like mobile & search ads.
When it works, AdSense can be a terrific set-n-forget revenue source which helps subsidize the creation of additional online content. A number of great AdSense features are
- industry leading payouts (due to the depth of their ad network)
- combining contextual, display, site targeting & ad retargeting in a single ad network
- the ability to tie it in with Google Analytics (to give granular page-level performance data)
- the ability to serve ads using DoubleClick for Publishers (which allows features like also selling direct ads & setting links to open in a new window)
One of the other features which was fantastic was the ability to tie click performance back to keyword data. That is still somewhat possible, however Google currently hides keyword data on about 90% of organic search traffic and Yahoo! hides keyword data on about 40% of search traffic, so the ability to "close the loop" on the data is not as strong as it once was.
Why People Dislike AdSense - Poor Communications & Bans
A limited amount of competition over the years has caused them to be aggressive & adversarial toward their partners. For years they refused to disclose ad revenue share & they only disclosed it in 2010 after a lawsuit in Italy forced them to. At one point Larry Page even stated he thought the concept of customer support is ridiculous.
There have been numerous cases where longstanding accounts were banned out of the blue without warning - with the most recent earning period clawed back.
Some individuals have complained to regulators or taken Google to court over the practice, however such a fight can be expensive & time consuming, and success is not guaranteed. More recently there has been an alleged employee leak & reports of accounts being closed right before publisher payouts are due & a class action lawsuit.
As Google tries to reshape the web in its own image, on highly commercial keywords it publishes search result pages which are almost entirely ads above the fold. And then they roll out algorithms which penalize publishers for being too "ad heavy." Yet if you look at the Google AdSense heat map, their best practices there almost seem like a recipe for trouble. And old case studies from publishers long since penalized have been removed.
AdSense can seem rock solid while it is working, but the level of churn in the program is quite high. In this article Google's Susan Wojcicki mentioned Google has "some 2 million sites" in their display network.
In a 2012 blog post Google published the following graph, highlighting how they had disabled ad serving to about 1.5 million sites in the 4 years prior.
In early 2014 Google followed up that post with another one, highlighting the following stats for 2013:
we had blacklisted more than 200,000 total publisher pages, an encouraging decline from last year, and disapproved more than 3,000,000 attempts to join our AdSense network. We also removed more than 250,000 publisher accounts for various policy violations.
If each publisher they removed had an average of 1 website, that would indicate something like a 12.5% churn in 2013. If each publisher they removed had an average of 2 sites, it would mean they churned 25% of their network partnerships in a single year. And AdSense bans are lifetime bans.
Consider how Google banned AdBlock Plus from their Google Play Store, only to later allow it once Google search ads were re-enabled in the plugin, yet AdSense ads on publisher sites remained blocked by the plugin.
Onto the top competing contextual ad networks...
Many smaller ad networks have a huge fall off, to where if you earned 50 cents or a dollar a click with AdSense, you'd see penny and nickle clicks. Thankfully Media.net is nothing like that & they are perhaps the best network at competing with AdSense on a eCPM basis. Their interface is quite easy to use, both in terms of creating & customizing new ad units and in tracking performance reports.
In most markets Media.net won't vastly outperform AdSense, but it is certainly worth testing & may do far better than one would expect, particularly in light of how weak the Yahoo! Publisher Network was at performing against AdSense many years ago. I've read some Media.net reviews which were a bit negative, but many of those were from people earning under $1 a day or such. Since Media.net lacks Google's advertising network depth & scale, they try to offset that by trying to do better ad integration with a manually intensive work process to really help the ads match the look and feel of your sites. It is worth noting that unless you have a decent amount of scale they probably won't be able to justify spending a lot of resources working on custom ad integration for your website.
Competition shifts the balance of power. When companies feel like they don't have to compete they can start believing things like "the whole concept of customer support is absurd." Even if using Media.net were revenue neutral against using Google AdSense, it would still be worth doing in order to help shift that balance of power in favor of publishers & away from the Google.
- Competitive eCPM when compared against AdSense in many categories.
- Can be used in conjunction with AdSense.
- Has some standard ad unit sizes & some that are custom, which gives you flexibility in terms of integrating them in typical ad spots and in terms of having units which look different than common ones and thus have greater eye appeal than a standard 468x60 or 728x90 banner.
- Leverages the Yahoo! Bing Network, which gives it a fairly decent advertiser base & network scale to tap into to ensure there are relevant ads for most topics. I believe one thing that has helped them do so well is Microsoft has done a much better job on pricing click quality than many ad networks did in years past.
- Since they are a smaller company than Google, their partner communications are much clearer. You don't have to pull down millions of dollars a year to be considered a valued partner.
- Their customer support team not only communicates clearly with publishers, but also works to help improve ad integration.
- Once your account has been established and they see strong traffic quality they are generally quite quick at approving any additional sites you add to your account.
- In addition to offering contextual ads, Media.net has a partnership to serve Google display ads on their network (though publishers have to sign up with Google).
- While earning statistics are not real-time, they provide them the following day.
- Fast Net-30 payouts.
The main drawbacks would be:
- They require English as your primary language & that your site receives the majority of its traffic from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. If you operate outside those markets, then they wouldn't be a great fit at the moment (though who knows where they may be in a couple years as Bing gets more aggressive with international expansion of their ad network).
- It can take a while to get a new account approved, so it is worth applying early to have some experience with their network and to have a backup in place in case anything should happen to your AdSense account.
- Inability to split test units (though if you are doing enough volume your customer support person will help set up and implement a split test for you).
- While they do offer statistics on a per-site, per-day & per-ad unit basis (along with pageview stats), they currently do not offer data down to the page or keyword level. They provide data on earnings, pageviews & eCPM; but they currently do not provide click or CPC data. (I believe they will be adding more granular metrics fairly soon).
Chitika launched in 2003 and made waves with their eMiniMalls back in 2005. Darren Rowse helped put them on the map when he reviewed their ad network after seeing great performance on his photography website. As a smaller independent third party ad network over the years they kept innovating by cleverly used signals like search keyword to help drive ad targeting on the landing page. Of course after Google defaulted to keyword (not provided) on organic search Chitika had to lean harder into a variety of other signals.
That Chitika is around over a decade after launching is a testament to their fortitude and fighting spirit, as many other ad networks which were launched after them have already been shut down. AdBrite was created the year before Chitika and shut down on February 1, 2013. Yahoo! launched their own contextual ad program (named the Yahoo! Publisher Network) on August 2, 2005 but announced its closure on March 31, 2010. When they closed down they recommended publishers use the Chitika ad network.
- Account approval is quite fast. You can add the ad code to new sites quickly after your account is approved.
- Offers a variety of ad formats including contextual ads, ad links, inline text ads, and a footer bar option.
- Daily stat updates on clicks, earnings, pageviews & eCPMs.
- Fast payouts.
When doing side by side tests we've generally seen lower earnings from Chitika than Media.net or Google AdSense.
Yahoo! Publisher Network
Yahoo! launched their own contextual ad program (named the Yahoo! Publisher Network) on August 2, 2005 but announced its closure on March 31, 2010. When they closed down they recommended publishers use the Chitika ad network. Yahoo! ultimately had a couple problems which prevented them from competing with Google:
- their ads were primarily driven by max CPC rather than relevancy matching, which caused many publishers to complain about Vonange ads everywhere
- they did not use smart pricing to optimize ad click costs as well as Google did
- their ad network was not quite as deep
The third of the above 3 wouldn't have mattered so much if the first issue wasn't so overt.
After shutting down in 2010, Yahoo! announced they inked a long-term agreement with Media.net on September 27, 2012 to run a contextual ad program (which was reviewed above). In 2013 Yahoo! also signed a non-exclusive deal with Google to syndicate Adsense for content ads and mobile AdMob ads.
Microsoft has an ad program named pubCenter. However they only briefly had it open to smaller independent webmasters before shifting it toward focusing primarily on mobile ads and Windows 8 apps. When it first opened up via a YieldBuild partnership it performed strongly, but then they used smart pricing to drive down ad rates.
In-Text Ad Networks: Infolinks vs Kontera vs Vibrant Media Intellitxt
We have tested all of these to some degree, but have never seen a huge lift from them when compared against the likes of AdSense or Media.net.
In many cases the "in-text" ad networks promote themselves as offering free incremental revenues, however if a site's user experience is worse & users click the back button quicker that can not only impact the pageviews of the visitor (as someone who clicks back doesn't view a second page), but those sorts of negative engagement metrics can also fold into algorithms like Google's Panda, which can cause the site to be ranked lower.
And if that were not bad enough, Google is looking down upon these types of ads in their manual review process as well. The March 31, 2014 version of Google's remote rater guidelines state the following:
- "Ads and SC should be arranged so as not to distract from the MC—Ads and SC are there should the user want them, but they should be easily
- “ignorable” if the user is not interested."
- "It should be clear what parts of the page are Ads, either by explicit labeling or simply by page organization or design."
- "Many Ads or highly distracting Ads on the visible part of the page when it first loads in the browser (before you do any scrolling), making it difficult to read the MC."
- "the popover ads (the words that are double underlined in blue) can make the main content difficult to read, resulting in a poor user experience."
In the above, the MC stands for [main content]. What they are saying there is that ads blended into the main content can create a poor user experience and thus be justification for giving the site a poor rating.
The above "engagement" sort of issues related to the Google Panda algorithm are also why I generally don't like pop ups or aggressive overlays like Undertone or similar on smaller niche sites. I'm even hesitant to use something like Adiply, let alone something as aggressive as Exit Junction.
The above were some of the better known contextual ad networks, but there are are a variety of other ad formats to monetize sites with, including: display ads, content recommendation networks, video ad networks, mobile ad networks and affiliate marketing.
Content Recommendation Networks
These ads are pitched on various sites as "also in the news" or "from around the web" or similar.
- Outbrain is the king of this category.
- Taboola originally was video focused, but also does other news recommendations.
- nRelate is a newer & smaller player in the category owned by IAC.
- Disqus was originally a comment platform, but they added advertising slots to the top of their comments.
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