Fred Wilson seems to be tempting fate by posting on his Google Adsense numbers, but I for one am pleased he’s doing it, as it might spur some innovation in the space. Fred’s pretty pleased with his $500 a year from AdSense, but I think that’s not close to what Fred could or should be pulling in. Thomas Hawk has some comments on the post.
Given experiences like Fred’s and my own (which are similar in scope), I would be upbraiding Google on Adsense as it relates to blogs and smaller sites in particular, but this week when I got a call from a nice fellow in their New York advertising office. He was calling to inquire about Boing Boing and Adsense – basically, it was a cold call – Google was doing marketing outreach. While sites like Fred’s and Searchblog are not getting these calls, the Google rep told me his job was to call “mid size” sites like Boing Boing (I’m the “band manager” there) and convert them into Adsense customers. (He did not realize that I write Searchblog, and was not treating me with any kind of special preference, as far as I could tell. I did inform him during our conversation.)
I explained to the rep why Boing Boing is not using Adsense – the list is rather long. First, the ads are not very relevant – Boing Boing is pretty eclectic and updates quickly, and the content confuses the Adsense algorithms, forcing them to default to lowest common denominator type ads – like mortgage offers and affiliate sites. The Google rep countered that for sites the size of Boing Boing, Adsense can crawl more quickly, increasing the chance that more contextual ads will appear. He also reminded me that Adsense has updated tools which allow publishers to specify keywords for ads they might wish to attract, as well as ads they might want to avoid. So Boing Boing might use keywords like “music,” “gaming,” or “technology” to attract advertisements in those categories. And we can create negative keywords like “mortgage” to get rid of those offers. I knew Google had these tools, but this fellow told me Google has given the keywords more weight lately. This isn’t exactly the verticalization of Adsense I had been hoping for (I’d love it if Google let advertisers “tag” themselves so publishers can connect to those tags), but it’s a start.
The trickier part of Boing Boing’s resistance to Adsense has to do with its Terms of Service (TOS) for both advertisers and publishers. Adsense has an anti-”anti” TOS – it does not allow negative ads. This meant that ads promoting, say, anti-Bush t-shirts, were not allowed. To its credit, Google has updated this portion of their TOS (political speech is now OK), but the “anti” terminology is still in the TOS, and the definition is so vague as to be difficult to comprehend.
Which leads to the big issue with Adsense: transparency. Many have written about this (including Thomas above), but the basic reality is this: No one knows how Google makes its decisions regarding Adsense. This means we don’t know what the split is with publishers, what constitutes a violation of the TOS, or what the average price per click is. Not to mention that the TOS prohibits partners from discussing their earnings (which is why I think Fred might be in hot water….). In short, working with Adsense is a “trust us” proposition, one that Boing Boing is not willing to make. (Though I do make it, here on Searchblog, at least for now. For more on my own experience, read this.)
Lastly, Adsense has a “no competition” clause, meaning we can’t run any other text ad network. In my gut, I just don’t like that approach.
Anyway, the Google rep was quite open and listened, responded, and – most surprising of all – said that if we did try Adsense, he’d be our account executive – we could call him at any time with questions. Now that is new – Google has been really beaten up by nearly everyone I spoke to for lack of response (my post here reflects that). You can’t really blame them – with hundreds of thousands of advertisers, it’s hard to scale up. But clearly, Google is now trying harder. Credit where credit’s due….