Wednesday, 10 January 2007

AdSense Optimization: Tricks that Harm AdSense Publishers?

For a while now I've felt slightly uncomfortable with the term "optimization" when it comes to AdSense ads. However, this feeling of discomfort was irrevocably increased today when I finally read an AdSense publisher, and one who writes frequently in the official AdSense Help forum, refer to blending ad colors and "tricks" in the same sentence. This got me thinking about two key concepts that I want to explore further in this post. First, that AdSense optimization is, at least partly, about tricking the user into clicking on ads. Second, that this form of optimization may ultimately harm the AdSense publisher.

Optimization as "Tricking"

Whenever anyone asks about ad optimization, there is one piece of advice that is almost certainly given above and beyond any other, that of "blending" the ads. Blending means to make sure that the ads have the same background, foreground, and hyperlink colors as the rest of the text on the web site.

In addition, many dedicated AdSense publishers try to place their ads in such positions that the site visitors could easily be mistaken into thinking that the ads are not ads at all but are just regular links on the site; or make the "normal" hyperlinks less prominent, so that the ads are the things most likely to be clicked on. This is where I really start to have a problem. Is it right to earn money from hard working AdWords advertisers by tricking people into clicking on your ads? Even the simple act of blending the colors, as this blog does, is verging on tricking the user because it's a way of camouflaging the ads against the rest of the page in order to reduce "ad blindness."

If it is tricking users, then why do AdSense publishers do it? Obviously, because they're desperate for those clicks in order to earn money. However, by tricking visitors into clicking on their ads, are they really shooting themselves in the foot?

Optimization as a Harmful Practice

So, if I'm "tricking" my visitors into clicking on my ads, or even just being a tad "crafty" in the way my users perceive my ads (i.e., that they're not necessarily entirely aware they are clicking on an ad), how can that be harming me? I'm getting a click, which earns me money, so surely that's a good thing, isn't it? Here's why I think it may be a harmful practice.

The source of the potential harm is Google's mysterious Smart Pricing, which I discussed in an earlier post and I recommend a read of it.

The principle underpinning Smart Pricing is that "Google's smart pricing feature automatically adjusts the cost of a keyword-targeted content click based on its effectiveness compared to a search click." Also, Google determines "effectiveness" by the likelihood a click will result in a conversion, whether that be a product sale, newsletter signup, site registration, etc.

So, if Google thinks a click on a content ad, i.e. and AdSense ad, is less likely to result in a conversion, it will reduce the amount the advertiser has to pay and, therefore, the amount the Adsense publisher earns.

This is where the harm of tricking is really seen. If users click on AdWords ads that appear on the right hand side of Google's search results, on, for example, the users are almost certainly aware that they are clicking on an advertisement. However, if they are clicking on an ad on an "optimized" web page, they may not even realize it is an ad and they are almost certainly less consciously aware that it's an ad they're clicking on and, what's more, an ad that is there to produce a particular result (a "conversion") for the advertiser.

In which scenario is the ad click more likely to end up in a conversion, one where the "clicker" is aware it's an ad or one where they're unware? In my opinion, a user who clicks on an ad, fully aware that it is an ad, is far more likely to end up buying from the advertiser, signing up for their newsletter, or whatever the advertiser is seeking.

Therefore, by "tricking" a user into clicking on the ad, the click is less likely to lead to a conversion, which will then result in a greater discount being given to the advertiser as a result of smart pricing, which will then result in a lower income per click for the publisher! So, if you are tricking your users into clicking on those ads, you may well be earning significantly less per click (CPC), even if your click-thru rate (CTR) increases. That decrease in CPC may even outweigh the money earned from the higher CTR. In this case, your "optimization" would actually result in less income, not more!

I've always believed that you need integrity in business and, with Smart Pricing in place, it applies equally to AdSense publishing.

Worth thinking about.

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hueys_world said...

Nice blog. I agree with your position about tricking visitors to click on stuff they have no interest in buying. Nobody ultimately wins. On a side note, have you had much luck with affiliate advertising programs?

Ian F. said...

hueys_world ... I've made more money online through affiliate advertising than anything else. Personally, I think in many cases it's the best way to go, the problem is finding the right product(s) and the right place to market them.

dianne said...

I'm so glad you brought this up. The case studies highlighted in the tour practically prove that visitors are being tricked. When the ad is at the top left of some content text, and blends in with the content text, ad revenues increase. That's because of the way folks read and learn on a page. We know that there are certain web design techniques that will maximize visitor learning. I guess we must all decide for ourselves whether to use that design for profits or message. I think I've discovered that I don't have the traffic for it. Thanks though, for your forum posts and blog.