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On Web Advertising

Published by Chris Coyier

On this week's screencast I talk about online advertising. What it is, how it works, and mostly, my opinions about it. I thought I'd recap here and touch on some things I forgot about.

Content Websites vs. Product/Service Websites

There are some websites that spend their time building content. They build it to keep visitors coming back because it's funny or interesting or important or otherwise compelling. Content websites, by and large, are free to visit and consume. Creators of content website spend considerable time and effort creating and maintaining the site and it's content.

Some websites exist to support a product or service that is for sale. The creators of these sites spend the majority of their time and effort working on that product or service. Making it better, improving features, etc. They aren't working on building content, that's not their forte.

Content websites get the traffic (but need money). Product/service websites make the money (but need traffic). Advertising is a way to trade and share some love back and forth.

Not Evil

There is nothing "evil" about advertising. Creating content takes blood, sweat and tears. Creating products takes blood, sweat, and tears. Both deserve to be paid for that. Advertising makes sure they do.

Advertising can certainly be overdone though. Having to watch a 30 second video before reading an article... I feel that's too much. A page-peel that you come within 100 pixel of and it comes down and covers half the page? Too much.

Except when it is

The "evil" stuff only starts entering the picture when websites start do things under the table. Selling emails/spam, that's clearly evil. Writing an article about how great a book is, without ever reading it, so you can link to it with an Amazon affiliate code, is evil. Filling a page with bullshit keyword-strewn content in hopes to get some search traffic and covering the page in ads, is evil.

Honest websites creating honest content displaying ads for honest companies creating honest products, that's always OK. When any one of those things loses the "honest" part, that's problematic.

Services

On this site, I use BuySellAds. They specialize in the design website community, which means that they have a base of advertisers with products and services that cater to this community. That's awesome, as it means that ads on this site will be filled with things that web designers might be interested in. They take 25% of sales, a hefty fee at a glance, but completely worth it when I consider that I spend almost no time at all thinking about advertising. I can use that time building content instead. Otherwise I'd be spending my time finding/communicating with advertisers, invoicing them, keeping track of live dates, flipping in and out graphics, etc. And because BSA comes in over JavaScript, it keeps paid links away from Google bots which frown upon that. Also great about the BSA model, advertisers pay for what they get. They look at ad spots, they see what kind of impressions the site has, they see a fixed monthly price, and they make the call. It's as straight-forward as it could be.

A much more popular advertising service on a global scale is Google AdSense. AdSense reads the content on the page it resides upon and serves up advertising relevant to that content. In general, I think that's great. Relevant ads benefit publishers (more people click them), advertisers (the people clicking are a targeted audience), and the users themselves (they find something they are actually looking for). On my site, I don't need it, since I already have a service that is targetted. But it's great for something like Ning.com, where people can build their own social network for free. Someone starts a knitting site, content on the site is about knitting, there are Google ads on the site about knitting, everybody wins. Forums are also good targets for AdSense, since topics are set by your visitors themselves, and the ads can mimic those topics. Personally, I don't like Google ads. I think they are ugly. I think people know exactly what they look like and know how to avoid them. I think it attracts lots of crappy advertisers. Most of all, I don't like how it pays via clicks.

There is one place on CSS-Tricks that uses them, and that is next to the search results. I love Google Custom Search Engines. It does a great job in searching this site. I tied my AdSense account to the CSE so that I earn from the clicks on the ads in search. It amounts to a few dollars a month. The reason I do it is because it costs $100 to remove them and I don't really think it's worth it. They sit harmlessly over to the right which would be blank white space anyway.

The cool kid club

There are a couple of ad serving services in the web design niche that are exclusively for the cool kids: The Deck and Fusion Ads. They are pretty great. Publishers using these services display only one ad per page. The ads are typically very well designed and classy. I like this idea very much. Unfortunately you have to be a lot cooler than you or me to get in on it. I also tend to think that sites serving these ads aren't primarily concerned with advertising income. While I'm sure they pay fairly well, I'm betting one high paying ad can't beat 9 medium paying ads.

Affiliates

Affiliate programs are another form of online advertising. Product/service sites tend to love them, as they only have to pay out when successful sales are made. In traditional advertising, they have to pay no matter what and if the ad does poorly, it's a loss for them. If an affiliate ad does poorly, it's a loss for the publisher.

I like the idea of affiliate programs. If someone goes through the trouble of spreading the word and sending in sales, they deserve to be paid for that work.

I'm also wary of them. I think the advertiser gets a pretty significant advantage. Advertising isn't just direct sales, it's brand exposure and mind share as well. The advertiser gets this part for free, as well as only paying for direct sales.

I think if you become an affiliate for anything, you should do it because you like what you are selling and you think you'll sell enough of it to turn the balance in your favor.

I have affiliate programs both for Are My Sites Up and Digging Into WordPress. I like how they have worked out.

Common sizes

I have no idea what these sizes are based on or what the history is, but the Interactive Advertising Bureau offers up this list (based on what is "commonly sold" in the marketplace). They say that the goal is to provide some standardization to reduce stuff like having different publishers using sizes only trivially different like 300x95, 300x100, 300x105 etc., which is a damn fine goal.

Recommend Max File Size Recommended Animation Length
300 x 250 Medium Rectangle 40k :15
250 x 250 Square Pop-Up 40k :15
240 x 400 Vertical Rectangle 40k :15
336 x 280 Large Rectangle 40k :15
180 x 150 Rectangle 40k :15
300x100 3:1 Rectangle 40k :15
720x300 Pop-Under 40k :15
468 x 60 Full Banner 40k :15
234 x 60 Half Banner 30k :15
88 x 31 Micro Bar 10k :15
120 x 90 Button 1 20k :15
120 x 60 Button 2 20k :15
120 x 240 Vertical Banner 30k :15
125 x 125 Square Button 30k :15
728 x 90 Leaderboard 40k :15
160 x 600 Wide Skyscraper 40k :15
120 x 600 Skyscraper 40k :15
300 x 600 Half Page Ad 40k :15

Personally I think the sizes are rather asinine - with one ad size having nearly no relationship to the next. Standards are great, and of course it will be hard to fight against the stream now, but I think this whole "common sizes" business needs a re-think.

Randomization

If you offer a number of similar sized ad blocks in one area, the fair thing to do for the advertisers is randomize their position within the block. I'll post a snippet of how to do this soon.

A/B Testing

You may not have the ability to always do this if you are using an ad service, but a good idea in web advertising is to use A/B testing. That is, have two versions of the same ad and measure which one does better, everything else being equal. Randomly display each one, and add different tracking information to the end of the URL that each links to. If you are using Google Analytics, you could use their link builder.

When to start

A classic problem of online advertising is deciding how to approach it on a brand new site. There are some pretty different schools of thought.

Some people say you should wait to put ads on a site until it has grown up enough that it's "worth it". I can buy into that. You are going to make pennies when launching a brand new site with no audience. Your ads aren't worth anything, so why put them there? It also preoccupies you with thinking about advertising when clearly the most important thing for a fledgling site is growing that audience and traffic.

The flip side is putting ads on a site from day one. Even though they aren't worth anything, at least you are ready, in the design/layout of the site for when they are worth something. It also sets up user expectations on the site. If you build an audience on a site with zero ads, then one day fill the site with ads, that's rocking the boat quite a bit. Users might not take kindly to that. Having ads from the beginning sets expectations straight from the beginning.

For the sake of offering advice, I'd say if you think your site will have advertising on it eventually, plan for it design-wise and throw some placeholder ads up for now (perhaps display ads for your friends sites?). Then once you've grown enough (perhaps 50k pageviews a month) then start working on paid ads.

 

Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts about online advertising!

Comments

  1. Matthew
    Permalink to comment#

    Good article, I’d be interested to know how much revenue this site brings in for you. I’m not actually asking to know! That would be rude… ;-)

    • Blue
      Permalink to comment#

      Probably enough to alleviate the hosting costs a bit… ;)

      Chris, I really liked how you clearly spelled out your feelings on the ad market, and how it is used and misused.

      I am growing more and more fond, of how you write articles now. It has really grown more into a sharing experience, and your writing warrants conversation (which I believe is the point of blogging.) Great job!

    • Look this site up on BuySellAds and you can basically figure it out. After taxes, definitely not something that can support me full time.

  2. Permalink to comment#

    Nice article although the european market is slightly different :)

    Happy New Year to You, Chris!
    Thanks for your work.

    From Spain,
    regards
    Rata

  3. Permalink to comment#

    Nice post,
    Gr8 to have all banner sizes at same place.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great article. For a new blog like IP, it works to have thought of it in the Design and then put ads once the site are “worth it”.

  5. Great post Chris. Was thinking about adding advertisements to my website and this was the perfect article for me.

  6. Permalink to comment#

    Something I’ve been struggling with lately…Thanks a bunch!

  7. Permalink to comment#

    What are your thoughts on Adblock plugins from a content creator perspective?

    On one of my sites, if they have adblock plus enabled, I display a link to my twitter account and ask them to follow me, instead.

    • Gringer
      Permalink to comment#

      I think Ad-blockers of any kind should be banished from existance.

      A lot of free services out there on the internet are free because of advertisements.

      If too may users of such service block the ads it’s likely either the service will be (partially) become a paid service, or have to go make the ad-policy unblockable (ie. unavoidable) – which in the end is worse for the end user.

      if you, reader, for some arbitrary reason think you need an ad-blocker I strongly suggest putting it in a mode which works with a blacklist rather then a whitelist (ie. do not by default block advertisements from every site) – your one-time visit to a site can make a difference !

      Don’t kill it


      Gringer

    • senshikaze
      Permalink to comment#

      too many times a good site using a large ad pushing form and then gets a completely annoying ad. once that happens, it goes on the list. soon enough i have all the sites i visit on my list. so yea. i prefer supporting directly either through donations or buying products, not some stupid “impressions”.
      Besides, if i never click on ads, why should i see them?

    • I have ads on my site and make money from those impressions, so I should say “Ad blockers are bad and don’t use them”. But, I don’t blame anyone for using them. The fact is that online advertising is out of control on some sites and it ruins the experience of browsing the web. If that’s the case for you and blocking my ads comes with the territory, so be it.

  8. Permalink to comment#

    Thanks Chris… great article as usual. For what it is worth I think that any site that is planning on having advertising should have it from day one.

  9. After hating adsense for eternity I finally secided to give it a go on my most recent site. I was pleasantly surprised by how many different styling choices you get and how easy it is to make your ads stand out or tie in nicely with the rest of your site. Adsense can be good, provided you move away from the blue text / white background standard colours (unless your site’s css file has gone missing in which case it ties in nicely.

  10. Blue
    Permalink to comment#

    After reading this article, I went about my business as usual, but found something pretty interesting that I thought I’d share…

    A service called FetchBack, which appears to be a refreshing way to target ads to users.

    The situation was, I went to thesaurus.com and searched up the word “knowledge”. At the top I saw an ad for one of my favorite gun related websites, and thought to myself… “How in the world did they find this gun related website (which I have previously enjoyed) relevant to my search for the word ‘knowledge’?”

    Turns out, when I visited the gun website they stored a cookie saying that I visited. Then the thesaurus website tracked that and displayed an ad (FetchBack calls it re-targeting)

    Seems like a cool concept, and it doesn’t always display the same ad, I refreshed and got a couple other random ad’s that were pretty worthless to me.

    All in all, it really stuck out to me after reading this article, as an intriguing way to target previous visitors.

    I would also like to add that in a niche market like the web-design community, just targeting with something like buy-sell ads may be enough because users are usually pretty active on other web-design/ web-dev websites, so targeting them is easy enough. Which brings me to one downside I see of something like buy-sell ads, and a niche market.

    Most of the web-design/development-related sites seem to use BSA. This ends up providing some of the same old tired ads to the same users. I tend to read a lot of different web-related blogs daily (as I am sure a lot of others do) and that means I see the same ads 90% of my day, almost like I have just been on 1 website all day long.

  11. Very good article which really explains why we should have advertising but also why it can be a huge pain.

    As for how much you make on the site I would say that if you do this on the side you are making very good money!

  12. Permalink to comment#

    great post !! thanks for sharing. Your comparison and explanation very detail.

  13. Permalink to comment#

    Ran into an unexpected problem with advertising on adsense. My last name brought in ads that were not appropriate for my visitors.

    • Permalink to comment#

      haha unfortunate

    • I twittered this situation because I found it both interesting and funny… for the record, a number of people said there are ways to block certain keywords like that, both from the AdSense side and with special tags on the site (although I don’t know what they are).

  14. Permalink to comment#

    I know your pain, Cindi.

  15. Gage
    Permalink to comment#

    I really like this article, Ads are always a thing I’ve been against but I always liked your ads, their classy and relevant, their not linked to shady sites that want to pray on your ignorance but high quality services that want to promote themselves which I think is ideal.

  16. Has BuySellAds done away with their policy to stick exclusively to web industry clients, or have they decided to cast a wider net?

    I thought I could remember thinking how great it might be to use them for some of my clients, but then reading that they’re specific to the web industry.

    If that’s changed, then I need to hook some people up!

  17. One thing I always hate about adds is when their used on peoples blogs/portfolio sites. I know a number of designers that blog on their portfolio and advertise often for competing services. Just seems totally insane to me. Doesn’t seem like they have really decided what their site is for. If it’s a portfolio drop the adds if it’s a blog link to a seperate portfolio. don’t mix your messages.

  18. Great article, thanks. I hadn’t heard that Google doesn’t like you using paid links (affiliate links?) – but that is very interesting.

    It would be nice if you could do a similar post/screencast about Podcast advertising too.

  19. Permalink to comment#

    I find most ads annoying and intrusive. That said, I think the ads on this site are quite reasonable. I think it helps that they are quality ads that are so closely related to the content.

    I really like the fusion ads in tweetie. I’ve actually made a few purchases based on those ads, which is rare for me. Probably the only ads that I’ve found to be very effective — at least with me.

  20. Great article.

    A very interesting phenomenon that emerged with the idea of advertising online began with banner blindness and now has changed to ad blindness.

    It seems that we in the community really just block out portions of a site that normally deliver advertisements, however it would be an interesting study to see how the general population is effect by new shifts in design paradigms.

  21. Permalink to comment#

    hi and good debate.
    To read more about advertising specially the banner blindness read this article also

    http://www.IWANTYOUTOWIN.COM/article.html

  22. Hi,
    I have a simple question, but I suspect it has a rather complex answer.
    When should I start to sell adverts on my website? Where should I start? Should I start with Affiliate types or should I start go straight in with a service like Buy Sell Ads?

    Where did you start Chris?

    Help much appreciated,
    Dan.

  23. thanks for the article. that was just the information i needed.

  24. senshikaze
    Permalink to comment#

    like chris, i would like to know your feelings on adblock and the like. I personally use adblock plus on firefox 100% of the time. to many ads are distracting for me to be selective about it, so i have to use a blanket system. it isn’t out of some, “screw the man” kind of sense, I just really don’t like web ads.
    (And before anyone says anything, I do generally ignore tv ads, billboards, and radio ads as a rule too. Just isn’t as easy to automatically block those)

    • Cmet
      Permalink to comment#

      People like you kill free services.

      Great dude, keep it up.

    • senshikaze
      Permalink to comment#

      got a question for you, oh great and wise one, what is the difference between and ad blocker and me never clicking ads, ever? either way they don’t get money and i don’t click ads.

    • Ginger
      Permalink to comment#

      If a website has a lot of ads, then contact the owner and tell him straight up that you will leave the site untill ads reduce to allow normal use.

      But to block ads by default (not just on sites you’ve specified to be blocked) – is a deep deep shame.

      By blocking by default you don’t even know what you’re blocking. It might very well be a fair ad in minimum shape which helps the site you were visiting alive, and instead you rape it.

      – Ginger

    • senshikaze
      Permalink to comment#

      see my reply to you above.

  25. banny
    Permalink to comment#

    hi
    another Qs is that what should one see in a website before applying for an Ad there ??

  26. Long time reader and I need to post more comments. But this is a fantastic article. I think I’ll point one of my clients this way who’s looking to learn about blog based advertising. Would be nice to have a list of suggested advertising websites and affiliates you suggest. Thanks Chris.

    I hear really good things about the Paper Jam Network, never used it though (will soon with a new project).

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