Sunday, June 16, 2013

How crap online advertising turned you away from my blog

As I am a big believer of learning by doing, I added Google AdSense to my blog a little while ago. Google AdSense allows third party ads to be visible on your blog or website, and gives you a (somewhat bewildering) series of options and exceptions to choose from with regards to what and where you want ads to be included.

I very quickly discovered that I was making money ($ 0.51 cents to date! woohoo!), and that adding ads can cost you in readership and usability even if you think you are making sensible decisions as a content owner.

Both are valuable lessons, and it shows that paying attention and analyzing what and how you advertise really matters. Let me explain what I learned.

First of all, I am not using my blog as an income generator. If I were, I should consider my advertising medium a failure as it doesn’t even generate enough income to feed the dog, let alone a household. This is purely a learning experiment.

I should also state that I am a big fan of Avinash Kaushik, and try to read his blog every time he publishes new content. Avinash is the straightest talking Google Digital Marketing Evangelist you can ever hope to meet. He is also a real do-gooder; the proceeds of his two bestselling books are all donated to good causes. When he presents to you, especially when he has done a little analytics magic on your brand/company, the experience resembles the removal of a large plaster on a particularly hairy AND sensitive spot of your body: it will sting. A lot. But the removal is part of your healing process.

His blog is not truly written for me, as I am a brand value creating generalist, and his blog is (mostly) targeted at digital content managing online advertising specialists who are trying to ensure their digital content gets you to do something (transactions/sales mostly, but any form of action could ultimately be viewed as a transaction).

Still, as a generalist there are a lot of valuable lessons I have taken from his blog (while wading through a ton of techy jargon that was way beyond me) and the few times I have met him. Here are some examples of what I have learned, and note that these are my words and my take-aways, not his:

1. "Share value when you blog"
2. "Write like you’re writing a book, not a journal" (he got that one, I believe, from Guy Kawasaki)
3. "Use the data available to you. There is a ton and if you analyze it regularly you will learn"
4. "Data is cool. Data does not lie. Data = insight = take action. If not, #fail"

For the inclusion of ads on my blog, I applied rule 1, 3 and 4. I selected categories of ads that I felt had some relevance to my content. So no Apparel, Beauty and Health Care, Food & Groceries, Home & Garden or Real Estate. Not that I don’t think you wouldn't be interested in buying new jeans, washing your hair, eating healthy (or junk), live in a nice house with a garden or buy such a place, but because I did not think any of these ads would have any relevance to my content.

I allowed all ad networks, but did not allow ANY of the risky (according to Google) categories with one exception: Online and Casual Gaming. So if you see a Zynga ad that is why (I just want to learn to see how this category would advertise itself).

After having made what I felt were safe and sensible choices, and turning almost all my personal and financial information known to mankind over to Google, I turned AdSense on.

My first observation was: yes there are ads. Second observation was that they were pretty much in line with my selections and they were somewhat relevant to the content I was sharing (marketing, advertising, analytics, etc.). I was happy.

In the first few weeks of running a commercial content platform (a.k.a. my blog), I checked my stats daily. Nothing much happened. There certainly wasn't a boat load of money coming in. But again, that is not why I was doing it to begin with.

As the weeks continued, I checked my stats with less frequency. I also had a period where, due to work commitments, I did not write any new content. These two things combined reminded me of my four starting points for my blog (see above). I broke rule number 1, 3 and 4. In other words: no new content + ignoring data + failing to act = #fail.

My readership had gone down when I finally checked in with my data. I obviously needed to share relevant, new content, so I did.

But as I did I noticed that the content was generating less views then before.

What was going on? I put it to the subject matter (my blog post talked about the US TV Upfront season, which I think is a relic that has overstayed its welcome). So I wrote another blog post, this time about Advertising Agency Fees and Payment Terms. I thought a lot less sexy than TV Upfronts but the post did better. It still did not do as well as before.

I needed to be more of an Avinash. What could the data tell me? As I analyzed, I found that the decrease in readership had occurred at the same time as when I had turned on the ads. Really? I always thought of my audience as brand marketing savvy, tech positive, and perhaps a little geeky. Did ads annoy them so much that my readership had gone down?

I should also state that my latest two blog posts were written and posted while I traveled, so I accessed and uploaded from outside of the US. When I did my deep-dive analysis I was back home. And then it happened. Almost every time I went to my blog, I was redirected to spammy ads from dodgy credit agencies, or fake “You need to update your Flash Player” phishing websites. They were provided by an ad network called Clicksor.

What the @#**!!!

I went back to Google AdSense. I checked my approved ad networks. No Clicksor. I tried to block Clicksor as a network. AdSense did not recognize it. I tried to block the spammy ads as they popped up, one by one. AdSense did not recognize them either.

My very limited options exhausted, I turned to the Google AdSense Forum and posted a plea for help. It came quickly and delivered the answer and a solution within a few days thanks to someone called SplatKat and another user called PeggyK. Turns out Clicksor became active when I added a “share it” widget, allowing people to easily share my content across any and all known social media platforms. I had added the widget as a service. In doing so, and by allowing advertising, Clicksor now had the right to place whatever on my blog, completely ignoring my selected categories and rules of placement. Nice.

I was mortified. My readers had clicked on links about my new blog posts and instead of adding value I spammed them with crap.

I removed the sharing widget, and with it Clicksor. Good riddance. This is my first blog post sans. Let’s see if I can – over time – rebuild your trust. Lesson learned.

By the way, there are over 1,000 AdNetworks that you grant access to with Google AdSense. And that is just Google. Other ad options "self activate" through third party widgets and other site enhancements. I am an advisor to Telemetry, a company with roots in Online Ad Video Networks, and who are positioning themselves as the Digital Media Forensics Company. Each time I speak with CEO Anthony Rushton, I learn more about the good, the bad and the ugly of online advertising. All of this goes to show why it is so important to use analytics and expert advice when you do this stuff in the real world for real brands.

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