I’ve seen first hand just how much money some blogs can make from AdSense while others struggle to make anything. A lot of this is driven by how much traffic you get to your site, but there are a number of other factors that you may not have considered, if you are not a content monetization guru. Here are a few things to consider:
i. Keywords – AdSense is contextually relevant advertising, meaning the Google bots will come to read your content and place ads accordingly. Are you writing content that is aligned well with the high money ad opportunities? Hint: You’re a lot better off writing an article about cars than about organic food. Why? Check out KeywordSpy.com sometime and just spend a little time testing out various keywords. You’ll quickly start to see where advertisers have bid up the cost of ads in a space. The basic idea here is to write product-focused articles. If you don’t see a lot of high profile products in a given topic, you may be wasting time writing an article on that topic, if you goal is to drive profits with that article. I’ve seen AdSense eCPMs range from $0.40 to $40.00, so the niche you chose can be absolutely crucial to making any money with AdSense.
ii. Disrupt – The name of the game with advertisement placement is disrupt. People have become pretty good at subconsciously passing right over our ads and blocking them out – its called ‘Ad Blindness’. The reason Pay Per Click ads did so well for so long while the rest of the CPM banner industry was doing poorly in the early 2000s, was because these ads looked like content and readers hadn’t developed blindness to them. They’ve become less effective over time as could be expected, but can still be profoundly effective, but keep in mind why they’re working and place them accordingly. Look for opportunities to insert the ads at less expected places and where you can insure user’s maximum attention is being focused.
iii. Layout (borders/size) – There has been a lot of talk in discussion forums about which ad units work best. I’ve generally heard a consensus that link units fail, and those 336×280 ad units do the best. Anything like a 160×600 tower or a 728×90 banner will generally not do that well because it looks too similar to a typical ad, for which many have developed ‘ad blindness’, meaning they have been conditioned to just gloss over them.
iv. Placement – The location on the page where you place your ads can have a big effect. There are places where you’re use to seeing advertisements such as at the very top above the navigation page and the upper-right corner of the sidebar. Because we’re so use to seeing those there however, we’re less likely to click. Thus, these are good locations for CPM-based ad banners, but not pay-per-click AdSense ads.
In fact, consider the wireframe below, courtesy of Google themselves. This shows exactly where you should be looking to place test-based ads – the darker the color, the more potent the ad unit location. Notice the most effective is right in the middle and at the topic of the content. And of course the worst is below the fold in the footer and lower sidebars.
v. Cannibalization – You’d be surprised just how effective a single well-positioned ad unit can be. Try testing a 336×280 ad unit by itself, and then try surrounding it with a couple other ad units. Did you see significant improvement? It won’t always be what you think; sometimes other ad units within the same viewable area just cannibalize one another. By particularly careful of this when blending in other ad networks. There’s no hard and fast rule here, just have to test and see what works, but do keep it in the back of your mind as you optimize.
vi. Colors – The goal here should be to have blended colors with the rest of your website…sort of. If you use gray tones for most of your layout but have reserved red for callouts, use that callout red color for your title. The point is to blend with your current color palette but still use colors from within the palette to draw attention to the ads. You want to draw attention to the text of the ad, but not draw attention to the fact that its an ad. Its a subtle but important difference.
vii. Something Missing – Believe it or not, you can actually make MORE money by leaving a reader unfulfilled at the end of your article. Consider that you get paid from AdSense because someone clicked. And someone is going to be more open to an advertisement that matches what they seek and click away from your article, if they didn’t find their answer in your article. This of course needs to be balanced with a longer-term goal of building a following that will return to your site, but its a near-term truth, not to be overlooked.
viii. Setup Channels – Finally, be sure to setup your channels! In AdSense you can create arbitrary groupings for your ads, and can organize them either by ad unit type (x axis), or content vertical (y axis). Personally I like to group by content vertical as I feel this best drives content creation, but if you’re in the middle of monetization optimization, you may want to track by ad unit placement instead for a while. In either case, this can be hugely helpful for helping you to see what is working and what is not, to begin your optimization efforts.
Google Policy Update (December 2011)
Shortly after this article was written, it has become evident that Google is now penalizing websites that are considered to be too heavily advertised, in a way that negates user experience. Ironically, some of the sites that make good money for them are now being penalized. Early rumors were that this was a possible factor in the Panda update but it has since become clear this is a separate algorithm that has been introduced.
Google AdSense best practices have even been updated and the following layout recommendation diagram is provided. The general rule of thumb is that you should NOT be pushing content below the “fold” of the screen, and showing only ads above the fold. Instead, try to find a balanced layout that will not have such negative impact on a users likelihood to continue on with your content. That little quirk aside, everything else is still valid.