One month ago, I turned on the Google Ads here at ongoing. It’s gone pretty well; herewith a report with some more detail, and some observations on how the system is apt to influence those who use it.
First of all, I’m pretty limited by the AdSense Terms and Conditions (which by the way are admirably written, proof that legalese can be made human-readable if you care enough); I can’t give details of “click-through rates or other statistics relating to Site performance in the Program provided to You by Google.”
Some Basic Numbers · As of mid-afternoon on the last day of the month my revenue exceeds my typical monthly hosting/bandwidth costs by well over US$500. For reasons I’ll discuss below this is quite a bit more than I’d expect in a typical month, but I’m pretty sure the revenue will stay well ahead of the expenses. Summary: I’m not going to get rich or buy a new car with Google Ads, but turning ongoing from an expensive hobby to a sideline revenue source feels good.
It’s not at all a steady flow. Google pays you only for click-throughs, and the number of impressions (people who see an ad), and click-throughs, and price per click-through, are all over the place day to day. Obviously, this gives any blogger doing AdSense an incentive to behave in a way that drives the numbers up. The real purpose of this essay is to look at those incentives.
The Reporting · The AdSense reporting facility is basic but hits a decent 80/20 point. There’s not much transparency in the program, i.e. I have no idea how they calculate the revenue they give me per click-through, and it’s obvious that some are worth more than others. If I get time I’ll try to do some analysis of the revenue/click patterns and report back.
I’ve proved to my own satisfaction that I can measure readership, but if Google’s going to why should I? And since I could in principle compute those numbers myself, if I choose to report them I think I’m effectively not violating the AdSense Terms even if I’m getting them from Google reports.
Pressure to Write · Sometimes you don’t feel like posting, or don’t get around to it, or are NDA’d so heavily on current projects that you can’t post. With every silent day, the Google revenue trends inexorably downward. So if the money is important to you, this is a real incentive to find something new every day to tell the world about.
Get Those Fresh Links! · When people first see the Google ads, quite a few click on them. Then, as time goes by and repeat visitors have seen them before, the click-through rate and the revenue fall off; but interestingly, after a few days the click-through rate stops declining and levels out.
On January 9th CNN.com ran a reprint, on the front page of their Technology section, of John Battelle’s Business 2.0 write-up on the Foo Camp. It had a pointer to ongoing and this increased my typical daily readership by a factor of five or so. Since basically all of them were first-time visitors, the click-through rate went way up; I estimate that this link was worth well over $200 in revenue. It’ll be interesting if I ever get Slashdotted again, since that multiples the feed by a factor of ten or twenty not five.
The lesson is obvious; you’d really like to figure out a way to get your blog linked-to from the outside in a way that will bring first-time visitors. The corollary is that it’s going to be tough for someone who writes obsessively about the same subject all the time to keep the click-through rates up. Which is kind of a pity; some of my favorite writers are one-subject obsessives.
RSS · Basically, when people read ongoing in an RSS feed, they don’t see ads and I don’t see revenue. The only ongoing pieces delivered in the RSS feed have been the one-paragraph short pieces, which also show up in full on the front page. I’ve gotten quite a bit of pressure to put the full articles in the feed but I’ve always resisted, because I regularly write really long pieces and it seems stupid to ship ’em out to people who probably aren’t going to read them; and also because I do a lot of pieces with really big pictures.
Now, I’ve got a direct financial incentive to get my readers to come through ongoing rather than read me in the RSS context. Let’s not sugar-coat this; running ads places my interests in direct conflict with my readers’ in this respect. Since nobody is paying to read ongoing, I can live with making them temporarily pull back the covers and get out of the warm fuzzy embrace of their RSS reader.
In this respect, let me quote one of my heroes, Vladimir Nabokov: I write for love, but I publish for money.
Long/Standalone vs. Short/Inline · Here at ongoing, every entry has its own URI; if it’s a one-paragraph piece it may go unvisited since it’s both on the front page and in the RSS feed. But the majority of (longer) entries work really well with AdSense; Google puts music-related ads here, Art ads here, Venture Capital ads here, political ads here, and XML-related ads here.
Bloggers like Searls and Scoble, who write great stuff but jam all of it into the front page, are really not giving Google a chance to be smart about dealing out ads, and while they’re both quite a bit more popular than I am, I bet I make more ad money than they could as long as I’m running focused standalone essays and they’re running inline pieces.
Which is another pity, because I like both those guys’ style even though that’s not the way I write.
Conclusion · I don’t want to sound over-dramatic, but this feels like A New Thing In The World; a competent writer with interests that people care about can get paid (moderately) for self-publishing.
My readership here at ongoing goes up steadily from month to month, mostly (I think) because the population of people who read blogs goes up steadily from month to month, and I coast along with the organic audience growth. I wonder if the revenue coasts up from month to month, too? I’ll keep you posted.