Making Sense of AdSense… Et Al.

Search engine marketing (SEM) and publishing content intersect, now that Google and Overture have entered into contextual publishing of keyword-based ad listings. This column considers matters from both the publisher and marketer perspectives.

The search networks’ sharp increase in contextual inventory is based on publishers’ interest and their willingness to monetize inventory with contextual text listings. Therefore, it’s important to consider Google’s AdSense, Sprinks’ ContentSprinks, Overture’s Content Match, and other networks’ products from the publisher perspective.

A publisher’s mission is to monetize page views. A secondary goal is to encourage visitor loyalty, to monetize more page views. Until recently, revenue stemmed from banners, pop-ups, interstitials, rich media, and other graphical media. Pop-ups may generate revenue, but they’re hardly popular with users (regardless of whether they work for advertisers). Text links have long been available but are rarely sold or bought.

Publishers face a daily unsold inventory challenge. When inventory can be segmented into broad, standardized categories, it’s often sold through banner networks that have advertisers that seek categorized content. But many pages don’t fit into specific categories. And lots of publishers are uninspired by low ad network rates.

Introduce into the equation pay-per-click (PPC) search providers with databases of thousands of advertisers willing to buy traffic on a CPC basis, so long as the traffic is keyword targeted. Keywords in a PPC search provider’s system range from the general (travel, real estate, insurance) to highly specific (“two-man pup tent,” “nikon coolpix 5700”).

Not all search-to-content mapping at every vendor is conducted at both general and specific levels. Let’s look at the major vendors:

  • Google’s AdSense relies on Google’s legendary page analysis technology to match keywords with pages. The program accommodates large and small publishers.

  • Sprinks’ ContentSprinks content system offers marketers about 50 categories. Publisher placements are matched to one category for the purpose of picking inventory to serve.
  • Overture’s Content Match has its roots in the company’s tests with Applied Semantics (purchased by Google) and in nonsearch areas of major portals. Recently, Overture officially rolled out content inventory with major partners such as MSN,, and Yahoo It also cut a deal with Quigo to facilitate matching inventory automation with contextually relevant listings. So far, Overture’s worked only with larger publishers on contextual search. This may change as the program evolves.

Let’s look at Google’s system more closely. Google has made a huge impact on smaller publishers. It provides an alternative to banner networks and selling their own inventory. Smaller publishers are often in very specific niches. Broad category targeting doesn’t result in good ads served through most banner networks. Larger publishers (over 20 million page views a month) work with the Google AdSense Premium team and have access to revenue share information and additional reporting.

What can a smaller or midsized publisher expect from AdSense? I wanted to answer from experience, so I placed AdSense links on my newsletter archives. There’s a diverse content mix that attracts thousands of visitors daily, but we’d never run banners due to difficulties in targeting short pieces and abstracts written about thousands of Web sites.

Publishers considering the AdSense system may benefit from lessons we learned:

  • Your site should have decent HTML and be fairly search-engine friendly. Include title tags describing the essence of the page.

  • AdSense learns page content rather quickly.
  • Ad selection matters. Pick one that “pops” (several sizes and shapes are available, as are colors).
  • Outbound-link density matters. This means the more click options you give visitors, the less likely they are to click a Google ad and make you money. Other links compete for visitor attention. These can be banners, internal links, even rich media.
  • Above-the-fold placement monetizes better (no mystery there).

Some larger publishers experimented with contextual ads to monetize unsold inventory and found it so effective, they now allocate more inventory to contextual networks. Marketers can expect to receive more content inventory with their search buys.

With Google (and presumably the Overture/Quigo implementation), a spider determines which keywords are appropriate for each site page. The system then optimizes ad placement based on effective CPM. Most publishers test AdSense in nonpremium locations. That’s one reason marketers may see low CTRs on content ads. In our test as publishers, we could get average CTR well above that of a typical AdWords campaign in which content is opted in.

No discussion of contextual search advertising would be complete without an opt-in/-out discussion, that is, whether content inventory will be included in a keyword buy. Search engines are working on ways to make it easier for analytics teams and agencies to determine which clicks are for content ads and which for search.

Decide based on your own data, not industry buzz or something you read. Our Google search campaign performs identically between AdSense clicks and pure search clicks. Both kinds of traffic convert at nearly the same rate (24 percent for content vs. 23 percent for pure search, statistically indistinguishable).

We do have clients for whom there’s a measurable difference. Sometimes, large enough to seriously consider opting out of contextual ads altogether. To keep campaign management systems from getting too complicated, Google and Overture currently offer only opt in and opt out to marketers. ContentSprinks can run independently from search advertising. Meanwhile, publishers rely on the search engines’ systems to optimize for revenue.

Be a good marketer, and test all the options. Optimize based on your conversion objectives. The holiday season is right around the corner. Be ready!

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