One HUGE mistake I’ve made in my online career was not using AdSense earlier.
For years, I focused on affiliate marketing and local business promotion. While both are excellent, failing to use AdSense was a big mistake. In fact, I think not using AdSense cost me at a minimum hundreds of thousands of dollars and perhaps millions of dollars.
Why would avoiding AdSense cost me so much?
Because when I focused on affiliate marketing, I went after fairly competitive keywords that had buyer intent. I published massive websites that only published buyer-intent content with affiliate links. Because those keywords were fairly competitive, I did old-school link building which ultimately ended up receiving Google Penguin penalties.
Had I used AdSense on those sites, I would have published all kinds of content and probably would have been less aggressive with link building and focused on building large, popular niche websites (which is what I do now).
> $1 Million AdSense Revenue
Here’s a screenshot reporting AdSense revenue from April 1, 2014 to June 29, 2016:
Please note that some of that revenue was generated from paid traffic so not all of it is profit.
You can also read my income reports which covers 2 niche sites, one of which is monetized with display ads.
Why didn’t I use AdSense earlier?
I didn’t use AdSense because I listened to the wrong people. I listened to people who only published “how to make money” blogs on which they strongly suggested AdSense was a waste of time. The problem with that advice is that it’s true AdSense does badly on “how to make money” websites, at least compared to affiliate promotions and selling digital products. Naturally they’d say AdSense is bad.
BUT, had I read bloggers who actually published real websites independent of their “how to make money” websites, I’m sure I would have read how great AdSense is and I would have had a more open mind.
In fact, one big reason I publish Fat Stacks Entrepreneur is to spread the word that display ads can be a very lucrative way to monetize a website. While I don’t use much AdSense ads on this site, I use it extensively on my other websites (that have nothing to do with how to blog and how to make money online).
This is why I now only pay attention to people who actually have successful websites independent of their “how to make money online” blogs.
Just so you know, I use the term AdSense to refer to display ads in general. AdSense is the biggest ad network and often the highest paying so it’s the most common term. However, AdSense is not the only game in town when it comes to display ads.
Other display ad networks I use include Media.net (read my Media.net review), Monumetric (my Monumetric review), Criteo and Amazon Native Ads. I write about these and others I’ve used over the years in my AdSense Alternative article.
Therefore, this article is really about “how to make money with display ads”.
What types of websites are good for AdSense (Display Ads)?
Not all niches are best monetized with AdSense.
If you can make more money with affiliate promotions or selling products by all means don’t use AdSense.
However, some niches can only be monetized with AdSense.
And then many niches can be monetized with many revenue streams including AdSense, native ads, affiliate promotions, selling products, sponsored posts etc. Frankly, the more effective revenue streams you develop, the better your website.
To answer the question “what types of websites are good for AdSense”, my answer is most of them. Seriously, regardless of what your website is about, it’s worth testing some AdSense ads. It doesn’t take long to test and you just never know.
If I didn’t have this mindset, I could have lost millions of dollars.
When I started my biggest AdSense revenue website, I had no intention of using AdSense. It was going to be affiliate promotion only. However, one day I decided to put AdSense on it and it earned hundreds of dollars immediately while affiliate commissions were still non-existent at that point.
Obviously you may not have the same success I did, but you never know how AdSense will perform unless you give it a shot.
Generally speaking, AdSense is great on the following types of sites for lack of better monetization options:
- News sites
- Celebrity sites
- General information sites
- How-to websites
- Viral websites
- Photo galleries
to name a few.
AdSense is simple but it isn’t easy
Implementing AdSense is super easy. You copy the code and put it on your site where you want the ad units to appear. I use the Ad Inserter plugin (this article explains in detail how I manage display ads site-wide) to manage ad placement.
However, making 4, 5 or 6 figures per month isn’t easy… in the beginning.
But, once you’re making big bucks with AdSense, it is easy because you have traffic. As long as you have a consistent baseline of traffic, it’s fairly consistent revenue, but getting there takes time and work. A lot of work.
Benefits of AdSense
If you read biz-op and make money online websites, some will tell you AdSense is the worst way to monetize a website. I don’t agree for many types of websites. In fact, there are many benefits of AdSense. They are as follows:
Content flexibility: This is a huge benefit. You can monetize pretty much any content which enables you to publish pretty much anything as long as it’s content within AdSense terms of service.
Easy-to-use: It’s easy to create and implement ads on your site.
Consistent revenue: Yes, ad revenue fluctuates day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month but overall it’s pretty consistent revenue especially once you have a pretty high baseline of traffic. If you have very little traffic, revenue will fluctuate a lot because a few clicks one way or another can make a big difference.
Pays on time: AdSense, which is owned and operated by Google is a billion dollar company. They pay on time and like clockwork.
100% fill time: Their inventory is huge and so there are almost always ads to fill a spot.
Disadvantages of AdSense
Not easy to get approved these days: AdSense and other premium display ad networks aren’t easy to get into. Your site has to be high quality.
Risk level can be high due to AdSense will ban accounts (and keep accrued money): If you do anything that breaches terms of service, even unintentionally, you can lose your account and lose accrued money in your account.
Revenue does fluctuate throughout the year: Generally, revenue drops in the Summer. Of course this depends on your niche. Some niches do better in Summer, but generally Summer is not good for display ads.
Ad blockers may threaten display ads: I have no idea where this is going, but ad blockers do
Stringent terms of service: AdSense has tough rules to follow. I could make way more money if I had carte blanche with ad placement; however, AdSense has rules to avoid accidental clicks so one must ease off the aggressiveness for fear of losing an account.
Lower revenue on mobile: Because there’s less screen space, display ads aren’t as effective on mobile devices. Mobile revenue per one thousand visitors is almost always less. However, this is generally the case with most methods of monetization.
The AdSense Revenue Formula
The AdSense formula has 3 variables:
Traffic x CTR x CPC = Revenue.
CTR is “ad click through rate” and CPC is the revenue per click (i.e. cost per click).
To increase your revenue, you must increase one, two or three of the variables (traffic, CTR or CPC).
1. Increasing CPC
The only ways to increase the CPC is to focus on USA traffic (it pays the most) and choose niches with some commercial viability. Frankly, I don’t worry about the commercial viability of niches because with retargeting ads these days, AdSense does a good job of displaying ads that will generate some revenue. Moreover, choosing the high CPC niches such as law, insurance, website hosting is no fun and is pretty difficult to break into.
2. Increasing CTR
You can increase AdSense CTR with Ad placement. The higher up in the content usually the higher the CTR. Other CTR variables include ad text color and ad sizes.
If your AdSense CTR gets too high, you may incur penalties such as losing the Nessie Arrows or even losing your AdSense account altogether because of accidental clicks. That fact is while you want a decent CTR, you don’t want to manipulate it so you get accidental clicks on your AdSense ads. Therefore, there is a cap to how high you should strive for a CTR. This doesn’t mean you shoot for a low CTR. It means there’s a balance.
Ad placement options are pretty standard. The more aggressive you are (placing more ads above-the-fold), the more money you’ll generally make. The following are the main spots for ad placement:
In the header: Generally this is a terrible location for ads. I do not do this.
Above title: This can be a great location if the ad is aligned with the content.
Below the title: I love this placement. It works great on desktop and mobile and tablet. However, it can attract accidental clicks so if you have an unusually high CTR, this may not be good for your site. Instead push the ad down after paragraph 1 or paragraph 2.
FYI: On mobile, do not use ads that are longer than 100 at the top of a post. This is the mobile leaderboard. In other words, AdSense doesn’t like you using a 300×250 unit at the top of a post on mobile.
Below paragraph 1 or 2: This is a great location. On mobile you can use a 300×250. On desktops and tablets you can use a 728×90 or a large rectangle.
Right or left aligned: A lot of websites use a left or right aligned 300×250 at the top of blog posts. I’ve never found this particularly effective, but then I almost always have an image at the top of my posts so this placement results in the ad being below the fold.
Middle of the content: I have one ad unit in the middle of the content. I center it. It does okay but not nearly as well as units above the fold.
Bottom of content: I’ve never had tremendous success with AdSense units at the bottom of content, but some publishers do. It’s worth doing.
Top of sidebar: This is a great location for me. I use a 300×600 unit toward the top of the sidebar (I use a right sidebar). I have a list of 3 to 4 recent post titles at the top followed by the 300×600 AdSense unit.
Bottom of sidebar: If AdSense permitted their ads in sticky sidebars, I’d put AdSense ads at the bottom of a sidebar but sadly they don’t permit sticky ads so I don’t put AdSense ads at the bottom of a sidebar. I reserve this for a 300×600 Criteo ad with a Media.net backfill. This arrangement performs well. Yes, it’s a sticky sidebar so this Criteo/Media.net combo scrolls down with the visitor. The visibility is awesome.
Footer: I don’t bother placing AdSense units in the footer. Instead I put Monumetric ads there which do really well for me.
3. Increasing Website Traffic
That leaves increasing traffic as the key variable to increase AdSense revenue over which you have the most control. This is where it’s at. Getting loads of legitimate traffic is how you make a lot of money with AdSense, assuming you’ve fine tuned your CTR (not too high and not too low).
There are reams of blog posts on “how to make money with AdSense” that list a bunch of tactics to increase AdSense revenue (colors, channels, keywords, niches and placement), but the fact is once you do some pretty smart placement after testing, the main way to crank up AdSense revenue is to crank up traffic.
I’m not suggesting you stop testing ad placement, colors and sizes. Do this, but it’s important you always focus on the number one priority, which is to increase your website traffic.
Once you have 500,000 monthly visitors, little tweaks can result in nice revenue bumps for sure, but long term growth requires growing traffic. Just don’t tweak ad placement so much you incur an accidental click penalty such as losing your Nessie arrows.
How to increase website traffic
Books have been published on this topic so I’m not going to go into every detail. I’m going to give you the broad strokes approach to growing traffic. You probably won’t like it, but here it is.
a. Publish content people want and like
Seriously, this is important. It doesn’t have to be long content. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. It doesn’t have to be the best ever written on the topic.
Instead, give people what they want. It can be a photo gallery, a video, a long article, a slideshow, a useful tool… anything as long as it does what the title suggests. When people like content, they will share it. They will visit other parts of your site. Other sites will link to it (although it never hurts to contact other publishers and let them know about it).
For example, listicle clickbait gets a bad rap. I don’t think the bad rap is deserved. Why? Because people like it. They like the lists. They like the images. They like the brief, easy-to-read write-ups for each item.
Let’s face it, people don’t always need or want to read a 5,000 word treatise on a topic. Sometimes 300 words is good enough.
What happens when you publish content people want?
- Search engines take notice from social signals and links.
- People share it driving traffic from social platforms.
In time it becomes a traffic magnet.
b. Do pay attention to keywords
If you’re going to spend time publishing content people want, you might as well incorporate keyword research to help pull in organic search traffic which is wonderful passive traffic and therefore passive income.
It’s a shame to publish a piece of content that attracts links and social signals only for it to pull in little organic search traffic because it doesn’t target any good keywords. While Google is a pretty darn smart search engine and will impute keywords into content, why not be more blunt and incorporate the keyword(s) clear as day in the title and in the content?
While having a nice spurt of social traffic is fine, there’s nothing like pulling in 15,000 visitors month after month to a single post from organic search traffic.
c. Buy traffic to jump-start the process
You may or may not profit from paid traffic with display ads. It can be done, but it won’t always work. There are many variables involved. I’ve done it extensively, but it’s harder these days with Nessie arrow issues.
Nevertheless, if you can get close to break even, investing in some paid traffic to get eyeballs on your site and content can be a worthy investment. Start with small investments and see what happens. Visitors are visitors and if they share the content and come back to your site and join your email list, it could very well be worth it in the long run.
d. Be clear about your traffic strategy
I’m a hypocrite here because I’ve pursued many traffic strategies. In the long run it’s best to focus on a strategy. Here’s an example.
Swing for the fences vs. shotgun approach
You can shoot for the moon by going after monster keywords with huge search volume. Work hard, build a lot of links and hope eventually you’ll pull in 50,000 monthly visitors for a single post. You’ll publish much less content because much of your time will be spent promoting the content which includes social traffic, attracting links and maybe paid traffic.
You can target many long tail keywords by publishing a lot of content. If you have 1,000 posts each pulling in on average 20 visitors per day, that’s 20,000 visitors per day. That’s 600,000 per month. Keep in mind the content still needs to be good. 1,000 garbage posts won’t do anything for you. However, you can focus on publishing and spend less time promoting.
I’ve done both. I tend to prefer going for more long tail keywords and publishing more content. I like this approach because by publishing more content I have more social media content to post. However, the more authority my sites gain, the more interested I am to swing for the fences.
AdSense is NOT the ONLY Game in Town
For years, the only way to generate any decent revenue with display ads was AdSense.
I’m so happy that isn’t the case anymore.
In fact, in 2015 my Media.net revenue started matching my AdSense revenue.
In late June 2016, another ad network I use (in alpha – read review here) started earning more than AdSense (although part of that is due to my losing Nessie arrows – UPDATE – I got my Nessie arrows back with AdSense, but even with arrows, my other ad network still out-earns AdSense which is pretty amazing).
Some sites earn loads with native ads.
The point is twofold:
1. Don’t just use AdSense. Incorporate other ad networks on your site.
2. AdSense isn’t necessarily going to be your highest earning ad network. You may just find, like I have, that other ad networks can earn as much or more than AdSense.
I think it’s great that there are viable AdSense alternatives because it provides display ad revenue diversification. It’s scary being 100% dependent on AdSense. These days, AdSense makes up about 20% to 30% of my overall revenue which is fantastic. Yes it would hurt if I lost my AdSense account, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic.
Mixing in affiliate offers
While I earn more from display ads than affiliate commissions, I still earn a healthy 4 figures per month from affiliate offers. I think affiliate promotion has a role to play on every site.
While I do put display ads on posts that promote products with affiliate links, you don’t have to. You can choose to turn display ads off on posts with affiliate offers. It’s up to you. It’s worth testing.
The point is regardless of what niche you’re in, it’s always worth testing affiliate offers and publishing buyer-intent content that aggressively promotes products/services with affiliate links.
Are AdSense Link Units Good?
I think AdSense is seriously dropping the ball with their Link Unit product.
It could be so much better and so much more lucrative.
As it currently operates, it’s so bad I don’t use it.
The problem with AdSense link units is twofold:
- The second page looks terrible. Nobody clicks through and the offerings are often terrible which baffles me because since they have such a huge advertiser pool they should have fabulous offerings.
- The ad units look terrible… circa 2001.
In fact, when it comes to the Link Unit concept, Media.net does a fabulous job. Media.net ad units require a two-click process to get paid. The thing is, Media.net ad units get clicked like crazy and with customized landing pages along with a decent set of advertiser offering, these ads can pay out really, really well.
AdSense Mistakes to Avoid
I covered this topic in detail in my “20 AdSense Mistakes Too Many Websites Make” article.
With the widespread Nessie penalty these days, here are a few more tactics that can land you in hot water:
Ads adjacent to images: Ads with Nessie arrows adjacent to images make the image appear as if it’s a slideshow and therefore attracts accidental clicks. I almost always have a buffer between ads and images especially above-the-fold.
Ads adjacent to “Next Page” links/buttons: This placement tactic attracts accidental clicks with AdSense ads that have the Nessie arrow. The arrow appears to be the button for continuing to the next page. It’s a tactic that works, but is not something AdSense likes.
Ads placed in anyway to attract accidental clicks: As far as I can tell, the aim of the Nessie penalty is to reduce/eliminate accidental clicks. Therefore, when placing ads, be careful to avoid placement that may attract accidental clicks.
AdSense Tips (for higher revenue)
728×90 units in content: On every site I have display ads I make my content areas wide enough to accommodate a 728px wide banner ad. If your website doesn’t do this, either get a theme that has a wide content area (WordX and Eleven40 themes do out-of-the-box or hire WPCurve to widen the content area).
Above or below post titles: I like placing a leaderboard either above or below post titles. You can split test this.
IMPORTANT: Please keep in mind that these days if ad CTR gets too high, you can lose your Nessie arrows in text ads which will hurt ad CTR no matter where the ads are placed. I’ve lost my Nessie Arrows due to units directly below post titles and high up in the sidebar. I continue with this placement because those units still earn well so it’s worth it.
If you want to avoid the Nessie penalty, consider placing your first in-content unit after paragraph one or two. This is less aggressive that will likely avoid Nessie penalties (not a guarantee, but does lower the risk).
High up in the sidebar: I like the 300×600 unit above-the-fold in the sidebar. I use a right sidebar. This unit does well.
Have plenty of white space on your site: I like simple looking sites with plenty of white space so ads stick out.
Customize ads for each type of device: I use Ad Inserter and WP Mobile Detect plugins to fully control which ads appear on different devices. I explain all this here.
WARNING: A lot of AdSense tips you’ll read on the internet are designed to increase CTR. While those tips worked great for many years, these days with the Nessie penalty (which is losing Nessie arrows in text ads), you want to be careful with getting too high of an ad CTR to avoid the Nessie penalty. I’m talking from personal experience.
Therefore, there are other tricks you can use such as matching text color to your site’s hyperlinks and other aggressive ad placement tactics, but frankly they’re not worth the risk these days.
AdSense does not have to be chump change.
It’s a viable way to make serious money online with a website.
The key is building up a high traffic website and doing plenty of ad testing to maximize RPM (without overdoing it).
Generally speaking, display ads earns more for the big media than anything else. If it’s good for billion dollar publishing giants, it’s certainly good enough for me.
Jon Dykstra is a six figure niche site creator with 10+ years of experience. His willingness to openly share his wins and losses in the email newsletter he publishes has made him a go-to source of guidance and motivation for many. His popular “Niche site profits” course has helped thousands follow his footsteps in creating simple niche sites that earn big.