Google AdSense: Loved It. Hated It. Ditched It.

I’ve ditched Google’s AdSense and hopefully, others will too. Here are the events and backstory leading up to my decision. Back in the early 2000s, I developed a popular online hunting and fishing forum. This was before mainstream browser advertisement blockers and iPhone mania. After only six months, the site went viral. Traffic, popularity, page rank, participation, and membership (free) grew dramatically. I was the first user (patient zero) of at least 20,000 members. The community was strong. Members willingly helped other members. Word of mouth, not paid search or guerrilla marketing tactics brought more visitors than I could imagine. I was an active member and recruited other daily (sometimes hourly) active members to help moderate. Google AdSense was my friend. More importantly, other members became my friends. We would frequently meet up (physically) to group hunt and fish.

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Loved It

I made a few bucks (about $25 net) a month after hosting fees (today’s cloud wasn’t born yet). It wasn’t passive income because I still had to actively monitor and maintain the site on a daily basis (usually early morning or late evening around my full-time day job as a software developer). Fighting internet trolls was a game I did not enjoy. However, I used the income to pay my yearly hunting and fishing license fees. Hunting and fishing were “games” I did enjoy: outside and away from the computer. I use quotes around “games” because I do not mean to devalue the animal. For those of you unfamiliar with recreational hunting, killing is just 1% of the overall hunting experience.

One could say hunting and fishing were passions; I did enjoy discussing tactics, ideas, and sharing hunting and fishing stories on the forum. Although I have not done either in several years (wife, kids, exercise, health, and a great full-time job are priorities), I still head to the local range here in New Jersey once in a while to shoot guns or practice traditional archery. As the original passion waned, so did the forum and I eventually sold the website and domain name in October 2012 (averaging 1.5 million monthly page views).

One needs a thick skin to moderate a forum with thousands of members. A lot of people complain and criticize you while offering zero ideas and zero help. I kept telling myself that I could handle the trolls, personal attacks, and nastiness, but they did get to me at times. They probably impacted me and others around me more than I would like to admit. Sure, it was “just another hunting forum” with jerks hiding behind their keyboards, but people (not just me) made the site successful. Without a doubt, the forum technology challenges were easier to manage than the members.

As a longtime Microsoft developer (since 1996), the technical aspects were interesting to me: mySQL, PHP, and Apache. Moreover, I learned a lot about running the high traffic site on a Debian Linux distribution. And no, I wasn’t using vBulletin or phpBB. It was a custom built forum tailored to be blazing fast at the expense of some whiz-bang features. I traded features for speed. And the killer speed feature was appreciated by most (if not all) members. Stackoverflow, the post-forum success story, also makes performance a first class citizen.

Again, a lot of the site’s users became my friends. In addition to sharing common interests, we were “social” and making connections before social networking went mainstream. Similarly, I could say the same about my original CompuServe experience back in the 1990s. One could argue that CompuServe is the grandfather of social networking.

Ditched It

I helped my younger brother get into the IT field after college graduation. He eventually landed a Quality Assurance job at a small advertising network company named Tacoda. At the time, they needed as many impressions as possible, and I was able to make contact with one of their account managers.

They had a great publisher platform with great payout logistics: drop a cookie, and let my members’ online behavior contribute to a top-secret formula to assist targeted advertising throughout their network. If someone along the long cookie trail made a purchase, and the data my members provided helped, I would get a cut. Most conversions were small, but I had dreams of someone purchasing a Mercedes and receiving a nice check.

After partnering with Tacoda, the Mercedes “cookie dream” never became reality. However, the site was generating some nice side non-passive income (net $100 monthly) using Tacoda instead of Google AdSense. Fighting trolls, site administration, technical headaches, and dealing with member criticism started to be worth it. Well, at least financially: emotional and mental battles continued.

Unfortunately, after several successful financial months, Tacoda was purchased by AOL. After internal debate, politics, pushing, and shoving, AOL discontinued Tacoda’s platform in favor of their own in-house advertising delivery system. Today, AOL-TimeWarner-HuffPost-TechCrunch-Verizon search is powered by Microsoft’s Bing. And their advertising network, AOL Platforms, is a Franken-tech collection of various corporate purchases since abandoning Tacoda.

Loved It Again

After the acquisition ink dried, my hunting and fishing forum site was dropped by AOL because I was too small (at the time averaging 1 million page views a month). After a series of post-merger layoffs, my brother chose to stop working for media giant AOL to pursue other non-technical interests. I immediately switched back to the AdSense crutch. I had too. Unlike storage, bandwidth and hosting weren’t cheap. Things were back to normal and good again, right?

Hated It

Google AdSense revenue kept coming in until one day my account suddenly was closed. I read Google’s terms and conditions again (and again) before contacting them. Users on my hunting website discussed guns, ammunition, and archery gear, but nothing illegal. Myself and about a dozen volunteers moderated on a near hourly basis. Moreover, the site was based out of the People’s Republic of New Jersey which has very strict gun and weapon laws. Specifically, the buying and selling of weapons in New Jersey is heavily regulated, controlled, and enforced. Some members that were professional lawyers freely helped me navigate the laws.

I performed my own investigation and learned that hundreds of anti-hunting activists (i.e., PETA) from around the world were visiting my website daily in drones; randomly and spastically clicking on the AdSense banners. Thus, triggering click fraud. Politely asking them to stop did not help. Reminding them they are free to start their own site and leave us alone did not help. Limiting ads to registered members did not help because the perpetrators knew the workarounds: multiple email accounts, fake IP addresses, location hiding, etc. I appealed Google’s decision and reported my findings to no avail.

To keep up with the pace of growing traffic and increasing hosting fees, I turned to local advertising and voluntary membership fees. I made the mistake of trying to manage it myself. It was painful, way too time-consuming, and I had no skin to spare. I eventually sold the site (and domain name) in October 2012. Looking back, I should have outsourced the mundane to focus on managing content, building community, maintaining friendships, and continuing learning non-Microsoft technologies.

Ditched It Again, But Not for Money

Today, my decision to not use Google AdSense on is not a personal vendetta against Google. They can continue to plunder content. And I can choose to not become an AdSense millionaire (joke) by not pimping out my content.

I performed a gut check and decided I want:

  • To make the web a better place.
  • To not annoy visitors that I am trying to help.
  • To not leave a bad impression.
  • A fast website.

To Make the Web a Better Place

Using AdSense to earn a few bucks a month is simply not worth it. Of course, I do not have the number of visitors as before. But even if I was fortunate to have thousands of page views, there is more to life than constantly making money or providing content for cheesy industries. My visitors deserve more than seeing weight loss, non-accredited online college, gambling, and Viagra advertisements. Yes, AdSense provides an option to block certain sites and advertisers, however, is a tech blog that hopes to help others make the web better and more responsive (Zurb): one ad-free page view at a time.

To Not Annoy Visitors

Supposedly AdSense is your friend. You start generating traffic to your blog or website, slap on some AdSense, and then you are an AdSense millionaire sensation overnight, right? Not exactly. Users pay the price with frustration, distraction, and possibly misleading ad information. Mobile ads are even more distracting. Not only are ads on mobile devices annoying, most people end up accidentally clicking on them; diverting them away from your content. Finally, let’s not forget that AdSense makes visitors leave your site.

To Not Leave a Bad Impression

What does AdSense say about me and my content? I hope to build a reputation by helping others. AdSense gives off the “making a buck” impression. Visitors can detect this right away: especially my technical audience. I want to treat my visitors well; delight them with zero ads. And maybe zero ads will help me to stand out in a crowd.

A Fast Website

I like my site to be as fast as possible. AdSense slows things down. I know, it’s Google, but removing AdSense saves at least one less network request. Even worse, Google’s latest mobile Page-level ad script wants to be in the head. To be fair, the script is non-blocking, but I like to avoid putting things in the head. If you look at my head today, I need to address foundation-icons.css since these are usually not visible above the fold anyway. Performance is a feature and possibly another differentiator.

Final Thoughts

Like many others, I rode the AdSense roller coaster and became too fixated on earning advertising money at the expense of my visitors, members, and friends. Unfortunately, I tried to bring it to too. It’s hard to admit, but I sacrificed my values and user experience for money. In the future, I might recommend a book or bring on a sponsor like Telerik, Raygun, New Relic, Azure, Trello, or PluralSight. It’s important that I promote products and services that I use, own, are relevant to my audience, and are not lame.