Geek On The Hill

The Day Adsense Died

I remember it quite well, though to my regret, I didn’t take note of the date. I wish I had. I would like to erect a tombstone emblazoned with “Google Adsense” somewhere in the woods behind my house so I could alternately mourn it and urinate on it.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Adsense is a contextual advertising program run by Google. Or more precisely, it used to be a contextual advertising program. What it used to do was scan the content in a “publisher’s” Web site and use very complex algorithms to come up with advertising that was relevant to the site. The ads were paid for by companies that sold stuff that was related to the content of the pages the ads were placed on. The publisher (and Google) got paid when a visitor clicked the ad. The visitor didn’t have to actually buy anything. They just had to click the ad. This is ingeniously called the “pay-per-click” model, or PPC, in the jargon of webmasters. We’re a very creative lot.

Adsense used to be a wonderful thing. I know. I was there almost from the start. I was approved for the program very shortly after it was launched, so I’m one of Adsense’s elder statesmen, as it were. That may be why Google has never kicked me out of the program despite the many vile and colorfully-worded things I’ve written about them in their own forums. I was one of the pioneers. I can’t be dismissed as a newbie who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

I wasn’t a full-time Web publisher or webmaster back then. I owned an I.T. consulting company, and I had a few niche sites for people with similar interests to my own. I hadn’t built them with the idea of making money from them. They were basically hobby sites. But when they started getting a lot of traffic, I looked into and tried some affiliate advertising. I figured that if nothing else, it would cover the hosting costs, which were pretty substantial back then in the early days of the Interwebs.

But the affiliate ads never generated more than a few dollars a month; and quite frankly, the constant updating every time an advertiser changed their offers was simply more trouble than it was worth. I had a day job. I didn’t have time to fart around with juggling ad code every day to make ten or twenty bucks a month.

And then Adsense came along.

To be honest, I was skeptical. All I had to do, Google said, was paste a few lines of code into my pages, and Google would do the rest. There would be nothing left for me to do other than rake in the money. That and keep writing good content, of course. Adsense fed off content and spit back ads, so having quality content was key. As we used to say in Brooklyn, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Without good content, Adsense was useless.

It all sounded too easy. All I had to do was keep doing what I was doing anyway, except I would make money doing it. Impossible, I thought. But it was also free to join, so I submitted an application. It was quickly approved, so I started pasting their code into my sites. When I pulled them up in my browser, incredibly, there they were: relevant ads where I’d pasted the code.

I was dumbfounded. I never thought it would work.

I was even more amazed when the checks started coming in. You have to understand, I’d never made more than a few bucks a month from affiliate advertising. When I started getting checks from Google for hundreds of dollars every month for doing nothing other than what I would have been doing anyway, I was giddy with glee. Remember, I’d written my sites as hobby sites, not because I ever expected to get paid for them. When I saw how much money I could make monetizing my hobby, I was absolutely floored. So I started building more hobby sites and putting Adsense code on them, and the money kept rolling in.

Until the day Adsense died.

Here’s how it happened. As I mentioned earlier, when Adsense was introduced, it was a contextual advertising program. Google’s robot read the page the ad was to appear on, figured out what it was about, and selected ads that were relevant to the page’s content from a pool of ads paid for by advertisers who had bid for ad placements on that kind of page. This was all done on Google’s end by some of the smartest robots ever unleashed on the Interwebs. All the publisher had to do was paste the code into their sites and collect the money.

In a nutshell, what Adsense did was match up advertisers seeking placement on certain kinds of sites with publishers seeking advertisers for certain kinds of sites. And it did it very, very well.

Until the day it didn’t.

One otherwise-fine day, the geniuses at Google decided to completely destroy what had been a great advertising program for both advertisers and publishers by taking away the very thing that had made it great: relevancy. They decided that they would use information they’d gathered about users from their search and browsing histories to decide what ads to serve to them. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that was only because the geeks at Google hadn’t spent enough time living in the real world beyond Google’s gates to understand how things work in real life.

In the real world, most computers are shared. I don’t mean work computers, which are assigned to and used by people who supposedly are working. I mean home computers, where people have the leisure to surf the Web and buy stuff. Most of these computers are shared at least occasionally. Mom and dad may each have their own computer, but they’ll also use each other’s if they happen to be closer. The same thing goes for the kids. Even if they have their own computers, they still use each others’ or their parents’ computers from time to time. Consequently, the user history becomes that of the computer, not of any one person using it.

For example, let’s suppose that dad wakes up first, has his cup of coffee, and checks the football scores on the computer in the kitchen. When he leaves for work, mom takes his place. She’s searching for new brassieres because she’s pregnant and her breasts are swelling, but the ads that she’s seeing are football-related. When she’s done, 12-year-old Tommy sits down looking for model airplane kits, but he’s seeing ads for bras for big-breasted women. Tommy may enjoy that quite a bit, but it doesn’t generate revenue. And finally, 6-year-old Cindy sits down at the computer and does whatever it is that little kids do with their Webkinz online, but she’s seeing ads for model airplanes.

So in a nutshell, interest-based advertising would be great if computers decided what to buy, and it might even work if every computer was used by only one person. Buts that not the way things work in the real world.

Almost immediately upon Google’s introduction of interest-based ad selection, my click-through rate went down dramatically. I’m talking on the order of 85 percent, with a corresponding loss of revenue. But what really pissed me off was that there was no way to disable it. Yeah, that option did exist in the Adsense settings, but it didn’t do anything. I had interest-based ads disabled in Adsense, in my Google user account, and by a cookie on my browser that was supposed to prevent it; but I was still seeing ads based on my browsing history.

I bitched, moaned, complained, and kvetched about this mightily to Google and anyone else who would listen. But nothing ever came of it. A few days ago I happened to look at one of my technology niche sites that still has some pages left with Adsense code on them, and the ads are still irrelevant to the site’s content. They were all for various things that I’d been searching for or items related to articles I’d just read. Not a single ad had a blessed thing to do with technology. Every one was selected on the basis of my browsing history.

Even if I use my phone while I’m connected to my home office WiFi, I see ads related to things I searched for while I was on my computer. I guess Google tags the ads to IP addresses as well as computers, which makes it suck even more. That means that even if two or more users on the same LAN never use each others’ computers, they’re still seeing ads based on each others’ browsing activity.

It’s just idiotic. And it’s the reason Adsense died. It’s this obsession Google has with knowing everything about everyone, and then pretending to be able to use that information for some useful purpose — even if that purpose happens to something mercenary like hawking merchandise to Web users.

Google used to be an advertising company, and they did it very well. Now they’re a data-mining company; and although they’re rumored to do that very well, too, you couldn’t tell it by what all their data-mining has done to Adsense. They killed what used to be a very good program.