Why we’re dropping Google Ads

The advertising model is broken: we’re opting out

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Image of misleading ads
It’s because Google cannot or will not get rid of adverts like this, that we’re dropping Google Ads.

From today, we’re dropping Google adverts from GroundUp. The Google advertising model is broken: not for Google of course, which is massively profitable, but for us, the publishers who have to put up with poor quality, misleading adverts in exchange for small change.

Not too many years ago, newspapers could make real money from advertising. Then along came the Internet, followed by Gumtree, and Google Ads, which with a few minor competitors became the backbone of online advertising. As readers moved to freely available news on the web, so too did advertising revenue.

The Internet has made publications like GroundUp feasible. Because publishing and distribution costs are low for us, we can make our content available at no charge. GroundUp relies mainly on donations, but advertising, we thought, might help.

The problem is that nearly all the power in the online advertising relationship lies with Google. Not only do we compete for adverts with other media in the same market; we compete with all the shady advert-laden webpages in the world, irrespective of whether they contain fake news, porn, or other attention-grabbers. With AdSense or Ad Exchange, Google’s two mechanisms for delivering ads, we have very little say in what adverts appear, and we are paid very little.

October was GroundUp’s best month for site traffic (our articles get much more traffic on mainstream media that republish us, but we receive no advertising revenue from this). We had over 320,000 visits to the site from nearly 240,000 users. But we made a paltry R2,754 (less than $200) from Google AdSense (329,000 impressions for AdSense fundis). That does not cover the cost of one feature article.

Google pays a tiny amount each time an ad appears, and a somewhat larger amount if readers click on an ad. To understand exactly how the payment system works requires several PhDs, a four-digit IQ and stay-awake drugs.

But we’d continue to take the small change, which we’re using to build up a little reserve for GroundUp, if it wasn’t for the rubbish which keeps appearing and which we can’t get rid of. For about R20,000 a year, it isn’t worth it to pollute our content with get-rich-quick adverts featuring Patrice Motsepe, Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey (see image at top of article). We have used Google’s system to “block” the various incarnations of the Motsepe advert from the GroundUp site many times. We have navigated Google’s tortuous online complaint system to write to the company in the hope that a human or artificially intelligent being might take action — to no avail. As someone who in a previous job lodged complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA) against rotten adverts, I do not want to run bogus ads on a site for which I’m responsible. (And I doubt ASASA could get Google to change its ways.)

Google apparently employs hundreds of people to block dodgy adverts. Either more people are needed, or Google simply doesn’t care enough about the quality of its adverts. Or it’s an impossible task. These dodgy ads continue to appear on some of the world’s biggest news sites, not just small ones like GroundUp. Whichever way you cut it, Google’s system doesn’t work for any publication that cares enough not to mislead its readers.

The final straw came when a few days ago we received a warning notice from Google that we’d violated its policies because we run adverts in our new photo gallery with this image:

Google complained about the nudity in this photo that appears on this webpage. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

So Google accepts get-rich-quick ads featuring famous people without their permission, but will not let us run those adverts on a page with a photograph of nudity, even if it depicts news in the public interest. The insane hypocrisy and irony of it!

Perhaps at some point online publishers, in South Africa or internationally, will come together, agree to chuck out Google Ads, and find a new way to solicit advertising from reputable companies that pay properly. Meanwhile, we’re dumping Google Ads.

Obviously the behemoth in Mountain View won’t miss GroundUp, but we take some pride in saying the feeling’s mutual.

Geffen is the GroundUp Editor.


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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I fully support your decision, which shows a self-awareness rare in South African business, let alone publishing. Would that other news sites were as moral.

Also, your concerns about the power of this global monopoly are correct. Together with Facebook, another global monopoly, it is perhaps the biggest threat to the emergence of self-sustaining domestic online news sites. I hope this move is the start of a concerted effort to examine the business models of these two sites, and to think of alternatives to using the dominant platforms.

Moreover, unlike local ad agencies, neither Google nor Facebook pay tax in South Africa. I understand that SARS was going to sort this out, though they may have other things on their minds now.

Dear Editor

The stance you are talking with Google Ads is roundly applauded. I am beyond irritated having to navigate the ghastly intrusion of these ads while hunting down content.

I dearly wish that more sites take your stance.

Dear Editor

I really appreciate your dropping the paltry revenue in exchange for having to make us see GoogleAds. If your intention was only partly to shame me into making an occasional donation, it has been successful. I hope more news sites will follow your lead.

Dear Editor

Thank you! We appreciate not seeing those crappy ads. They are quite annoying and cheapen the look and feel of your site.

Dear Editor

My world view and GroundUp's differ substantially in many ways, but we do have our agreements too.

Your take on Google Ads is also mine. I suspect it is the "don't care" angle that rules the day. Let's face it, between Google and Facebook, the dissemination of fake news blossomed into a new art form. It is the future, I'm afraid. As an ex-independent journalist on gratefully accepted early retirement, but with a paltry pension, I cannot really afford to contribute to your site, but rest assured, if I could, I would. Strength to your arm.

Dear Editor

I fully acknowledge the frustration with AdSense. And their rules are prudish and seemingly intermittent in nature-- at one's whim, if you get my meaning. I see nothing wrong with the above image and there is no nudity involved. I've seen more skin on a public beach.

The real question at this point is, how are you going to pay for your site? I realize AdSense payments are tiny, but they are at least something. How do you plan on replacing those payments? Our site wouldn't be able to pay our writers without that tiny bit of revenue.

In any case, I applaud your efforts and wish you the best.

Dear Editor

Google adverts have and I don't think will ever be viable for small or medium websites (blogs or otherwise). I have been at this game for years and I just cant see how they have EVER had our interests at heart.

Money talks, while our business walks..

GroundUp Editor's Response

Dear Richard,

GroundUp is a registered non-profit organisation. We depend on donations from individuals and charitable foundations to cover our operating costs. Google Ads revenue covered less than one percent of our budget.

Dear Editor

As a digital marketer/advertiser, I have long been shocked at the out flow of money from SA to the US via advertising on Google and Facebook. Local media (TV, Radio, Publishing) must all have seen huge drops in ad revenue, especially when everyone moved comments off their sites and onto FB. This equals low time on site for publishers (i.e. low ad income) vs Facebook where everyone spends hours reading the comment sections (big ad revenue for FB). I have an article in my mind of this exact story.

Can I suggest you sell that Ad space independently (I'll gladly assist if you need help.) With your stats, 240k Users, is no joke.

I feel GroundUp is one of the few media entities doing proper journalism.

Keep up the good work.

Dear Editor

I started a blog 10 or maybe 15 years ago that is quite popular with drive by traffic on various bleeding edge technology articles I write. First few months with Google Ads I was impressed with a few hundred dollars but already then I got really weird ads: underwear ads while reading about reverse engineering protocols. Yea. And Google constantly clawing back on "click jacking" - You know what? I started out with a free internet with no Google Ads, so I closed my account and vowed to never place ads on free information pages ever again. I admire your stance but if you were making 100k USD would you have done the same?

Dear Editor

Maybe I should consider the option of becoming a non-profit organization so I, too, can make a profit?

How does this make any sense? It would seem to me that declaring a non-profit status yields more profit than the other choice of being a working, tax-paying constituent of the populace.

Sorry, but I cannot support this. It is contrary to the whole concept of non-profit and simply does not fit my idea of what a non-profit organisation should be all about. I certainly expect it to break even, but not make a fortune.

Goodwill is non-profit, yet they make millions. Have you seen this year's earnings? There is definitely something wrong with this picture.

While I applaud your separation from Google AdSense, I certainly do not agree with your reasoning and therefore believe your article (and headline) to be misleading. This concept could not apply to the average working man.

Dear Editor

Thanks for this article. I run a smaller website, and I dropped Google Ads in 2011: it was not worth it.

Here are some figures so we can compare:

For the year 2010, I got 22 million page views, which got me less than 800 euros (that's for one year, not one month).
The highest payment I got from google ads was in 2006 (around 1,500 euros), and it declined from there until I stopped (and the number of visitors or page views did not sunk).

Now I have self-managed ads, selected to be of interest for the visitors, and not intrusive (static image hosted on my server).

Dear Editor

Congratulations on taking such a brave step. Google's advertising has truly become an annoyance for people just trying to navigate to good content. I still can't quite believe sites like Forbes.com display these adds, detracting from their values and tarnishing their image.

I truly hope more site owners move away from Google until they change their model.

Dear Editor

At last! I thought I must be the only sane person around. I have contemplated spending minimal time as possible on the Web! I hate those ads, they are not only demeaning to the persons the use but to my and your intelligence. I highly commend you and hope others follow suit swiftly.

Dear Editor

I hope this article reaches a wide audience, I came here thanks to it being shared on HackerNews and I think this is a great move. Let's hope Google learns the error of its ways even though it seems unlikely and I wish you success.

Dear Editor

What a great move against a monopoly that undermines your news.

The last straw would be too drop Google Analytics, to really be independent and not help Google grow.

GroundUp Editor's Response

Dear James

We are indeed thinking of dropping Analytics. But that will require a bit of contemplation, research and work first.

Dear Editor

Dear editors of GroundUp,

Do you consider using other networks? If so I would recommend http://plista.com
They will also help you with the "you might like" part of your site and at least last time I checked they had extensive algorithms in place to find bogus ads and remove them from the network.

Anyway good decision in my opinion. I hope you can keep your site running :)

Disclaimer: I have worked for them ~5 years ago and they have been sold in the meantime, so my info might be outdated

Dear Editor

I see your post is on first page of Hacker News. I suspect you got more value out of this than advertisements via Google.

Thanks for leading the charge. Good on you!

Dear Editor

I recognise everything in your article - including the latest ridiculous site violations (ours was for reproducing a Lucien Freud painting).

We still have Adsense on an obsolete website that we stopped maintaining some years ago, but we ditched them some while ago on our main website. We carry ads, but we take on the (admittedly onerous) task of selling them ourselves. It means that our site is full of ads that are beautifully relevant to our readers.

Dear Editor

As a full stack developer, I will not implement a site that blatantly disregards security. Google Ads, how it's delivered, is cross-site scripting, which is a HUGE security hole. I would only ever implement an advert on a site that hosts its own ads, which, as an additional benefit to users, you'd know that advert is personally vetted by the company.

Dear Editor

Please keep sharing your advertising experience. Readers like myself are very interested in your real-life problems with Google Ads, and your process of finding and using other online advertising providers.

I'd love to see a series of articles describing your journey to supplement revenue to keep your content free.

Dear Editor

It's not ad model that's broken per-se. Just how your content interacts with it. If for example, you had an article on 'where to find the cheapest car insurance' your readers would be way more qualified, and the the click prices would be much higher ($5-10 per click). However if you are writing about 'Sand artist makes a living on Port Elizabeth beaches' there is just no relevant commercial ads to show, so you get served the bottom of the barrel RON (run of network) ads, which pay virtually nothing (how can they, there is no intent on the page).

Dear Editor

I salute your decision to drop Google Ads. In a small effort to help you make up the lost advertising revenue, I've made a donation via your website. I hope other readers will do the same, so that you benefit from having made this good decision.

Dear Editor

I'm curious if you've tried other advertising options such as Carbon, which let you choose your ads?

I'm asking because I run a few websites and am also looking for options to replace AdWords with more meaningful content. I'm also considering developing a custom platform if nothing out there already makes sense, but want to hear from others before I dive into anything!

Dear Editor

First of all, It's great to see people standing up against a clearly broken ad industry. However, the reason it's broken is because the industry leaders have been allowed time to dominate the discussion, with media and advertising experts turning a blind eye.

But do you blame them? Google has the most accessible, scalable and user-friendly ad product out there. For years, they have been given free-reign to lead the discussion on ad fraud, which we have all been happy enough to oblige by. Their annual report claimed that they blocked 1.7bn bad ads in 2016, so it's not like they aren't trying to address an issue that is getting bigger.

Despite this, people have started calling out Google as the main instigator, and, while it might have some truth, is a bit of a cop-out. Publishers and advertising experts need to be savvier. Google alone will not solve their problems, so we need to look outwardly to other third-party partners to help us solve the issues that affect revenue.

Full disclosure, I work at a company called Pubguard, who empower publishers to sniff out bad advertising that lands on their site.

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