July 30, 2007
Owning and operating a forum can be a tricky task. Not only do you have to struggle with the many obstacles of establishing the forum such as working on your initial member build up, getting rid of problem members early, and making sure your forum is easy to use, but there is also the major problem of monetization.
Forums are traditionally considered to be more difficult to monetize (if you are using ads to monetize the forum) than a regular website – mainly because of the type of visitor a forum receives. Typically, a lions share of the visitors on a forum are going to be from members who are there to participate in conversations, not click on ads. Regular forum members know what they are looking for and subsequently develop a very strong “ad blindness” which is difficult to overcome.
It is for this reason that many forum owners completely throw out the idea of using Google Adsense ads to monetize their forums.
But this is a mistake.
Forums, if optimized correctly, can experience clickthrough rates that rival those of normal websites. Of course, you need to go through the process of optimizing.
Adsense Optimization for Forums – The Basics
There is no end to downloadable guides on Adsense – and most of these guides are well worth their money in my opinion. But most of these guides all cover the same basic principles. I don’t want to spend too much time on things that you already know, so I’m going to cover the most basic principles quickly. These basics tend to apply to both forums and regular websites.
First, always test and record your changes. This is a rule that applies to anything that you do with your website, not just to Adsense optimization. Never assume that you know what is going to work best on your site – let your visitors decide that for you. You should test ad sizes, colors, formats and locations to see which perform the best. If possible, setup split testing on your site and track your results using Google’s channel tracking.
Be sure to give each version of your ad enough time to get real results. You should aim to give your ad at least 500 views (preferably 1,000 views) before making any changes. 100 ad views is certainly not enough to make any good judgment on.
Adsense optimization experts seem to agree that overall there is one ad size and color combination that seems to win most split tests. This ad size is the 336 x 280 ad size, with a blue headline (#0000CC), black text (#000000), and a dark grey url (#666666).
Although this is not always true, often blending your ads appearance into the content of your pages is a good way to increase your clickthrough rate. The reason behind this is simple: people have developed ad blindness. In general, if they recognize something as an ad, they will simply ignore it and move on to what they believe to be regular content. By blending your ads into your site, your website readers will be more likely to read the ad, and subsequently click it.
Now be sure to never “trick” your website users into clicking on an ad. Never use text that would mislead the person into thinking that the ad is part of your content, and never tell the user to click the ad in any way. Also, Google no longer allows publishers to place images next to their Adsense ads in a way that would make the images look like they are part of the ads.
Moving on to More Advanced Optimization Strategies
You know that 336 x 280 ads tend to have the highest clickthrough rates, and you know that you should blend your ads into your site. But users are getting used to these techniques and are growing a new “blindness” to these ads. What can you do to better increase the performance of your ads? Here are a few advanced optimization strategies.
Give Your Users an Obvious Ad and then Feed them a Blended Ad
This is one of my new favorite optimization techniques. The concept behind this technique is simple: when a user scans a page for content, often they will initially scan it and identify where the ads are on the page. If you give your user an obvious ad, they will become blind to that style of an ad, but not necessarily other ads on the page.
I have included an example of this from an earlier version of DebtManagementTalk.com – an Adsense revenue sharing forum that relies on having fairly high Adsense clickthrough rates.
Now this isn’t necessarily the best example of this principle in action (this site doesn’t necessarily lend itself to this technique), but using this method did produce an increase in revenue.
The ad on the left is obvious. It has a big border, looks like an ad that you would see on many sites, and is in a common location. When a visitor is scanning the page, they will see the obvious ad and assume that other ads on that page will appear the same. Notice that just to the right of the obvious ad is a Google ad that blends into the page much better, is styled differently, and doesn’t look anything like the obvious ad.
Source Order Your Ads to Get the Highest Paying Ads Listed First
There is a rather significant problem with the example above. When you use multiple ad units on one page, Google will typically serve up the highest paying ads first and the lowest paying ads later.
In the example above our obvoius ad, which was inserted not to create a lot of clickthroughs but rather to set a “tone” for ad design throughout the page, appears first in our source code. This means that this “diversion ad” will hold the best paying clicks, but will probably rarely be clicked on.
It is not always true that ads that appear first on your page will earn you the most money. When optimizing your Adsense ads, try setting up channel tracking on each of your ads to see which ad spot gets the most clicks and which ad spot receives the most money per click. Once you have determined this, you should rework your code to try and get the ad with the most clicks to appear in the spot of the ad that receives the most money per click.
Watch Out for Cannibals
This goes along with the topic that I just talked about, but there are a few more things to consider. If you have an ad that realizes a lower amount of revenue per click and outperforms your ads that have a higher revenue per click, your ads are said to be cannibalizing each other.
A classic example of this is with Google’s Ad Links. Many people include Ad Link units on their page because they are so easy to “blend” into the content on your site. However, ad link units also typically have a lower revenue per click than regular ads.
If you have an adlink unit that is getting a significantly higher number of clicks – and your users leave your page for good, you may be losing money.
Cannibalization can also occur when you place other types of ads on your website. Do you have another approved contextual ad unit on your page that is not as profitable as Adsense? Is it taking clicks away from your adsense ads?
Not all competiting ads will cannibalize each other, which is why it is important to always test your results.
Finally, Sometimes a Redesign is in Order
Most forum designs, unfortunately, are not designed to work well with Adsense. They tend to have fluid layouts which do not fit Google’s fixed ad sizes well, and it is often difficult to blend the ads in such a way that it flows with the rest of the content on your page.
There may come a point when you have tested, tried, and incorporated every conceivable ad variation, style, and color on your website only to see marginal improvements. If this is the case, you may want to consider an entire redesign of your forum.
Through using the techniques I listed above, I was able to make small improvements to the ads performance, but the overall performance was still less than desirable. It was time for a redesign.
DebtManagementTalk.com moved from a fluid (full screen) layout to a fixed width layout. The colors were changed to be more vibrant and to offer more possible color options with the Adsense ads. The discussion layouts were stylized differently to allow for a much more natural incorporation of ads.
Although testing is still ongoing, the redesign improved the Adsense revenues on the forum significantly.
Adsense and Forums Can Work with Work
Forums obviously have the potential to bring a very large amount of traffic, and contrary to what many people believe about forums, they can actually incorporate Adsense ads very effectively.
It simply takes steady efforts of optimization, recording your changes, and an obsessive desire to always beat your best ad performance.
Author: Mark Daoust is the owner of AffiliateKB.com, your Sherpa Guide to Affiliate Marketing