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Brave New World? Dealing with Changes in Adsense Textual Advertising

Share your insights into new text ad formats with the community.

7:52 pm on Oct 1, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Preface: This thread is an attempt to get a handle on the details and ramifications of recent changes to text ads in Adsense. I'm going to preface this thread with the following fact as of 10/1/2013…THE SITUATION IS FLUID! I'm going to also ask our moderators to help keep this thread on point so it can be used as a repository and/or primer on the subject of Adsense Text Ads in this "brave new world" Google seems to be promoting for publishers and advertisers alike.

A Brief History of Textual Advertising
First, I can't speak to what the first text ads in the Adsense program actually looked like because I didn't get into the program until a couple of years after its inception. Generally though, my experience has been that a text ad, until fairly recently, was just that, predominately "text."

For many years, publishers have basically had the same options for creating these ads and for placing them on their websites. Basic features of these ads included a hyperlinked title, a URL, some descriptive text and a border. Publishers could change the color of these various elements to style the ad in ways designed to either blend in or contrast with their site design. Over the years, Google has also experimented with a variety of "flags" for lack of a better term (usually connected to the border of the ad) to indicate that the content was an ad and to link to information on how a viewer could manage their personal ad settings. Today this manifests itself as a small arrow in a box located at the top-right-hand corner of the ad space.

Anyway, for long-time participants in the Adsense program, this has been the landscape. Over time, people have learned to work with the available options and occasional changes in ad formatting which includes Google's ongoing experiments with multiple ads displayed in a single ad unit and layout changes such as whether ads were centered in a given space or aligned left or stacked, etc.

Then, in 2012, we were introduced to "Nessie." When she first showed up though, we all just called her "the arrow". Like her or not, she was the first truly dramatic change to text ads in a very long while and who could have guessed that she was just the first of many changes that would usher in a new era in the world of Adsense text ads that is still evolving as we speak? She certainly raised a commotion but, before getting into the ramifications of Nessie and later developments, it might be pertinent to quickly discuss a few non-Adsense-specific historical notes about textual advertising on the Internet in general.

Some will remember, or may still even use advertising programs that allow you to create your own textual advertisements to drive traffic to say, an affiliate program or to generate actual per-click revenue. Well, back in the day, this is pretty much how things were done (webmasters built hand-made links to advertiser sites and or used supplied banners or snippets of html provided by the advertiser which they then often modified). This gave publishers a lot of leeway in the content of text ads as well as how they were formatted, and integrated into the content of a page. As a result, very early on in the history of Internet advertising, people were figuring out how to game these programs with sneaky techniques that encouraged users to click through to places they never had a desire to visit in the first place (like adult websites for example). Of course, advertisers (the source of payment for these clicks) wound up with tons of junk traffic for their efforts and often little to show for it while clever publishers were raking in the cash. As you can guess, this has created a bit of tension over the years between advertisers and those that they rely on to get their message out (namely the publisher community). More and more, advertisers and advertising networks began dictating the terms of ad placement on publisher's sites and, over time, more and more tools for generating actual ad code came into being. First it was, "Create a link pointing to our site" and then it was "Copy this HTML and paste it onto your website." Then came "Copy this iframe…" and eventually we got, "Copy this JavaScript…" Over time, much of the actual code used to generate text ads has been removed from the publisher's control and this has been (along with other reasons) a direct attempt to combat fraud in the system.

As a personal aside, I essentially believe that Google may have single-handedly saved pay-per-click advertising from going the way of the Dodo. At the time when Adsense arrived on the scene, many pay-per-click programs had already failed or were in the process of failing because of fraud and I'm fairly convinced that the war against fraud has brought us the most recent round of changes to text ads in the Adsense program. Regardless of the reasons why, this thread is simply an attempt to sort through these most recent changes and wrestle with the effects they will have on this industry going forward.

Just to round things out, I'm going to add one last semi-historical observation before moving on to the heart of the matter. For those who have recently ventured out from the Adsense world and taken a look at replacing Adsense or supplementing it with Media.Net ads, you may be noticing some similarities in display formatting between the two. Call me paranoid but it looks to me like some of Google's new text ad features are directly addressing this slippage (and/or are an attempt to blur the differences between the two) by mimicking some of Media.net's approaches. One example is the removal of underlining in the ad title and making it larger. This was something I actually complained to Media.net about when testing their ads so it's actually surprising to see Google doing it now. The point here is that competition; perhaps as much as fraud control is a driving factor in the changes in the online advertising industry so perhaps, over time, this competition will benefit the publisher community in ways we can't even yet imagine. We'll see. Right now, what I'm seeing is a plethora of mixed reviews.

…and one last caveat before moving on the the heart of the matter…

I concede that the above does not represent a complete history of Internet advertising or Adsense, or even textual advertising as it pertains to Adsense. The above is from my personal experience and focuses on points I feel are relevant to the discussion that follows, namely a discussion about what is happening to Adsense textual advertising. This is not an attempt at a history lesson but rather an attempt to provide some context for the discussion that hopefully ensues.

What this thread is and is not! This thread really has nothing to do with earnings except in the fact that clicks do lead to earnings. CPC is irrelevant to the subject of how well users interact with a given textual ad unit format. Having said that, CTR IS a relevant subject as it is an indicator of viewer interaction. How much money you make on those interactions is dependent on factors outside the scope of this discussion generally e.g. you can't control the amount of advertiser dollars in the auction at any given time, etc.

This thread IS about the looks, behavior and features of these text ads and the sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant ramifications these changes are introducing for publishers. I've seen plenty of posts that offer obversations like the following (here and on other boards)…

"I hate these new ads…"
"I love these new ads…"
"Revenue is down X% since these ads started showing…"

These kind of statements offer no insight to the actual ramifications of Google's latest experiments and this thread is about making observations that can help others sort this somewhat messy situation out and possibly identify strategies for working with these new units. The above statements leave too many variables unaccounted for to possibly be of any value beyond that of an opinion pole.

Anyway, if anyone cares to have a substantive discussion on the ramifications of large, unlinked titles, ads displaying in panels, too much un-clickable space, wasted space, the effectiveness of the new nessie button or the fact that you're pretty much stuck with borders around your ads now, this is a good place to do it. This is an invitation to share your insights into arguably the most sweeping change to Adsense any of us have ever see. Hopefully a bit of collective wisdom will rise to the surface as a result.

And one last caveat: There are major differences in how these new units look and act depending on your Adsense settings related to performance enhancing features for text ads so it's important to specify whether you have enhanced features turned on or off when commenting.

So, thanks for participating if you're so inclined. Hope you find something of use her if you're just interested in browsing.

Got to get some actual work done now but I'll be back with some of my own observations in due course.
3:55 am on Oct 2, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I'm interested to hear experiences on how the new highlighted ads on mobile have had an effect on CTR, if at all.
4:20 am on Oct 2, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I'm interested to hear experiences on how the new highlighted ads on mobile have had an effect on CTR, if at all.

It's a good question and my quick answer is that mobile has dropped off dramatically over the last couple of weeks > 50%.
9:31 pm on Oct 2, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I'm interested to hear experiences on how the new highlighted ads on mobile have had an effect on CTR, if at all.

OK, since mobile was mentioned, I'd like to offer an observation that may help you to determine whether to use a responsive ad unit or a standard ad unit when designing your responsive ad strategy (and the reasoning behind this is directly related to the design and performance of these new text ads in a responsive site design where all devices are important).

So, to serve ads in a responsive environment, you essentially have two options (as described by Google). You can use JavaScript to serve up individual ad units of different sizes based on the viewport or you can use media queries and Google's new responsive ad unit (beta) to achieve the same thing (or at least that's what it looks like at a glance).

Here's something to consider though. With G's responsive units, all your ad sizes are going to have the exact same set of color settings. With the JavaScript approach, you're actually serving a set of different ads which can all have their own unique color settings. So, if these new ad units are not performing as well on mobile using the same settings as applied to the desktop, it may mean some adjustments are in order. If you're using individual ads for different viewport dimensions (the JavaScript approach), then you have the ability to tweak your colors for mobile, tablet or desktop independently. This may be necessary to effectively dial in all three environments. G's responsive ads at this time may very well limit your options for dealing with the effectiveness of ads across different devices. Color seems to be a big key in getting the most out of these units so keeping your options as open as possible may be the way to go, even if it means sacrificing a bit in load time as a result.
11:07 am on Oct 4, 2013 (gmt 0)

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System: The following message was cut out of thread at: http://www.webmasterworld.com/google_adsense/4598267.htm [webmasterworld.com] by martinibuster - 3:21 am on Oct 5, 2013 (utc -8)

Hating the new ad formats - ctr down 90% no site changes made during the period, the ads just don't sit well and it would seem that site visitors aren't so attracted to them.

Text ads with old school txt formats used to convert well. whereas those 728 90 with big fat text don't. Not impressed at all, we should have options to opt out of these new styles.

I don't see the point in having the option in the ad console to stipulate font size, color etc, only for font size NOT to carry through to the ad.

Nice way to to treat your publisher base Google.

[edited by: martinibuster at 11:22 am (utc) on Oct 5, 2013]

3:45 am on Oct 7, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Good thread!

My mobile CTR is down over 60% since the changes a few weeks ago.

The fact that the "font size" setting for text ads no longer does anything is the main problem I think.

Why does this option still exist if it doesn't do anything?
2:52 pm on Oct 7, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Yes, the ad editing system and the sample ads in the Adsense interface are woefully out of touch with current realities and one could argue that it's beginning to border on "false advertising" on Google's part. In other words, when I click on a link that says "View examples of ad types and sizes" and I see square nessie buttons and underlined ad titles, that's what I expect my ads to look like. When I see, a font size setting, I expect it to control the font size, etc. I'm fairly certain, the editing tools will catch up with actual ad styles eventually, meanwhile Google's silence on all of this is deafening and, IMHO, rude!

Having said that, I think it's maybe appropriate to itemize the major "features" of these new ads that seem to be most detrimental in most folks eyes. I will say that I've seen a fair amount of comments indicating that people like the way the ads look but looks in this case seemn to have very little to do with the effectiveness of the ads or at least no one it tying aesthetics to stories of great increases in CTR. So aesthetics aside, here's what I see as the issues.

1. Uncontrollably large font sizes (this is actually two issues)
2. Lack of underlined titles
3. Less clickable space in the unit
4. Difficult if not impossible to have an ad without a border

And specifically for un-enhanced text ads
5. No hover effect whatsoever

There are other complaints I've heard including complaints that the round nessie button looks more like an icon than a button and that it's positioning doesn't imply taking an action but I'll grant that it does produce a hove effect which gives it some value.

Issues 1-3 and 5 above all contribute to a lessened sense of the ad being a call to action for the viewer. The first three (depending on your layout) are capable of causing your ad to virtually disappear on the page and the fourth seems to be an attempt to address that issue specifically.

Right now there are very few things a publisher can do to make the ad look more clickable. My conclusion, given the current set of circumstances is that it's important to make the units more noticeable.

This means creating borders and backgrounds that stand out from your site design. It means using url colors that both differentiate the URL from the title and also suggest clickability. It means using a font that's different than your normal site font. Trying to blend these units into the design seems like asking the viewer to ignore them. I also think this means using whitespace to create visual separation between ads and your content. Anyone see a trend here? Oh, perhaps G is trying to say what they've always contended: e.g. don't make users think that ads are part of your editorial content and/or your site's interface. In a nutshell, STOP TRYING TO TRICK PEOPLE INTO CLICKING ON YOUR ADS.

The issues mentioned above are real. My analysis of their implications and related strategies remain my humble opinion and they are submitted as such. I'll quote the Grateful Dead on this point and leave it at that "...believe it if you need it, if you don't just pass it on."
3:18 pm on Oct 7, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I'm going to ad one more observation to this topic for your consideration. Once again this is my own opinion for what it's worth.

Google's sole official communication regarding the new text ad formats to-date focuses on aesthetics and readability. I believe this to be marketing fluff and completely beside the real point of all these changes which is, COMBATING CLICK FRAUD!

The combined features of these new ads are an attempt to create a new textual advertising presentation style (i.e. visual language) specifically aimed at separating ads from content. The downside may be that the new format is also negatively impacting legitimate viewer interactions with these units. Still, the message between the words is clear (to me), learn how to engage your users honestly, or get out of the business. As an aside, I think this latest round of changes has thrown a great many "click fraud empires" into chaos which may account for the lack of banter in this forum as of late.

Ya, I know some of the other excuses people use related to the history of this board but business is business and anyone serious about business knows not to throw the baby out with the bathwater unless your ultimate goal is bankruptcy. So, don't bother sending me emails about board politics or complaints about moderators. If you don't know what this last paragraph is about then good for you. Seriously!
4:23 am on Oct 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I liked the way the format was when I first started back in 2004. Here it is 9 years later, and it has gotten much worse.

It seems like a good thing never lasts. There are always changes being made that might be improvements for G, but not for us publishers.
5:46 am on Oct 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Something that is now woefully missing with the launch of these new units is a new accompanying theory behind how to use them effectively. All the old tutorials about ad placement and color strategy are still up on the Adsense site but no new information relevant to how to use these units specifically (that I know about) has been published yet. Having said that, I'm gonna go back to squinting 101.


OK, it's simple and it's a common technique Graphic Designers and Artists use all the time to study the general composition of a design. To do this, simply squint your eyes while looking at your page until everything becomes just a bit fuzzy and starts to blend together. Perhaps even take a step back from your computer while doing this. While squinting, take notice of the things that stand out the most on your page. Are your ads disappearing into the blur or do they still jump out at you? Do those large ad titles start to look like your regular page headings?

In a sense, this is the way a viewer sees your page. When the eye focuses on content, everything around it tends to blend into the background. This is why color and contrast are good tools for getting the user's eye to wander over and look at your ads. Squinting is also good for studying page balance, whitespace distribution and other design features as well but the point here is about ad visibility.

Try this. Squint at two pages that are identical except that one has underlined hyperlinks and the other does not. You will immediately notice how the underlined hyperlinks stand out more from the rest of the page. Now that hyperlinks are gone from text ads, something has to serve the same purpose.

Also, these large titles can easily start to look like h1, h2, h3, etc. tags if you're not careful so where you stick a leaderboard for example is becoming tricky unless you really make it stand out. Otherwise you wind up with a unit that looks like a topic heading which users don't even consider clicking on usually. Without contrast and/or separation from your content, these units can become camouflaged almost to the point of invisibility.

My main gripe about these units is that they look like prose more than like links. The button helps a bit but these units are challenging to work with. Contrast and spacing are the two main things our group is using to some degree of effectiveness and I find myself squinting more than usual these days in that elusive quest for the sweet spot.

I'll just ad that I believe there is still good money to be made with this program and that it's well worth the effort to adapt and evolve as things change. And it's actually more than just a belief, our stats are supporting the contention.