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Optimizing PBS’s AdSense Ads

Posted By Darren Rowse 2nd of May 2006 Case Studies 0 Comments

Paid Content had an interesting piece last week on a move by PBS to start running AdSense ads on 2% of the the pages on their site. It caused a bit of a stir in some circles about whether it was within their charter to run ads on their site like this (something I don’t know enough about to comment on).

What DID interest me about the announcement was not an analyisis on WHY they’ve done it or whether it’s right or wrong – but rather an analysis of HOW PBS have positioned their ads.

Here’s an example of a page with the ads in which you’ll see them positioned towards the top right of the page (as below – click to enlarge). Here’s another one.


PBS is obviously wanting to make their ads quite distinct from their content by clearly labeling them ‘Sponsored Links’ and by designing them to have a white background and with colors that don’t really match anything else on their page at all. I completely understand why they have done this but it’s worth saying that the results that they will get from these ad’s performance will almost definitely mean a lower earning capacity.

While I doubt they’ll do anything to make the ads a little more subtle the following are a number of suggestions that I’d make to increase performance of these ads:

PlacementBlend – I’d blend the ads more for two reasons – firstly they’ll perform better and get a higher CTR but secondly as they currently appear on the site they stand out like a sore thumb and are pretty ugly. To me using that default color scheme cheapens the look and feel of PBS’s page. Blending the ads could be done to a variety of levels ranging from complete blending (ie making the background the same color as the background behind the white and making the links the same color as other links on the page (black)) to more blending that still makes the ads stand out a little with colors that match the color scheme of the site but that are not exactly the same as content.

Position – The good old AdSense heat map (right) shows that while their positioning isn’t the worst that they could have chosen that it also isn’t the best. Their current position is in a yellow area and to increase performance I’d recommend experimenting with some of the orange ones. Even a simple swap to the other side would probably lead to a higher conversion without compromising content on the page too much.

Second Ad Unit – If I were consulting with PBS on this and the main aim was to increase income from the page I’d recommend a second ad unit towards the bottom of the page – under the two sections ‘for Educators’ and ‘for kids’. These two sections almost look like AdSense ads as they are (see below) and to put a blended ad under there would probably perform well. Of course this probably would take the blending thing too far for PBS who are obviously trying to walk a fine line between raising money and retaining their values.


More Pages – Once again I understand why they only have ads on 2% of pages but this is obviously one way that they could earn more from AdSense. As I’ve surfed through their site I see many page that would be ideal for contextual ads as they are content rich and highly focused on topics that I’m sure there would be relevant ads for.

My overall impression of the AdSense ads that I was able to find on the PBS site was that they did look a little haphazardly positioned and designed. I don’t feel that they ‘fit’ aesthetically with the site and doubt that they’ll perform to their potential in terms of income.

It won’t be an easy job to convince their site’s users that the ads belong and so they do have a difficult task of balancing the income earning potential of the ads and staying within their charter but as an AdSense optimizer I think they could make a few changes that would lead to not only a better fundraising capacity but also a more pleasant looking site.

PS: readers will note that the AdSense ads on PBS have a customized look and feel to them (ie in terms of size and font size/style). I’m not completely sure of why this is but suspect they have some sort of relationship with the AdSense team here. I do know that these are features offered to premium publishers and some other advertisers who meet certain criteria and suspect that these are ads developed in conjunction with the AdSense team.

About Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.
  • PBS is trying find the balance between its non-commercial nature and its needs for funding. If you watch PBS TV, you’ll know that there are no commercials, but that shows are sponsored by organizations. And every once in while a station will run an on-air membership drive.

    This clear delineation between sponsors and content explains why they’ve chosen not to optimize the ads they’re showing, and I think it does make perfect sense for them. Yes, they are definitely working with Google on this one, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they’re only showing site-targeted ads, for example, and perhaps get to filter or approve the ads in ways that us normal publishers can’t.

  • Hmm, you would think that if PBS has a special relationship with the folks at Adsense, maybe the Adsense team would help them optimize their ad placement.

  • Su

    distinct from their content by clearly labeling them ‘Sponsored Links’ and by designing them to have a white background and with colors that don’t really match anything else on their page at all.

    Erm…you specifically point out later that this is the default look.
    I’d venture someone hasn’t bothered to or cared about customizing.
    (Disclosure: I’ve recently done some work for PBS, and while it isn’t using the ads just yet, they will be color-matched.)

    I think you might ultimately be making the mistaken assumption that some single person or team is overseeing every section of PBS. This is incorrect.

    Also, not everybody running ads necessarily wants to maximize(read: interrupt content with) them. This sounds like a bit of a sideline experiment, and seems it’s being treated as such.

  • Well, It’s very different what works the best on various pages depending on the type of content and the design. And consider the “colors” of the ad unit once again, and you’ll notice that they’re probably getting a lot of attention from your eyes because of the contrast…

    Also since they’re a “respected” source, ads that are clearly marked as such will maybe make the user have more trust in the advertised website, which means more conversions, which means no decrease in earnings because of smart pricing.

    Maybe they’re better like that – maybe not…

    And regarding the specialized ad layouts, that’s a feature offered to some publishers – both premium and non-premium – for specific websites. But that’s all top-secret and I’m not allowed to tell about it…

  • “Also, not everybody running ads necessarily wants to maximize(read: interrupt content with) them.”

    Su, I don’t think Darren is making any assumptions about what PBS hopes to accomplish with their ads… he seems to be simply sticking to the topic here at ProBlogger, which is how to maximize money from a web site.

    I think he makes it fairly clear that he’s not suggesting that they NEED to make these changes, only that they COULD make these changes, and hence make more money…something most ProBlogger readers are very interested in :)

  • Actually, in PBS’s case it might make sense to have ‘distinctive’ ads. People might deliberately choose to click on ads on PBS’s site because of the nature of PBS and because they can feel like they’re ‘giving’ to PBS when ordinarily they might not do so. I must confess I have clicked on links on sites (without being asked) I feel I want to ‘support’. That said, I do read the pages I land on just in case it’s something interesting!

  • Su

    Cary, I put that parenthetical in there for a reason. Maximizing returns and whatnot sounds good, but in direct practice, it generally means, “Interrupt the flow of reading and force readers to see the ad.” Look at the heat map, cross-reference with any eye-tracking study results and deny it. I am highly doubtful the ads will ever end up in those dark spots. I’ve seen PBS’ production guidelines and been through rounds of testing. They’re very particular about where things go and how they work, and I’m rather surprised these are being run at all, much less quibbling over getting them in the ideal spot(and more on that below).

    There are assumptions here. Darren almost certainly doesn’t know what PBS’ requirements(not just desires) are for placing these ads, and that it’s not likely to be a consistent decision. It’s irrelevant whether that’s a good or bad thing; it’s just a necessary fact of this post being made at all. I’m offering a bit more information for consideration as someone who’s completed two projects for them, under two different teams, with one of those projects soon to get the advertising, in whose placement I have no say, I should add.

    Keep in mind that maximizing is a relative concept. It is entirely possible that given the constraints those teams(I’m fairly sure the Teachersource area is headed by different people from Life & Culture) are operating under, those placements are optimal, because they just can’t go anyplace else. (This is purely theoretical; but so’s the entire post in the first place.)

    As for the ads being ugly/sticking out, I’ve already covered that. On the project I’ve worked, there was absolutely no resistance to matching them to the site that I’m aware of, though they’ve yet to be implemented, so we shall see.

  • Su – as Cary says – this post is not a critique of PBS or a claim that they should make the changes I suggest – rather I was hoping that it would just be a topical illustration of how to optimize AdSense ads (one of the main topics of this blog).

    As I say numerous times in the post, I understand the fine line that PBS has to walk and don’t really expect them to put the ads in the middle of content – all I was saying is that IF they did (or any other publishers did) they’d experience a better return as a general principle.

    In terms of it being the default color scheme – I can understand how it’s happened but to be honest am still a bit surprised that they decided to go with the default as a launch. I know most AdSense users experiment so I’d expect them to change but I’ve never seen a large publisher like this start off with the default ads. It’s not an attack – just ‘different’.

    In terms of my assumption that its one person or a team overseeing the whole PBS site – to be honest I don’t know where you get that assumption having re-read my post. I remember thinking as I wrote it that I suspected that it was multiple people or teams doing it because the different sections of PBS’s website are quite distinct from each other and it is such a large site.

    You said – ‘Maximizing returns and whatnot sounds good, but in direct practice, it generally means, “Interrupt the flow of reading and force readers to see the ad.”’

    That’s an interesting statement and one people have debated for a long time. I actually agree with you to some degree. Ads are useless unless people see them and my theory is that unless you’re willing to put them in a spot that people’s eyes travel it’s hardly worth putting them on a page.

    Of course there are different degrees of this and as I say in the post PBS currently has the ads placed in a spot that is about middle of the road – better than some positions and worse than others. I don’t make judgements about PBS’s charter – if they are comfortable with them where they are then so am I – ultimately it’s not my business and I don’t really care. All I was doing is using the page as a case study to illustrate how it could be done if maximum income was the only goal (which it clearly is not).

    On the other hand it’s also possible to interrupt the flow of a site with ads that are not in content but that have contrasting and non matching ads.

    I do appreciate you stopping by to add what you know – it’d be fascinating to hear the discussions behind the decisions to ad adds. I’m sure it’s not something they’ve done with unanimous support from all PBS lovers or workers – but it will be fascinating to watch how it progresses in the weeks and months ahead.

  • mike

    Cool article

  • My experience has been ugly blocks of adsense text adds perform better.

    Blend them into my site and and my income drops from an already small base.

    Why is my experience the opposite to everybody else?

    Blend the adds for higher income? Every time I follow that advice my income and click throughs drop.

  • That’s because there are no universal rules. Each site is different. This is why I always tell new AdSense publishers to test different layouts and colors and see what works best for them….

  • If they really wanted them to be unobtrusive they’d place them under the fold, after the page’s main content. That way their visitors would have a chance to see the content without being distracted by the ads. If they’re really not trying to maximize revenue, this wouldn’t impact things too much. Given the number of uniques their site must get, that would still translate into a healthy revenue stream, especially if they were careful in selecting which 2% of their pages displayed the ads. They could always increase the percentage of their pages that showed ads.

  • THE KEY:
    “Of course this probably would take the blending thing too far for PBS who are obviously trying to walk a fine line between raising money and retaining their values.”
    That’s the core of the problem with adsense “optimization.” You’re tricking your readers to click on an ad by making it look like something natural to the site.
    I’ve tried to optimize my ads on Centrerion Canadian Politics to the extent that I’ve tried to make the colours similar, so I’m not an angel in this respect. But I feel that it’s a severe ethical disadvantage to Adsense that for it to perform well, you need to use psychological gimmicks aimed at fooling someone into making a subconscious association between your content and the ads, based on colour.
    For better or worse, my ugly blog design prevents the blending to work too well.


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