I thought I would share some quick thoughts about the Project Wonderful
ad network, and about showing advertisements in general -- while these ideas are fresh in my mind.
PART 1 - Ads on the Website?
As a general rule we don't show ads on DonationCoder. That's for a few reasons.
First, I'm one of those people who finds advertising somewhat oppressive on a gut level. I tend to view the web pages here very personally and possessively, and the idea of turning over areas of the site to hucksters is painful. I tend to view marketing as the playground of scammers and rip off artists, and it pains me to hear people talk about "monetization" and search-engine optimization.
Secondly, I do think we are heading in a dangerous direction with the entire internet economy being built on this unsustainable bubble and house of cards, where everything on the internet is being written with the primary purpose of getting traffic in order to get advertising money. It just seems unsustainable to me, and that the world would be a better place if people simply paid directly to support work they liked, in an amount they felt comfortable with.
But I could rant forever about such things, and I have in the past -- and that's not the point of this post. So back to the topic of this post...
I occasionally do enable ads on the website and forum -- usually for a month or so every couple of years (DonationCoder has been online since 2005
). Why experiment with ads?
Well first, I'm not a purist -- as much as I dislike advertisements, i don't claim that they are inherently the work of the devil. I do believe they have a corrupting influence, but then any time one has to raise money to support their work such corrupting influences are involved, and ads hardly seem the worst of the lot.
I get curious about how much revenue ads might generate -- and how they might "feel" on the website -- both to me and to our long time and fly-by visitors.
I also get curious about what kinds of ads would be shown.. Google makes a big deal about being able to scan the content of a page and display relevant advertising that will be useful to readers, and that's always a tempting concept, especially for our forum content which is so varied and dynamic.
I think to be honest another reason why it's fun to put ads on the site for a month or so every few years is that it generates a (not-entirely-healthy?) sense of self-satisfaction when we remove them -- a reminder to all of us on the website to not be complacent and to appreciate the clean uncluttered normal look of the site without ads.
PART 2 - Google and Google Adsense
It's no news to anyone who reads the forum that I have negative feelings about Google. Where others see a wonderfully innovative company that invests greatly in far-reaching technical research, and whose pledge to "not be evil" is refreshing.. I tend to see an incredibly greedy and arrogant corporation which has cleverly mastered the concept of public relations, and has embarked on an effort to get their tentacles into every corner of the technical market with the primary purpose of ensuring that they have an unbreakable monopoly on internet advertising -- a company that uses their money to buy off, buy out, and drown the competition in obscurity.
I think we may look back at the age when we allowed a self-interested internet advertising company to become the de facto search engine of record, and wonder what we could have possibly been thinking. I think the conflict of interest and perverse incentives involved when the company that handles advertising is the very same company that ranks search results explains why so much of the internet is filled with spam. Having said that, I know my views about Google are not unbiased - I am by default suspicious of large corporations and my heart is with the little guy.
With my biases laid out, let's talk about Google Adsense
-- Google's advertising network/service, on which huge numbers of people now rely for their well being and income.
Bare in mind that I have very little understanding of the intricacies of Google Adsense and advertising in general -- so take my observations with a grain of salt.
In essence the way Google Adsense works is that you place ad blocks on your website, and google decides what advertisements to show in those blocks and then decides how much money to send you each month based on how many people clicked those ads. You have some very minimal control over blocking certain ads, but basically google uses secret algorithms to decide what to show and secret algorithms to decide how much to pay you.
My experience on DonationCoder is that mostly the kinds of ads that google Adsense wants to show on DonationCoder are ads that try to trick people into clicking on them to fix their computer, etc. I guess those ads tend to get clicked more than others.
There is no doubt that there is money to be made using google Adsense, and that it can be used very easily -- a combination that is hard to beat. Google seems to make a show of policing sites to prevent abuse, but to me it feels much like most things on the internet -- as long as they are making money they are all-to-happy to turn a blind eye to borderline scummy stuff.
I can't tell you how much revenue we make when we put google Adsense ads on the website because google has decided that that's against their policy -- and you can't really talk to humans at google if you have questions or need help -- google is too big for that.
What I will say about the amount, though, is that we just aren't a site that discusses topics that bring in high-paying advertisements. If you ever wonder why there are so many low-quality websites and blogs on the web about insurance and online education, or why it's so hard to find reliable information on those subjects, it's not because people have a lot to say about those subjects, it's because the ads pay well.. There is an entire industry devoted to selling tricks and techniques for getting higher-valued ads to be placed on your website by google's algorithms.
While it's not a huge amount, it's also not a trivial amount for us -- after all we have an active forum and quite a lot of traffic. But after experimenting for a month I always conclude that it's not worth it to have ads on the website.
Now one major reason why I never feel like it's worth it to keep ads on the site may be somewhat unique to the nature of DonationCoder: We rely primarily on individual voluntary user donations to fund the site. That's a very different thing from being funded by advertising. It means that the users of our software are the people that are paying for the site, and it creates a completely different atmosphere and set of incentives for the site.
When we started in 2005 this kind of thing wasn't very popular, but you can see now with the explosion of sites like Kickstarter
that getting direct funding from the users of what you produce can be a wonderful experience for content creators. The interaction with individuals funding the site can be incredibly rewarding, satisfying, and invigorating.
For people like me who are doing this really for the enjoyment of it -- for whom making money is a necessary evil in order to pay rent so we can keep doing what we're doing, there is a huge difference between making $10 a day from showing ads for stuff no one needs, and making $10 a day from people who write you saying they love what you're doing and want to talk to you about ideas they have for improving what you've made. And because we've come to view our discussion forum as the life-blood of the site, having active participants who feel like the site is their home (rather than a tool for monetizing advertisements) is important.
And another way to look at why an advertisement is less than appealing for us is that we have a hard time communicating the fact that we rely on voluntary individual donations to fund the site -- it's enough of an alien concept to people that it never occurs to the vast majority of people who use our software that they might donate to support us. That being the case, putting an advertisement up conveys a misleading impression that we are, like most sites on the web, funded by advertisements and don't need individuals to contribute. Furthermore, it always seems to me that if we are going to put up an "advertisement" in a box on the web pages, quite possibly we would be better off putting up an "advertisement" for our own site -- which has the benefit of promoting something we feel good about recommending.PART 3 - Project Wonderful
Now let's segue finally into the main focus of this post, a discussion of the Project Wonderful
Long time DonationCoder member app103, who runs a few nice websites, has been trying to get me to look at Project Wonderful for quite some time, and I now see why. It's a relatively small and friendly service, with a refreshingly transparent, clean, and novel approach to web advertising. It's sort of the anti-google-Adsense of web advertising.
Google Adsense is rife with abuse, manipulation and click-fraud
because it's dependent on relatively large payments that occur when a tiny fraction of people actually click on an ad (you might serve 5000 ad views in a day with only 5 "genuine" clicks that pay $1 each click). But with Project Wonderful, advertisers choose your site based on your content and traffic, and simply bid how much they are willing to pay to show an ad on your website. There is no concern about how many people click the ad -- they are simply paying for a day of advertising. That's a huge breath of fresh air from Google's approach which stacks all the incentives up to rip off and scam everyone involved (except google which makes out like a bandit as the man in the middle of the farce).
To go into a little more detail about Project Wonderful: As a website owner you tell Project Wonderful about the kind of site you are and what kind of advertisers you are looking for, and then create one or more ad spaces/slots on your web site, and you put them up for bid on the Project Wonderful website, which tracks how often the ad shows. If you like you can set a minimum bid price for your ad slots.
Advertisers then browse the Project Wonderful website and can look at what ad slots are available on what sites, and then, much like an auction, specify how much they bid to show their ads on their chosen websites. Advertisers set maximum bid amounts for a given ad slot, and can differentiate bids for different geographical regions. When there are multiple bids for an ad slot, the site will automatically choose the highest "approved" bidder -- though this will change over time because some bidders will only be spending money for a limited period of time (see here
for an example of how this works in practice).
As the website owner you can choose exactly what ads to approve to be shown on your website -- if you don't like the content of an ad, you simply reject it. It's actually a remarkably elegant system which leaves everyone in complete control of how much they spend, and what ads get shown where. For people like me who care a lot about the possibility of your website promoting something you don't believe in, this is indeed a wonderful system.
When there are no bids on your advertisement slots, by default the system will show a block that says something like "Click here to advertise in this space" -- which takes the person to the Project Wonderful website where they can bid on your ad. Essentially it's helping you find advertisers from the people who visit your website. Even better, you can create your own custom ad image and link to be shown when you have no bids (or no bids meeting you minimum amount) -- more about this later.
The service takes a 25% cut of advertisement revenue. Is this a fair amount? I have no idea. I don't know what the going rate for such things are. I do know that google hides this kind of information from you, which i find pretty sketchy. The amount seems reasonable to me -- but most importantly it's a straightforward policy and you know exactly where you stand.
In short, Project Wonderful is indeed a wonderful idea, implemented well and a pleasure to use -- it's a site that deserves hugely more recognition and users.
But.. you knew there was a but didn't you?
There simply aren't enough (and enough of a varied selection of) advertisers on Project Wonderful -- or websites to advertise on. And that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to considering Project Wonderful as a viable alternative to Google Adsense.
My impression is that except for a tiny handful of well established and very high-traffic-sites in very specific genre's, most everyone else who might want to use the site would make pennies compared to what they would make from google Adsense. That's the sad truth about the service as it stands now. It's not a problem with the service per se -- it's just a consequence of them not having a large enough customer base (in terms of advertisers or advertising slots).
Allow me a quick rant for a moment -- it is absolutely agonizing and heartbreaking to see every day some stupid ridiculous useless vaporware idea get 100 million dollars in angel/venture/whatever funding, and see a company like Project Wonderful not flourishing. If there is ever a company that should have investors banging down their door to fund them and take them to the next level, this is the company for it. These folks could easily become a giant killer -- their product is far better and more honest than Google's -- and the only thing they need to thrive is to be more widely known.
The problem is -- you might have the best auction (or dating, or personal ad) site/software on the planet -- but if you don't have a large enough base of users to get the site jumpstarted -- it can never take off the ground because there aren't enough people on the site to connect with each other. With a larger base of sites and advertisers, Project Wonderful would be an absolutely amazing step forward for advertising on the web.
Now don't get me wrong -- Project Wonderful is definitely serving an audience now. I have no idea how well they are doing financially, but I do know that they have some very loyal users/customers who are very happy with the service as it is. From my short time experimenting with it, I can see that there are some niche kinds of websites that seem to do really well on the site -- for example there seem to be a lot of web comic websites that use Project Wonderful, and I get the impression that many of the users are actually using Project Wonderful in somewhat of a "link exchange" fashion -- that is, that users are using the service both as advertisers and as web sites showing ads. They are using the service to advertise on each others sites. Because the site gives you so much control over the ads that show on your site, it's a great solution for small sites that want to link to each other, and it's a very cool phenomena to see in action -- a refreshing change from the asymmetry you see in traditional advertising.
If I were a business person, I'm sure I'd have some good advice on how Project Wonderful might get funding and expand their user base and how they might market the site. But I don't know anything about those subjects. For all I know Project Wonderful is very happy to be where they are now and don't give a damn about expanding their user base. For all I know they turn down a dozen buyout offers each year.
So instead I'm going to make some technical suggestions from the standpoint of our site that I think would be consistent with their approach, and would go along way to make the site more suitable for sites like DonationCoder to use.
As I said earlier -- our site is just not that interested in running ads.. But one thing that makes Project Wonderful *ALMOST* perfect for us, is the ability to set a minimum bid amount and have our own "ad" image shown when we have no qualifying/approved bids. Potentially this means that we could set a high minimum bid (just for sake of argument let's say $20 a day), and know that 99 days out of 100 there will be no advertising on the site, but that we will occasionally get a high-paying advertiser -- whose content we have approved -- who wants to advertise about some special event that is relevant to our readers for a day or two. That really represents the best of all worlds for a site like ours.
So the main thing that Project Wonderful could do to make this strategy more feasible would be to support a more flexible way to show our own in-house content when there are no approved ads (which in my scenario is going to be most of the time).
To be more specific -- we have our own rotating internal "ad" system that shows a random testimonial from one of our users, or a random image and text box showing some piece of software written by one of our members. If Project Wonderful made it easier to use our own random rotating content when there was no ad, then using Project Wonderful would be a no-brainer for us. If they wanted to go a step further, they could add their own support for site testimonials or rotating banners, and allow a site to set such things up entirely within the Project Wonderful system. In that way, a site owner could use the service to dynamically switch between "internal" rotating content, and external ads, depending on the availability of desirable ads. This might also go some ways towards helping get more site administrators to sign up even when advertiser pickings were slim. Another nice option would simply be the ability to not show an ad block at all when there was no approved ad available. That simple change would mean a site like ours could run most of the time without ads, and only have them turn on occasionally when we got a high enough bidder.
If you compare the state of web advertising in 2013 to the state of the web 15 years ago it would be fair to say that google has tamed some of the worst behaviors we used to see, like pop-up ads. But google has also normalized a very scammy, fraud-infested, secretive system that has spread to every corner of the web like a weed. Honestly, I hope that we move (far) away from an advertising-dominated economy.
But if advertising is going to play such a large role on the internet, it's important for us all to realize that there are far better potential alternatives to google that can provide a better experience for everyone involved. Project Wonderful is one of them, and there are no doubt others. Here's hoping they continue to grow and flourish.