Internet Marketing

My Experience At The Google AdSense In Your City Event In Toronto

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Recently I took up an invite from the big G itself that was hosting an event called Google AdSense In Your City.  I received an invitation through my AdSense account messages awhile back and was on the fence about going, but it gave me the opportunity to interact directly with members of the Google AdSense team. Most publishers know that real human interaction is normally unheard of unless there are extenuating circumstances (we've all heard about auto-responder horror stories when trying to contact the support team). So I decided to go based on that. Plus it's the only Canadian stop on the event tour except for Vancouver, so it was convenient. The event advertised a small presentation followed by a 1-on-1 consultation with a dedicated member of the AdSense team who would work with you to improve one of your sites in some way. Maybe CTR, layout, or anything really. This particular event was hosted at the Renaissance Marriott, right in the heart of downtown Toronto. This is the hotel attached to the Rogers Centre (formerly the Skydome) where our Blue Jays play (go Jays!).

Before the event started I chatted with some folks and learned that several came all the way from Montreal, Canada to attend the event (that's about 700km away or so).  Some did SEO, some did forums, blogs, etc. It was pretty interesting to network with all sorts of publishers with portfolios of all shapes and sizes. If there was one thing that everyone had in common it was that we all had our grievances with the way Google treats its AdSense publishers as the red-headed stepchildren of their operation. Contrast the way they communicate with AdWords publishers, for example, and the difference is night and day. I don't even use the AdWords platform yet and I have had Google call me at home to get me started.

The Event

The event was much smaller than expected. I had thought that there would be hundreds or maybe even thousands of publishers there, but in reality we were a small bunch of about 50 I would guess. To start, we had a rapid-fire (emphasis: really, really rushed) presentation that took the full first hour we were there. There were several presenters, some based out of Toronto, New York, and of course Mountain View, California. They talked about 3 things really:

  • AdSense optimization
  • Doubleclick For Publishers (DFP) and ad servers
  • AdSense for mobile sites and optimization for mobile
  • Some vendor who is a Google partner that builds mobile sites (apologies here I didn't record the name)

The optimization presentation was really quick and didn't really tell me anything that I didn't already know. Basically, they wanted us to use every available ad block possible, wrap text around ads, etc. Funny how this works, when we get the search quality team from Google telling us that we should reduce our ads or move them away from content so it doesn't get in the way. I get the feeling that the right hand isn't talking to the left hand here.

DFP was pretty interesting. If you're big enough to have multiple ad sources you can use a DFP ad server to put DFP code on your site, then your ad network code within your DFP account. This way you can rotate ads from multiple different ad networks (PPC, lead gen, CPA, etc.) without changing the ad codes on your site. Pretty cool as I'd never heard of it before. It's free for the first 90 million impressions excluding AdSense. Translation: That's a lot of ads!

They touched on viewing ads on mobile devices a lot. To make a long story short, if you have visitors going to your sites and a decent amount of them are coming from mobile devices you should have some kind of mobile strategy or a dedicated mobile site. There are different ad units for mobile sites, such as the 320x50 for example, that apparently work better than just viewing your site's desktop-sized ads on a tablet or smartphone. Unlike AdSense for desktop PCs, where you can have 3 ad units, 3 link units, and 2 search boxes, you are only allowed 2 ad units on a mobile site. Link units don't exist there (for obvious reasons).

I just took a look at my own stats in AdSense of the desktop PC vs. mobile crowd with respect to my portfolio. Since as publishers we likely can't talk about those numbers, all I can say is that I should probably start paying attention to a mobile strategy. :)

The vendor (again, apologies for not writing this down) who got an opportunity to speak had services to spec out a mobile strategy for you. Essentially the previous bit of the presentation was a lead-in to this one. It was really a fast-paced sales pitch but there were a couple of interesting points. The gentleman presenting this, Mike, brought up the 2-to-10 rule. Basically, a desktop user will spend on average 10 minutes trying to find the answer they are looking for from a search query for example. A mobile user will only spend 2 minutes. The bottom line is to serve up your answers fast, of course, because mobile users are much more aggressive than desktop users.

My 1-on-1 Consultation With The Google AdSense Team

So the key part of the event was the 1-on-1 consultations. There were about 4 team members so we each had to wait our turn for a consultant. During the downtime I got to chatting with some very nice people, one lady in particular who bore a striking resemblance to Tina Fey. Anyway, she was a programmer who primarily built sites in the education vertical, using her skills to make Javascript/PHP games. I met another guy from Montreal who had 3 big blogs (500+ pieces of content each) in travel, technology, recipes, along with a small personal one. And then another guy who was apparently banned from half of Google's services. We were quite the diverse crew.

When my turn came up, I met with a fellow named Jason based out of Toronto and presented one of my sites in the automotive niche. This was a site that I originally had 3 ad units on (no link units nor search) and removed all by one ad because I found that nobody clicked on the other two shapes. The one had I had rotating the 336x280 and 468x60. Ultimately, I wanted to see if I was leaving money on the table with my ad setup and see what I could do to improve.

What I was told was that I wasn't using enough ad units, and to ditch the 468x60. He basically gave me some layout suggestions, which honestly were fairly obvious to make. But, when you're trying to balance the whims of AdSense vs. the quality search team I think that you can understand my hesitation to add more ad units on my pages. Anyway, Jason told me that by making changes I should see an immediate increase in revenue after about a month. Naturally I called him out on it and he was pretty confident that I would see an improvement, so I'm going to make his suggested changes and see what happens.

One thing I did find really interesting was that when I told him what my CTR was for this site, he was really surprised. He told me what the average CTR was for AdSense and that I was waaaaaaay beyond it. To be honest I thought I was well below the bar, but apparently not. I neglected to ask whether this CTR value was just for Toronto, or maybe Canada, or worldwide. Again, publishers can't talk about CTR in exact terms. So try to think of it as though if your site performs at a "low CTR" that there might be a "really low CTR" below that. :)

One question that I did ask was about Terms of Service violations. I explained that publishers are extremely paranoid about making changes to their sites because they don't know if it will break ToS or not. Jason wouldn't outline the precise checks and balances that Google does when looking for violations. However, he did say that Google AdSense DOES give you fair warning to make changes, something like 3 days notice. One of the problems, he said, might be that these notices end up in your spam folder. He went on to mention his initial job offer from Google went into the spam folder in his Gmail. Needless to say I've whitelisted @google.com in my own Gmail account.

He said if you're deliberately gaming the AdSense system that it is of course a blatant violation and would lead to repercussions. I didn't press the issue but I have to suspect that this would be something akin to clickjacking scripts that hijack your mouse and force users to click on something. He did also mention buying traffic specifically, so that's another huge no-no. But for "small-time" stuff you are supposed to get notified so that you can make changes.

This makes me wonder about guys like Spencer from NichePursuits, who got banned a few months ago without explanation. I wonder what the cardinal sin was there...

The Swag

And now, for the most important part of the event: the goodies! We got:

  • Google AdSense bag (kinda flimsy)
  • Google AdSense pen
  • Google AdSense lanyard
  • Google AdSense sticker
  • Google AdSense In Your City notebook with elastic bookmark thingy
  • An extremely dumbed down Rubix cube (lol) that twists into a 1GB USB key. It had the presentations from the event on it.
  • A "coupon" for a free Google AdSense t-shirt. Basically it's a voucher where if you make the prescribed changes to your site, you submit your info at a special URL and they send you the shirt.
Google AdSense In Your City Toronto Swag
Swag Bag Contents

Google AdSense In Your City Toronto Swag
Rubix cube for beginners (click to enlarge)

Google AdSense In Your City Toronto Swag
Nope! It's a USB key! (click to enlarge)

From what I hear they used to mail cool stuff to your home address, and the swag bag was pretty skimpy. It just goes to show you times are tough, even for Google. Several of us joked that the costs would be cut out of our payments at the end of the month.

The Verdict

The event was pretty underwhelming and smaller than I thought it would be. It was also too fast, and we only got about 10 minutes each with our consultations. There was also nothing really "new" in terms of optimization strategies for my situation since I essentially got told to "put more ads" on my site. Oh well.

Still, at least I got a chance to put a name to the face of some of the mysterious people working in the AdSense team at Google. I will probably never see nor hear from these guys until perhaps next year when the event comes back to Toronto again. I do have some more action items on my plate though, so that's a start. And plus, I want my t-shirt!

Andre