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The Best $1.26 I Ever Made

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Note: this is a modified excerpt from the Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself. This week I’m staying in one place and working on my book.

Have a great Thursday!

***

Since I presented a negative view of Google Adsense in 279 Days to Overnight Success, I should be fair and tell you I wasn’t always this critical. There are valid uses for Adsense (in particular, when the placement of the ads is not overly intrusive), and if you have any sites with relatively high traffic, putting Adsense on them can be an easy way to generate passive income.

My Own Experience

In 2005 I attended a quick weekend conference in Chicago. It’s probably not unusual for most people to head to the Midwest for a conference, but at the time I was living in Liberia, West Africa, so in fact it was quite a trip. In one of the first sessions I heard a speaker discuss creative uses of Adsense ads as a secondary goal for site visitors.

At the time I was part of a group that favored the use of traditional landing pages, where the primary goal is to acquire site visitors’ email addresses in hopes of selling them something later — but at least 60% of the visitors were not a good match. In my case, I was paying up to 50 cents each to Google for those visitors to come to a site, decide it wasn’t for them, and hit the back button.

Fifty cents over and over for someone to disappear right after arrival really added up quickly. Many of the visitors did sign up for email updates and became customers later, but because of the high percentage of people who left without leaving any contact details, I was essentially paying a 40% premium on prospects.

The brilliantly simple advice I heard at this conference was to use Adsense as a secondary goal, for all of the people who didn’t want to get the updates or otherwise continue the relationship. With this setup, you place Adsense ads at the top of the page in hopes of capturing people before they hit the ‘back’ button. The idea is that Google will serve relevant ads based on the content of the page, along with whatever term they were searching for. When visitors click one of the keywords, they go straight to Adsense-sponsored Google results, and the site owner who sent them there gets paid.

Until I understood this, I had little interest in Adsense because I didn’t have high-traffic sites, didn’t have a blog, and otherwise really had no use for it. But once I understood the concept of a secondary goal, everything changed. I still kept the primary goal of my landing pages—to get people to join a newsletter—but with the Adsense ads at the top, I now had an alternative for the ones who didn’t.

This eventually allowed me to recoup about 30% of my average ad cost, which was effectively a 30% cash rebate since I had been paying for 100% of the cost prior to figuring this out — but it all started with $1.26 in Brussels, Belgium.

In Between Jet Lag and Luxembourg

On my way back to Liberia from the conference, I had a two-night layover in Brussels, the major European gateway to Africa. Thanks to Priceline and travel hacking, I was able to stay at the fantastic Renaissance Hotel for just $40 a night. This hotel normally goes for €199, and has a nice business lounge that you can easily sneak into by taking the stairs… not that I would know anything about that.

On the second day of the layover, I set out in the morning to visit Luxembourg, a small country about three hours away by train. Before I left, I spent an hour setting up an initial test of the alternative Adsense strategy. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I knew it was at least worth a try.

After setting up the test, I took off for Luxembourg and enjoyed walking around the busy streets for a few hours. Returning to my hotel in Brussels later that evening, I eagerly logged on and checked the stats.

The Google Adsense page finally loaded, and I saw that I had made a grand total of $1.26. That’s right, a buck and a quarter had trickled in via 10-cent and 25-cent denominations throughout the day as visitors had clicked the links. The closer I looked at the data, the more I smiled.

I Could Not be Happier

I was thrilled by the small amount of money, because I was pretty sure I could apply the same strategy in other places and effectively scale up the $1.26 to $50-100 a day in completely passive income. Over the next couple of months, I did just that, eventually reaching a $120/day average for the better part of a year. This was essentially free money, since I did nothing for it and it reduced my overall ad cost.

About a year or two later, I moved out of that business, and I don’t do anything with Adsense anymore. But as far as I can tell from following the industry and closely watching other publishers’ pages, this strategy still works for many people.

I’d break down the pros and cons of this approach as follows:

Pros: It’s a very easy way to make money, if you have good site traffic and many visitors who tend to quickly leave your site after arrival.

Cons: It can also be like crack cocaine, because once it works, you will be tempted to plaster it all over your site and disrupt readability. (Don’t do it!) Also, Google is temperamental and the rules can change at any time, so you’re not necessarily creating an asset that will be there forever.

These days, I’m much more interested in building a legacy project and writing full-time. If I was still involved in Google arbitrage, though, I’d look at applying a variation of this strategy to web sites that provided good information on specific topics.

***

For more, check out the Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself. See you next week!

###

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22 Comments

  • Glen Allsopp says:

    Slightly like Adsense Arbitrage, I love it. Adsense only makes up about $200 of my income each month but it’s nice to have.

  • Colin Wright says:

    I tend to feel the same way about Adsense…the people who read my blog aren’t really the ‘oh look, an ad! Let’s click it!’ kind of audience, and I hate hate hate the aesthetic damage those kinds of ads can do to a website. Makes a page look tacky, in my opinion.

    That being said, I’m experimenting with ad and affiliate sales in a side project and so far, even with very little traffic, it’s doing fairly well. A few dollars and only a few hundred hits. It seems like the niche you’ve got (and the activity level, click-wise, of the people who populate that niche) matters quite a bit when it comes to making money from ads.

  • Very timely as I just added Adsense to my blog today! I’m basically experimenting with different ways to monetize my blog. Affiliate programs have brought me very little income even though those ads are clicked on a lot. That’s what made me think well I might as well try to get a few cents per click. Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Nate says:

    Good advice! I think too many people start with the end in mind.

    ‘Oh, I’ll create a website and plaster ads all over it to make money.’

    Shouldn’t you first be asking yourself why you are making the website in the first place? It should be to provide value to your readers and customers. Focus on excellent content. Get readers. The monetization equation should come after that.

    Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t think about monetization, but too many people think adsense is an easy way to make money.

    I like your strategy of diversifying. Adsense can be a part of your monetization plan, but don’t plaster it all over.

    BTW – I bought the Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself and it was kick ass (hopefully I can say that)!

    That guide gave me the motivation to actually start doing something. Sure, I’m taking small steps, but I’m finally taking steps to work for myself.

    I highly recommend the guide to everyone!!

  • Sean says:

    I remember reading about you $1.26 in the Ultimate Guide for working for yourself. I couldn’t help but remember the story when I made my first few (very few) dollars online.

    I also agree with Colin. For the readers of most of our blogs, the whole adsense route just doesn’t make sense. In 95% of situations I feel like it would to more harm than good.

    Thanks for sharing Chris!

  • Abone says:

    Good tip. I’m going to try that. My travel blog is pretty new and over the last few weeks I’ve seen that most of my visitors leave within 10 seconds. I know the reason: my traffic is not targeted since I use Youtube to get hundreds of visitors based on some viral videos. It’s free though and some visitors stick.

    It would be nice to have part of those people that go back click on the ads. I’ll let you know how it works…..

    Thanks Chris!

  • Jez says:

    $120/day sounds great! I have a small site generating less than a dollar a day with 1,000+ visits a month (basically a foot chart ranking well on Google Image). I tried to scale the concept up by building an encyclopedia-type website with each page mirroring the SEO structure of the initial website as this was the only SEO effort.

    I developed a robot that would do all the work. I just had to feed it a list of 700 sports and it would go to flickr retrieve CC images, go to wikipedia fetch a sport description, translate it in the 25 Adsense languages using Google translate and create html pages (about 50,000). I reckoned that 10% of the traffic and 10% of the CTR of the small website for each page would be a cent/page; times 50,000 = $500! This ended up as a failure. The 50,000 pages generate…. 5 cents a day!

    So.. finally my question: how did you manage to scale the concept up? Did that involve generating lots new content or another technique?

    Thx & good continuation in ur travels

  • Chris says:

    Hey guys,

    Great comments, thanks. Just to clarify, I still don’t think Adsense is a good idea for a blog or other site you are building a legacy with, and that’s why I wouldn’t use it here. Overall I still feel it is a distracting element of many sites that use it.

    @Jez,

    Well, it’s a long answer, but in short, I don’t recommend the use of robots. Google is pretty smart about weeding out sites that do that, so that could be part of the answer as to why the traffic is so low. There aren’t a lot of shortcuts to creating real content (thankfully).

  • Carl says:

    I’m not so much in the AdSense boat and I don’t really do much with AdWords yet there is a lot of potential with them when used with a purpose. There are definitely people who earn a good chunk of money off of Googles Ad network, otherwise it really wouldn’t be the exceptionally vast marketplace that it is.

    On my own terms though, adding them to my blog is counter to the purpose of what I’m building. I’d rather have my content served up clean and aesthetically pleasing to me with only a couple promotions for items/information that I truly believe has value.

  • jskipburns says:

    It’s fascinating how these things play out very differently for every person. Some people make a ton of loot and others make zip. It’s odd. What matters more is deciding how something (AdSense, affiliate marketing, whatever) fits into what you’re doing.
    This blog is a remarkable example of this perspective. It’s really refreshing how focused you are on not just throwing lots of stuff up and seeing what sticks but instead being very deliberate in your actions.

    Oh yeah this is a very useful article and was a good read.

    Skip “cannot wait to buy this book” Burns

  • Jef Claes says:

    This should be a great guestpost for Problogger.

    Good article!

  • I have to agree that Adsense is not ideal for a long-term, legacy project, although there are some situations in which it makes sense.

    The problem for even those projects, though, if you look at overall Adsense revenues, they’re on a downward trend. We’re becoming too used to seeing those ads in sidebars and ignoring them.

    I’m down to just one client that I work with who uses AdSense in any meaningful way: it’s an incredibly obscure niche blog that actually does pretty well off of contextual advertising.

  • Hey Chris,

    I really love this post –not just for your input on Adsense– but because at one point you were just beginning this journey and look how far you’ve come. I know it was driven by hard work and determination–but also by passion and a need to be true to yourself.
    I love being reminded of this over and over!

    Take Care,
    Jill

  • Jez says:

    @Chris
    That is more or less the same conclusion I came to (ie create real content).
    And on my new website, which I view much more as a legacy project, I dont have any adsense on and actually work hard to create content.

    And you know what? (you probably do), the satisfaction of getting traffic visitors/comments is hundred-fold!

  • Personally, I find text Adsense ads quite tacky, but I’ve allowed Adsense pic ads in my Feedburner RSS/email, as I find it less distracting. But yeah, overall, I wouldn’t recommend it as a big strategy either.

  • I think I’ll use this advice for one of my landing pages. This is some great advice, I’m surprised I never read about using Adsense in a secondary manner on a strictly internet marketing blog…go figure!

  • Scott Webb says:

    Interesting article about adsense. I’ve been having a few discussions on it lately. I’m doing a bit of a test with it as I build traffic. I really don’t want adsense on my sites and want focused traffic anyways. I just built a project that I expect to be traffic heavy…hopefully…and I want to have buysellads on it in the future but It needs to show that it does gain a lot of impressions before I can be accepted to buysellads. So in the mean time I’m going to experiment with adsense and see what happens.

    I really dont like the aspect of sending visitors away and you’re not in contol of the info that comes up.

  • I’ve noticed that the people who really throw down with Adsense are very analytics oriented. I think it takes a very specific kind of person to use Adsense and excel, specifically people who are methodical and mathematically inclined.

    I’m not even close to being that person. My brain literally checks out anytime I come across Adsense related information.

  • Jonathan says:

    I’ve had some mild success with Adsense on some sites, but like you, I tend to avoid it and focus on better things for my visitors and myself. Most Google ads, in my experience, are not relevant.

  • Robert says:

    Thanks for this Chris. I feel like I learn at every step without needing to go through the months of trials other have. Adsense is a great tool in the arsenal of internet entrepreneurial dabblings we all take part in.

    The more important thing I saw in this post, and what you learned from that conference is to give your audience what they wanted, whether through your product, or advertising. You didn’t use any tricks, just made what they were looking for more accessible, which made you lose less money.

  • Dave says:

    It all has to start somewhere. Thanks for putting success into perspective when it comes to time and energy.

    Dave
    LifeExcursion

  • Wyman says:

    Chris,

    I would rather have an affiliate product link that I believe in. No control with the ads put on my site really does not sit well. Good article.

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