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Ask HN: AdSense alternatives?
152 points by scotchio on Apr 30, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments
A friend and myself run a tutorial blog for a hobby that makes us a very minuscule amount of money via AdSense. It's a nice extra incentive to push and grow the blog farther and farther along though.

In light of the current drama surrounding AdSense (fabricated or not), and in complete seriousness, what are some alternatives in case we randomly get "shut off"? We have used and are currently using BuySellAds and their Unreserved Program - which depends on a buyer though.

Todd from @BuySellAds here.

An ideal setup is one in which you utilize about a handful of different companies in the "Tier 2" position. Probably no more than a handful though, because after that it gets hard to manage and rather convoluted.

Tier 1 is your directly sold ads (stuff you sell on your own directly to an advertiser or through a company like BuySellAds).

Tier 2 is where the AdSense's of the world will live. It really depends on your "niche", but in general the best options tend to be: AdSense, Rubicon Project (if you're big enough), PubMatic (again, if you're big enough), or a "niche/vertical" ad company that focuses on sites like yours. By-and-large, AdSense "owns" this space outright, and even if you're using a program like ours (http://buysellads.com/publishers/unreserved) for your "non-reserved" inventory (stuff that isn't sold direct) there's going to be SOME mix of AdSense (or AdX) in there.

Ad money certainly isn't easy, and more and more is going to go toward those publishers creating great content and curating high-value audiences (i.e. not user generated content...). The days of "set it and forget it" are over for most publishers who aren't interested in earning pennies on the dollar. If you can't sell ads directly through a service like BuySellAds or on your own, well, I wish you luck :)

It's not all doom and gloom though - we see publishers make quite a bit of money all the time. It ultimately comes down to the quality of their site, it's content, and the users.

We've noticed a decrease in tier 1 advertisers over the last 18 months. We get a million+ uniques per month and are very picky about the ads we run. The decrease in tier 1 has been small businesses who have become concerned that their ads may be misconstrued as 'link buying' and will cause them to be penalized in Google's search so all that is left for us are the large brands. Many of the small businesses had been advertising with us for over five years.

We've been considering BuySellAds because of the high quality of the ads we see them run on other sites.

What's scary about that is that your advertisers' perception seems to be hurting your business, but for something that (by all reasonable imagination on my side...) shouldn't actually be true.

I'd love to see if we can help debunk your advertisers' fears.

Yes, that is the problem. However, I know that at least one of them was penalized for using TextLinkAds and stopped advertising with us because they decided to adopt a scorched earth policy in an attempt to have manual penalties removed. They simply tried to remove all possible links to themselves that they had paid for.

I'm afraid the issue is not as black and white as I'd like it to be.

I do not believe that Google would intentionally punish sites for buying legitimate advertising.

That's scary. Do Google really penalise companies who buy advertising from other sites other than via Google Adsense?

You can't make a connection direct enough, but well, yeah, that happened and happens all the time. Penguin update is all about that. They may be sincerely thinking that penguin stops direct link buying so that you have better results or more natural results. The outcome is that shitty results are still all over the place, good content is not king and if you want to advertise without any risk you go through Adsense. That is particularly true in smaller markets where Adsense is the only possible player unless you're big enough to have different deals with classic media agencies (those who manage all kind of ads -- print, tv and web.

For the sanctity of the business world we live in I sure as heck hope it's not true.

Hi Todd. I just asked a competitor for his company's policy on App Store browser hijacking [1]. I.e. Ads that automatically open iTunes or Google Play. What is your company's policy regarding this extremely shady underhanded practice?


Our policy is basically to just never be shady... shady stuff is best left for other folks who enjoy making a quick buck. We just don't deal with shady stuff like this.

Why is this shady? If I intentionally click on a link to an app, why would I not want that link to open the App Store?

I mean ads that use JavaScript to automatically open app stores without the user actually clicking on an ad, just by viewing a page.

I'm seeing this practice increasing and spreading. It must be effective.

I've seen it on some big web properties. The other day I was browsing the Guardian and boom, iTunes opened. If spent some time afterwards on my PC and Fiddler duplicating the views using a faked user agent to watch the redirects and cookies. It is slyly done. Normally it only happens once per session. They drop a cookie so that they don't persistently annoy the user, just once in a while.

There have been ads getting through some of the exchanges that automagically open the AppStore or iTunes without you clicking or tapping anything...

Hm, this is what google shows when you type the name of your company (at least in safari)


There is no link to click on

Try disabling adblock and then try again ;)

Uff, that's really unfortunate when the adblock block the name of your company.

Tell me about... cough someone at AdBlock please write a smarter regex for the default filter... cough

It looks like they updated their site's description to reflect this, at least for DuckDuckGo: http://i.imgur.com/q7JbbBv.png

same in chrome

Tier 1 is definitely the way to go - on the site I run, which I see as being great content with a high-value audience, we can direct sell an ad for 6-8x what we'd pocket from Google for the same real estate.

That's a great spot to be in Steve, I'd love to chat :)

Todd, I signed up with BSA today after seeing your comment here. You do not use HTTPS for publishers to log in. This does not inspire confidence in the company.

You're right - we have some non-ssl'd pages that you're allowed to login from - something we've gotta fix.

Thanks Todd. Out of curiosity, how big do you have to be for Rubicon Project and PubMatic, in terms of pageviews/mo?

Well, Rubicon for example has 700 sell-side partners [1]... so, very large. PubMatic, I believe, is similar.

Your other options for mixing stuff in with AdSense would be to find some fairly targeted affiliate programs; however, it's tedious and requires quite a bit of upkeep.

[1] http://www.adexchanger.com/platforms/as-ipo-dust-settles-rub...

10 million++ page views per month for them to seriously consider partnering with you.

so, I realize this might be seen as spam, but I am always trying out adsense alternatives and regularly maintain a list of the ones I'm trying out. http://www.dotcult.com/best-adsense-alternatives/

TLDR: casale, Lijit, technorati are working best for me.

Linking to a page that exactly answers the question being asked is definitely not spam.

Exactly, but I could see the concern with posting it. Upvoted for relevance

One possible concern is that the article uses affiliate links for every recommendation.

Don't use Lijit, ever. I was running them as backup to my Adsense, sending them nearly a million impressions a day. They run all sorts of malicious advertisements, and apparently they approve of them. My users were getting redirected from my site, to sites telling them their Javascript is outdated, with download links to malware. My mobile users would get popups about their Android device being out of date, and similar. I looked up the redirect URLs on Google, and this was affecting other sites as well, and I found a handful of forums running Lijit, where their users were reporting the same troubles.

This was incredibly damaging to my reputation. I narrowed it down to Lijit after toggling my ad networks and informed them of the issue. I emailed them, explained how my users are getting these redirects on a daily basis, how this is unacceptable, and how I'll have to pull their ads until they're able to resolve the issue. Their response? They didn't care, they just said, we understand your concern for not wanting to continue our relationship. That was it, they're not looking into it, they didn't apologize, nothing.

I tried them again last month, after I cut them for the previous 6 months. Within a day, I had over a dozen users sending reports about malicious redirects. I disabled Lijit, and things were fine. I used Lijit for 8 months without trouble, and enjoyed their service since the interface is decent, rates competitive, tracking and payments done right, etc. However, since these issues started, I have no choice but to leave. It's sad they have no interest in solving them, because like I said, they have potential. Redirecting my visitors to malware though, and allowing that on the network? It's inexcusable.

Lijit was the best alternative for me, and I went through a good 5-6 networks. However, their CPM's were significantly less than adsense. Their support is really good though and they do actually have control over their inventory unlike a lot of other ad networks I worked with (many networks claim to be able to block audible/video/popup malicious ads but still allow many to slip through). Technorati is decent I believe (only used them for about a month) but their ads must be served out of an iframe (so they can't be contextual - so less CPM) because their ad servers are so slow and they are page blocking.

I still use Lijit for their "backup ads" feature. Basically, I monitor the CPMs I'm getting from other networks, then set my floor CPM in Lijit to that number. That way, I get about 30% fill with Lijit - but it's guaranteed to be at a higher CPM than the other network. Chaining them together works really well - you just need to do it asynchronously so that it doesn't impact load times.

Honestly, none of that. Create your own "ad network".

Basically, figure out the theme of your blog and what kind of people it attracts and then find affiliate programs for that.

For example. Let's say your tutorials are for developers. What do developers need?

* development tools * hosting * further courses/learning

That will yield a pretty good list of affiliates that will convert well such as:

* New Relic * Digital Ocean * TeamTreeHouse

(respectively). You'll make much more cash, and it'll work better for your site. [Checkout my site](http://antjanus.com/) for instance. I have a TeamTreeHouse ad (affiliate) which makes me a solid $X every month. The adsense ad underneath makes about $X/100 (it was slightly better when it was at the top of the sidebar but still made only a fraction of what the TTH ad made). I also have an ad for Bootstrap themes on my Bootstrap tutorials. That ad makes about $X/2 BUT my teamtreehouse ad performed at $X/25 for those articles, makes sense?

Anyways, I'm getting rid of adsense in favor of my own "ad network".

EDIT A good example of other people doing this is [TechPro](http://tech.pro) (I worked there briefly during the first sprint to make a pre-alpha whatever) which has its own ad serving network and directly serves affiliate programs.

Please don't tell me your advocating using affiliates in place of an ad network like AdSense. While on the surface it makes sense, and if you're lucky you'll find great affiliate programs, but there's an equally, some would say much dirtier side to affiliate programs.

Success is the key to how your relationships go. Get too successful and chances are the company you have an affiliate agreement with will get tired of paying out large sums to you (sound familiar?) They will either kill your relationship outright, or replicate your business model first and then kill your relationship once it's taken hold.

Also, other affiliates will do whatever they can to sabotage your efforts.

The best defense to all of these shenanigans is diversification and direct ad sales.

Google may or may not screw you on AdSense, and your affiliate "partner" may or may not to the same. They key is to be ready and have an alternative waiting in the wings for when it happens (and trust me it will if you have success)

It sounds like you don't have much experience with being an affiliate.

An affiliate is a "marketer on commission". Much like a salesman on commission.

>Get too successful and chances are the company you have an affiliate agreement with will get tired of paying out large sums to you (sound familiar?) They will either kill your relationship outright, or replicate your business model first and then kill your relationship once it's taken hold.

This is like saying if a salesman gets too successful at his company, they will fire him and make the sales themselves.

I've never heard of this happening, and it would be idiotic to do. A company gets essentially free money from their affiliates. They take no risk and get marketers that are much smarter than the ones that are on the job market working for them. This is a dream for pretty much every company. Even Google has affiliate programs.

>Also, other affiliates will do whatever they can to sabotage your efforts.

This is like saying your fellow salesmen will sabotage your efforts.

Nope. Remember, people aren't against you, they are for themselves. Affiliates WILL copy what you are doing if you're successful, but that happens in sales as well. And who cares? The best will still be the best because they will come up with better things.

But this is irrelevant, because if you do what the parent comment says, they can't copy you unless they take control of your site.

>and trust me it will if you have success

Why should I trust you? What experience do you have? It sounds like you're exaggerating something you read somewhere.

Well, I'd agree with the competition and replication. But that's the nature of business. Once you get good enough, others will use your work as an inspiration to outperform you or delete you out of the equation.

Outside of that, I never reached the volume where I had to worry about the pay outs myself.

But I have worked for companies that HAVE reached a VERY high volume (read: millions in affiliate sales) and they had no problem either, as long as a contract was signed outside of the regular affiliate program to control traffic, cost, etc. I think that's the only reasonable thing you can do: have a direct partnership with another company once the volume reaches a critical mass.

Having an alternative is, of course, a must-have. Or rather, like you said, diversification. Having multiple affiliates, multiple working relationships.

I don't agree with you on direct ad sales. It doesn't mitigate anything. It's the same deal as the rest of the advertising world, nothing special about it.

Thank you for the thoughtful response, I was fully expecting to have my comment skewered. Multiple, direct relationships with advertisers seems to be the key to long term success. Unfortunately for the "small guy" that doesn't come until you're beyond a certain traffic threshold leaving most to swim the troubled waters of AdSense and the like.

Your Digital Ocean link doesn't work, the double // after the domain seems to be the problem.

The Digital Ocean ad on your site is a faulty link that 404s

Thanks! I just added it, simple typo :)

is a site called AntiAnus safe for me to view at work?

It's a j, not an i. A bit tough to tell with the underline there.

The link reads ANTJANUS, not ANTIANUS.

It's AntJanus.

Have you considered trying another way to monetize? Selling merchandise, especially if you have an engaged audience, tends to have a higher effective CPM ($20-100+ in our experience) and can be run simultaneously with ads.

Teespring (disclaimer: I'm a co-founder and t-shirt addict) can be an effective tool for doing just this. We ship hundreds of thousands of products each month, you get retail quality products and margins as though you were paying up front.

Absolutely no risk and no costs. You'll never pay us a penny, we only make money if you do.

I suggest to come up with your own buyable products (tutorials, how-to's, etc..) and show half of it (teaser) to everyone and allow to see the rest to paid members.

Then you may charge per download, or full access based on recurring membership fee.

You may also offer free membership to capture emails and then market to interested visitors further.

Whoring your traffic to other people's platforms or products leaves no residual value to you and makes you vulnerable to other people TOS'es, moods and playrules.

The point is to use Google what it's good for - to send you prospects.

Your task is to capture prospect's contacts and establish relationships with them.

Begging for Adsense peanuts is unsustainable strategy as many people are finding out the hard way.

(PS: I worked on bulding membership site software that allows you to do just that with a few clicks)

Thanks for your feedback. Yeah, this is probably the direction we will eventually have to go. I really like this approach, but we'd rather focus on the content and articles now versus, say, the business side of it - unless it grows into something bigger.

My other thought was to put new articles up with a community-based bitcoin paywall. Basically if we receive "X" donations from the community, this article becomes public forever. I'm not sure how that will be received by our user base though (tech, web developers).

I'm actually the one who created free Bitcoin plugin for Wordpress/WooCommerce as well :)


Feel free to utilize it for that purpose. It could be a great strategy.


Chitika customer support here! Our ad network is often used by those who cannot get AdSense approval but who still have high-quality sites. You can even test us out alongside AdSense -- we've found most publishers who use Chitika AND AdSense make more money than those who use AdSense alone.

We have search-targeted text, display, mobile, in-text, pop-out, and highlight ads available to all of our publishers.

Feel free to drop me a line at support@chitika.com if you or your friend have any questions. We can take a look at your blog and suggest certain ad types & placements that would work well for your specific blog. :)

Do you look at the page text to see what ads fit the page (which I believe AdSense does)? I'm asking because I just signed up and it seemed like the ads I saw on my site were completely random:

Top Rated Hybrids, Dividend Income Funds, Best Tablets, Best Cars, Best Stocks To Buy, and Luxury SUVs.

Is there a way for me to indicate which category my site is in?

I also got ads with ugly green buttons. Is there a way for me to prevent this ad scheme?

Also, is there any way for me to change the color of the links?


What is your company's policy on ads that automatically open up iTunes or Google Play if they detect an iOS or Android device.

Because that shady practice is really starting to annoy me.

I've now had to enable parental controls (for myself) and block the iTunes app to prevent these annoying subversive ads from hijacking my browser on my iPad.

I'd like to see a policy of 1 warning then a ban for ad publishers who use these underhanded methods.

An ad should never open up an application on your device for you. It should only direct you to content that you've asked to see (because you made a decision to click on that ad). We hate annoying ads too! If you do see a Chitika ad that does this, let us know ASAP so we can remove it and make sure it's not happening anywhere else.

There are alternatives to AdSense, but the key here is to recognize that AdSense enjoys its favorable position in part by sourcing advertiser demand from other platforms. There is a massive and creative ecosystem around developing technology to suit (and sometimes to drive) the mercurial wishes of ad agencies. So Google captures this through partnerships. Ad demand that's actually originated by Google sales is very significant and very high quality, but there's no doubt that Google is simultaneously interested in serving its own wholly owned properties.

The best thing to do is to build relationships with 5-9 high quality ad platforms and waterfall them through passback tags, one to the other.

Good platforms include, but are certainly not limited to:

AOL x+1 AppNexus Turn MediaMath AudienceScience Criteo The Trade Desk

If you're lucky, you can satisfy all requests without sending a single impression over to AdSense.

If your domain is delivering fewer than 100m impressions monthly, it's unlikely that the companies noted above will be keen to put personnel on your account, and may not be able to work with you at all.

However, with intelligent switching, keen arbitrage, and an aggressive performant waterfall (e.g., you never actually want to pass a request to more than two or three of these or you'll see packet loss that exceeds the positive delta you'd have obtained by accessing yet another ad platform) you can do very well without using AdSense. The company I mentioned below, Publir, was cofounded by me about five years ago and does what we think is a rather good job of this. Sites like The Atlantic and others use us for their ads.

We're also terrific fans of BuySellAds, whose self-serve platform is second to none. There, your goal is simply to do direct outreach to advertisers likely to covet your audience. Even the finest brand-name publishers only sell about 30% of their ads this way, though, so your expectations ought not be too high.

What's the niche?

It's more work, but you can generate similar levels of income - or sometimes more - using affiliate programs from sites like Commission Junction, ShareASale, and Clickbank. You'll need to test and optimise, but the rewards can be considerable.

I have a close friend who went from AdSense to BuySellAds Unreserved and saw a spike in CPM of c. 60-70%, with quality ads (I think he said these were primarily retargeting driven). I don't think he is going back to AdSense.

Very cool - always great to hear about people doing well with our Unreserved program! Thank you for sharing with the HN crowd.

I work at BSA .. would love to chat with your friend to see if we could highlight his site on our blog in a case study.

My email is tom at buysellads.com

MediaCrush (https://mediacru.sh) uses Project Wonderful. We describe our reasons here: https://mediacru.sh/advertising.

In short, they are pro-user and generally seem like good guys, and they give us a lot of control.


media.net, my previous company. We used to consider ourself in competition with adsense. They have some big name customers like forbes, cosmopolitan etc.

I recently split my ads (50% AdSense | 50% Media.Net) on one of the blogs I maintain and they both earn very close to the same amount every day. I like the service.

Agree with Todd's general setup. CPM's on display ads are in a death spiral thanks to a glut of inventory and programmatic buying/targeting options.

Particularly for a tutorial site I would consider paid, clearly marked sponsored tutorials that you produce and keep full editorial control over. In moderation it can work well and still have educational value for readers and drive results for advertisers way beyond any display ads, and significantly more revenue for you. Full disclosure I handle direct ad sales for publishers with this exact same model at TechCrowds.com (including representing a few BuySellAds publishers)

For ads, I don't think others pay quite as well, and even those that come close, usually require at least 100,000 uniques a month or something like that.

But if it's not too irrelevant to that topic, I suggest combining whatever ad network you have with Amazon affiliate links. It helped me double my Adsense income for the same traffic.

Ultimately, if you have some quality service or content that you can sell, membership/subscription model is the best. I know someone who just gave up on Adsense, and was making 10x the Adsense revenue from subscriptions.

Indeed, there are many folks doing this very successfully. It's certainly not for everyone though, and does require a bit of work. We actually work with a bunch of folks who are doing this successfully over at a side-project of ours: http://syndicateads.net

Are there any ad networks that don't track the people looking at your site? That would be a valuable feature to me.

You're basically asking to show ads that are even more irrelevant and useless to your users?

The best ads for publishers and users are ones that are relevant. If you want to display something that is irrelevant to the user and ineffective for the advertiser, you might as well not display ads at all and avoid annoying your users.

What if they show ads based on the focus of the site instead of information about the user?

You can, there are plenty of XML feed providers who will provide you an XML of ads relevant to the keywords you provide, which you collect server side and display to your users.

Through our marketplace we don't track any personal or sensitive info about users, or use it to figure out which ads to display. The most sensitive info we use to show ads would be geo-location (just country...). Advertisers are selecting the sites they want to advertise with based on the sites topical area vs. us coming up with some magical algorithm that matches an ad with a user.

You mean doesn't track views but only tracks clicks/conversions?

The only problem I would see with that is that if a user already converted by clicking the ad, he would continue to see the same ad when he is on your site again. You're no longer able to extract more $ from that user.

If you're wanting that, host ad banners locally and use CPA/affiliate links instead. The additional benefit to this is that Adblock doesn't block them unless you name the div id or url 'advertisement'.

Have you considered working directly with the most relevant advertisers for your niche market?

Thats what I ended up doing after my AdSense account was banned and I couldnt find a good alternative to match my sites.

Its a hit and miss though. Nothing like what I was earning with AdSense.

I launched few months ago an alternative to AdSense: PandAd. https://pandad.eu

However we focus a French public for the moment. But we try to do not track visitors of our publishers.

I had a website that had around 50,000 hits/month and made about $150/month with no input from me. We used the ad network called Project Wonderful. It's simple to use and manage.

You could try Publir.com. (Disclaimer: I'm cofounder.)

This doesn't look like an AdSense alternative. I think most people are looking for something that they can click a button, get a <script> tag they can drop in their page, and earn a few dollars a month to offset the cost of hosting. Your site looks like something catering to large publishers.

p.s. The landing page makes me confused on exactly what it is that your site does.

Yeah -- with Publir, we want to speak with every applicant first. But aside from that, it is more or less as simple as us generated a <script> tag and sending that over.

@malchow I work at BSA and would love to chat with you guys. Good way to connect?

@livestyle Would love to talk. I'm at joe (at sign) publir.com. Let me know that you came through YC.

If you're in health/fitness/nutrition/diet, we have some tools using the PricePlow API. Buzz me if so and good luck!

Depends on the type of traffic, but I think it's best to just push CPA offers, or actual products from places like cj or clickbank

Do you know other places like clickbank?

Does anyone know of an ad network which pays out in Bitcoin but targetted towards general users? Coinurl, a-ads etc have an extremely low CTR because they are targetted to only Bitcoins users.

Are there any plans for popular ad networks to payout in Bitcoin anytime soon?

Another solution would be to use affiliate programmes such as Privateinternetaccess but once again, it would generate a low CTR I would presume.

We've had some folks request to be paid out in Bitcoin. We're open to doing this once we have a handful more (or so) ask for it... the tricky thing is that you then have to play the exchange rate game and withdraw money from BuySellAds when it's "favorable" for you to do so, since the advertisers aren't actually paying you in Bitcoin.

I wish Mozilla started their own ads platform for Firefox OS.

It looks promising.

SEO is on the way out, and AdSense is too expensive. Social media is the new SEO, check out this book for the insider tips: http://massivefollowing.com

Do you know what AdSense is?

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