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Before Going Native: 18 Things Publishers Can Do To Improve Banner Ad Performance

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 27 Aug, 2015
Essential Essential topic

AdTech is a trendy industry but not all trends are worth following

“Hey look over here...we have what you need” illustrates the two main challenges advertisers face and have always faced. First, how to capture the audience’s attention. Second, once we have their attention, how do we sell them something.

The reason these two edicts are so challenging is because the advertising highway, leading from initial attention to closing a sale, has several exits. The advertiser is willing to concede that not everyone will digest the message, and even fewer will then continue to make a purchase based on that message.

As long as a certain percentage of people follow this (leaky) funnel and complete a sale, everyone is happy. Well, maybe not everyone. Despite heavy efforts by all of the leading AdTech companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and more, it is still not possible to deliver ads only to interested individuals who are ready to convert.

Over time, the percentage of the audience who provides advertisers with their attention and hard earned dollars declines and advertisers need to come up with new ways to generate revenue.

In an industry that’s constantly asking for attention, it should come as no surprise that advertisers are hungry for new innovations. One such innovation in advertising is “native advertising”. Native ads have evolved in response to “banner blindness”. Over time, the brain learns to spot banner ads intuitively by their common characteristics and tunes them out. Banner blindness results in decreased revenues not just for publishers but also for ad networks and advertisers who rely on banner ads as a source of traffic and revenue.

Native ads are ads that look like content and not like regular banner ads so the eye does not know to ignore them intuitively (yet). Combine banner blindness with the rising popularity of ad blockers and you have growing numbers of publishers ready for a new solution that will put them back in the saddle.

Since web visitors have learned to tune out banner ads and focus on the content they came to find, native ads try to resemble content as closely as possible by location and design making them more likely to be noticed (first challenge of advertising, as per above) and then clicked on (second challenge). However, it’s only a matter of time before the stealthy nature of native ads will be their downfall. Once this happens, a new innovation will be ushered in.

Despite the Buggles’ claim, video did not kill the radio star and native ads will not kill banner ads. Instead, I would like to suggest that we break the cycle and attempt to see if we can’t bring back banner ads to their former glory. In fact, many publishers don’t realize that they can optimize their banner ads to fight banner blindness, increase their click-through-rates and improve their revenue. So before you go native, try these banner optimization tactics that will help you increase your ad revenue and delight your readers with improved user experience.

Many of the following suggestions are directly concerned with Google AdSense since, combined with Google AdWords, it is by far the largest Ad Exchange in the world.

1. Above the fold (ATF) vs. Below the fold (BTF)

“Obviously, above the fold ads work better than below the fold ones...” You might be saying. Not true. At AdNgin, we help websites serve millions of ad impressions a day and what we’ve learned is that in certain cases, BTF ads can perform better than ATF ads. The key factors that affect banner performance are:

  • proximity to content
  • size
  • Ad unit design
  • Page content and advertising setup

It has been our experience that when combining certain factors, BTF ads can perform better. So instead of stacking your above-the-fold real estate with as many ads as possible, consider that this will not always provide increased ad revenue and will most likely disturb your visitors’ user experience.

2. Exclude certain pages

Certain pages should not display any advertising. Some are obvious, like 404 pages. Some are not. If you’re trying to attract advertisers from a high paying niche but your content does not match the keywords they would likely target, exclude the irrelevant pages from displaying ads.

Over time, you will see your average cost per click (CPC) rise. However, this tactic should only be used if you have a marginal number of pages to the niche you’re trying to target. You are more likely to experience a loss in overall revenue than a gain if that is the case.

3. Optimize for Mobile

If you’re not yet optimizing to create different ad setups for mobile traffic then you’re missing out on substantial earnings. Google AdSense offers various ad sizes that are optimized for mobile traffic and AdSense mobile anchor ads that have proven their efficiency.

4. Optimize your Color Palette

Many publishers consider it the responsibility of advertisers to make banner ads clickable. This may be true when it comes to display banners but text ads served through Google AdSense can be customized on the seller side. Similarly to native ads, text ads have the potential of blending in with content and providing a less obtrusive user experience.

5. Right vs. Left side

One of the publishers that uses AdNgin to optimize their AdSense is L’express, one of the largest publishers in Africa. They ran several experiments on their banner ads (you can access the full case study here). In one of those experiments, they created a variation of their homepage. The control had 2 ad units on the left-hand column and one on the right. The variation was the opposite with 1 ad unit on the left side and 2 on the right. The variation demonstrated a lift of 49% in click-through-rates (CTR) compared to the control.

But, don’t hurry to change your setup just yet. First, test and see what works best for you.

6. Mimicry

I can’t stress this one enough. Don’t copy what your competitors are doing! Don’t listen to every piece of advice blindly, even if it’s from a so called expert (except me, of course, listen to me :)). Do, understand why certain optimization tactics work for others. Do, leverage that and put it in context with your website and traffic.

7. Video

This is another one of those recent advertising trends. But this is one bandwagon you need to jump on. It’s a fairly simple process to add AdSense videos to your website and it’s explained here.

8. Data research

Sure, everybody collects data but are you using that data correctly or, at all? Scientific experiments usually start with a hypothesis. Then, an experiment is conducted to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Finally, an article is written about the experiment in order to learn from it and develop a discourse. That maybe enough for academia but in the business world experiments need to deliver actionable tactics. These tactics are then tested again to produce data-drive and  continuous optimization.

9. Exclude Advertisers

Be selective. This may seem as counter-intuitive advice. Why would I want to exclude advertisers? The more advertisers compete for my ad inventory, the higher cost-per-click (CPC) they pay, right? It’s not that simple. As an AdSense publisher, you want Google to easily understand what your website is about and then direct relevant advertisers to you. Google ranks AdSense publishers similarly to the way they rank search engine results. From our research we’ve observed that, if your AdSense average CTR is high, then Google perceives that you are more likely to help advertisers convert users, which will have a positive effect on Smart Pricing, which, in turn, will increase your average CPC over time.

10. But, look at more than CTR

Don’t look at your AdSense revenues through a keyhole. You ad units are an integral part of your website. Follow user experience metrics like bounce rate to observe long-term trends.

11. Improve load speed

This tip is usually a popular one with SEOs. So if you’re a website monetization professional or a conversion expert, this one is win win for everyone. You should aim at having your ads and content load at the same time.

12. Stay up to date

The online world ir rapidly changing and if we focus our lens even further on The AdTech industry, we can observe that it is leading the way for innovation. Some of these innovations can significantly improve the efficiency of your monetization tactics, which makes it imperative that you stay connected with innovations in the field. Follow AdTech startups on Twitter and check out Crunchbase to stay informed on the latest innovation that could help you increase your banner ad revenue.

13. Advertise

If you want to attract advertisers you need to think like an advertiser. Open an account with AdWords, AppNexus, etc. and understand how the targeting system works on the other end. This tactic will allow you to understand how advertisers target their ad campaigns. Then you can optimize your content and inventory to attract the type of advertiser you want.

14. Be contextual

Contextual targeting is targeting based on keyword matching. Most targeting methods are contextual so make an effort to find the keywords that have high CPCs and create content to match. Make use of modern SEO best practices to locate your keywords on the page.

15. Page setup

Many modern websites opt to use ready-made templates for their websites. The obvious advantages are fast rollout and lower costs. However, if you require substantial customizations, templates may not be the best solution for you. Whatever you choose, make sure that either your template or your custom web design is compatible with the most common banner ad sizes and that you are able to easily place ads without being too disruptive of the user experience.

16. Don’t max out

Find your balance. It can be very tempting to approach monetization completely focused on revenue without considering its side effects. But, the law of diminishing returns teaches us that over time our marginal income will decrease if we use this tactic. For example, adding highly visible ad units will increase your ad revenue in the short term but it is likely to have a negative effect in the long run.

For increased ad revenue over time, it’s necessary to find a balance between ad revenue and user experience. If you’re seeking to take a strategic stance on advertising then you should consider your monetization as part of the greater scheme that makes up your website.

17. Have a number in mind

Don’t over optimize. Have a goal in mind for all your performance metrics. If you find that it’s too low or too high then change it but do so from a strategic and data-driven perspective not a pie in the sky figure.

18. Diversify your ad networks

Don’t be a one-trick pony. As mentioned, Google AdSense is the largest Ad Exchange in the world bringing together millions of advertisers and publishers. However, if we’re going to get sophisticated with our monetization we should consider other ad exchanges and ad networks as well. Some of the smaller ad networks have developed their own specialization. ePom, for example, are great at selling unsold inventory while others are more banding focused. in order to properly optimize you need to have enough options to choose from.


19. Opt-in to AdSense placement targeting

One of the ways ads are targeted to AdSense publisher websites is through placement targeting. AdWords advertisers find ad placements in several ways, including by listing websites where they'd like to advertise or by searching for placements that match the themes and topics they'd like to target. If your site is part of the AdSense network, it should automatically be visible to advertisers as an available ad placement when they search for themes or topics related to the content of your site.

The AdTech industry includes some of the largest and most innovative companies in the world, like Google and Facebook. You can rest assured that companies of this magnitude will find new and improved ways of generating advertising revenue.  But just because a new innovation is relaesed and and hyped up does not meam that tried and true solutions do not work any more. All it takes is a little bit of research and optimization and you will have your old banner ads humming like a well tuned engine.

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