My Frustrations with Google AdSense

That steady erosion of control over your own site

My Frustrations with Google AdSense

by Christopher Heng,
Date written: 29 October 2019

I can't remember when I first signed up with Google AdSense. At that time, I found it to be an extremely convenient way of putting advertisements on my site. I had previously relied exclusively on affiliate programs from various companies and manually matched advertisements with my content. When AdSense came along, and a Google representative wrote to me about it, I signed up for it. It did the context-matching automatically, relieving me of the tedium of doing it myself. The income wasn't much per click, but I liked it, because I could then concentrate on writing articles.

Alas, times have changed.

Google AdSense no longer believes that it is a guest on my sites, and is increasingly doing whatever it wants. At the time I write this, it looks like this is only going to become worse.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

Remember when you could have purely text AdSense ads?

In the early days of AdSense, you could control the type of advertisements that appeared on your pages. They could be purely text, or a mixture of text, images and videos.

In general, I am not too fond of picture-based advertisements where the pictures are not controlled by me, since I feel they are risky. From time to time, I come across advertisements that are not entirely family-friendly, and I don't want them on my sites. All of my sites have to be usable by both young and old (including my own family, who occasionally refer to them), and they must be safe for work (and universities and schools, since they sometimes refer their students here) as well.

And even when the pictures are family-friendly and work-safe, I worry about deceptive ones. I have seen adverts that mimic some Windows dialog box saying that your computer is infected and to click there. And there are those that have a gigantic "Download" button that happens to appear on software sites, fooling visitors to click them instead of the site's actual download link. And don't get me started on videos.

A lot can go wrong when you don't control the pictures or videos. Instead of potentially being relevant to visitors, they can, at the very least, turn people off.

As such, I set up AdSense so that it only delivered text advertisements. And I persisted through all the years, even though Google kept sending me endless notifications saying that I could earn more if I allowed images and videos.

And then, some time ago, Google summarily issued a notice saying that regardless of what we wanted, it would display text, image or video-based advertisements according to what its algorithms determined would generate the most money. I no longer had any control over it. It's their way or the highway.

Remember when you could control the size of the Google adverts?

After I signed up, I set up AdSense so that the advertisements that appeared at the top of my pages occupied at most 728 pixels wide by 90 pixels tall. This, I felt, allowed the advertisement to sell whatever it was trying to sell, without being in the way.

And so it continued for many years. Then came the mobile phone revolution. And Google said that to make my advertisements mobile-friendly, I had to use their new code. And so I did.

Well, you can see the results for yourself (if you are using a desktop browser) on the pages of that have Google advertisements (not this page). Suddenly, depending on the availability of advertisements in the country you are in, the ads can sometimes occupy huge portions of the vertical space above the fold, leaving little space for my content, unless you scroll down.

This is beyond ridiculous. Such huge advertisements are extremely annoying (to me, and I suspect, also to my visitors). Contrary to what Google believes, my websites are primarily meant for my content, not its advertisements. Yes, I need the advertising income to put food on the table, but I don't want it in such an obnoxious "in-your-face" manner.

And, short of removing the top advertisements (which I'm seriously considering), there is no way I can control it.

What is this tracking rubbish it's doing with its adverts?

When I first signed up with AdSense, it merely delivered ads that matched my content. I imagine this means that if a web page has content directed at webmasters, it will show stuff that webmasters are interested in. That is fine. I used to manually match adverts this same way myself. It's only logical. There's no point showing advertisements for (say) building construction materials on a website meant for (say) choir conductors.

Then Google acquired Doubleclick, and used its technology in its advertisements. Now, instead of just matching content, it matched visitor's interests. But how does it know what their interests were? It tracked users across all its sites (eg, their search engine, Gmail, YouTube, etc) and whatever sites that showed AdSense or incorporated some form of Google code. So, for example, if you were searching for baby diapers before, and now arrive at an unrelated site, AdSense will remember that you were looking at diapers, and show you advertisements for young parents.

This was touted as a way to increase income. But I disliked it intensely, and still do. I see in it a potential for abuse, not to mention that it's just creepy, and I don't want that facility. Stick to matching content. Don't track my visitors. I don't want to be a party to this.

With the introduction of new European legislation regulating privacy, AdSense some time ago allowed webmasters to disable tracking on its ads on their sites. Notwithstanding Google's ominous warnings that it will cause my income to fall, I immediately disabled the tracking.

But given their record of ignoring my choices after some time, and doing whatever they wanted, I wonder if they will continue to respect my setting, or if they will, at some point in the future, peremptorily announce that this option will no longer work. Or even just silently ignore the setting.

The monster on the horizon: Auto ads

And now, they have introduced something they call "Auto ads". This apparently allows them to insert their advertisements anywhere they like on your pages, in whatever form, shape or size that makes the most money.

To the naive, this may seem like a more convenient way of placing advertisements.

But we have been down this road before. "Pure text ads don't generate as much money as ones with pictures and videos, so let's replace it, regardless of what the webmaster wants. Small adverts don't attract much attention, so let's show bigger ones, and don't give the webmaster a choice. Tracking users generate more money, so let's do it by default." Google's priorities are not the same as ours. You may think that you are only giving them permission to insert into certain blank spaces on your site, but they may have other ideas.

I tried to log into my account to see if there was any way to disable it. But the account now has a huge pop-up overlay you cannot get out of, except either to follow its course presumably to enable Auto ads, or to close the browser window altogether. I suppose after enabling it, I will be able to find a setting somewhere to disable it. But I suspect the setting will not be obvious, and I'll probably have to disable it manually site-by-site. From the information I've gleaned so far, Auto ads will frighteningly work through any ad code that you have placed on your site, even if they are not for Auto ads. And they say it like it's a good thing.

Given Google's track record with its AdSense program, I don't know how long I can avoid it. But can you imagine the horror? As if the AdSense adverts are not already running amok. Now your entire web page will be their playground and you will not have any control.

With Google AdSense, I feel a steady erosion of control over the advertisements they place on my site. What next? Rewriting content to add advertising links? (And NO, Google, that is NOT a suggestion! No!)

Hey Google, if you're listening...

Restore to us control over the advertisements you place on our sites. You may say that we have control. But we want control over the maximum sizes of the advertisements. We want to control its type (text or otherwise). And we want to retain control over the placement. Continue to let us stop the tracking on our sites. And don't force this wretched Auto ads on us and cause us to have to hunt for a setting that is inconveniently tucked away somewhere just to disable it.

And yes. We know that choosing these things yields less income. But that's our choice. We don't want our websites to look like a gigantic advertising banner. We want our visitors to be able to read our content comfortably. The adverts on our sites are meant to be something they can view if they want to, not something they cannot avoid.

And I should also add that continuing to make advertisements more and more prominent is self-defeating. You are driving browser vendors and users alike to block advertisements by default. Google may be big enough to survive that. But it will surely sound the death knell for us ordinary content-oriented webmasters.

Copyright © 2019-2023 Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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