Making money with Adsense – without annoying your users: WordPress.com

Automattic is reaping the rewards for years of hard work. Automattic is the company behind comment spam filter Akismet and WordPress.com, and of course the magnificent open source blogging software started by Matt Mullenweg. But how do they make money from their free blog hosting service?

[Update November 1, 2009]
About a year after I posted this, WordPress.com introduced an ads-free upgrade for about $30/year. Find out more about it on Matt’s blog.

The answer: like everybody else – Google Adsense. Still you probably have never seen a single ad on their pages… Here’s how they do it:

Cherish regular readers – they are your writers-to-be

If you’re a regular reader (let alone poster) on WordPress.com, cookies will prevent you from seeing ads. Regular readers don’t click ads anyway, they’re there for the content. Ads would be off-putting and keep readers from becoming contributors.

The small loss in revenue on regular readers is by far offset by the growth in “content inventory” if you can turn readers into writers. First build the community, then monetize. (I thought I remember Matt linking to a similar argument by the founder of Metafilter, but I can’t find the referring post anymore.)

Only show ads to searchers

Chances are you never visited Kris Hoet’s blog* – Kris is EMEA Marcom man for Msn/Windows Live. Although he has it mapped on his own domain crossthebreeze.com, the blog is hosted by wordpress.com. Yet if I refer you to his holiday report, you won’t see any ads either, even as a first time visitor, even if you delete your crossthebreeze.wordpress.com or crossthebreeze.com cookies (this cookie-killing Firefox extension will save you time).

You might not be a regular reader (yet), but you didn’t go there to see ads, you went there because I referred you to what you expect to be a holiday report. WordPress.com doesn’t want to spoil your first impression of Kris’s blog.

However, if you land there by accident after a Google search, things are different.

bars-in-Kota-Kinabula-search-result

You’re quite likely not to be interested by his blog, but more by bars in Kota Kinabalu… The served ads (fitting your search terms even more than the content of the post) offer a convenient click away. (Notice how the “Ads by Google” caption is even more inconspicuous here, probably because of some preferred partnership?)

bars-in-Kota-Kinabula-posting-after-google-search

Exploit the masses, spare the geeks

fake-your-user-agent-firefox-extension Still don’t see the ads when you click through from the search page (after some cookie-crumbling)? Aha, but you’re using Firefox, right? (Or Flock, or another minority browser…)

Geeks like you are probably advertising-resistant, and notoriously loud and outspoken. Rather than facing criticism from troublemakers that don’t click ads anyway, WordPress prefers not to show them at all… Unless you fake your User Agent and do the same cookie-cleaning and search procedure over again…

Now that’s really all for the hoops you have to jump through, in order to enjoy the privilege of being served ads on WordPress.com!

Cash in on derived content: tag pages

Another stroke of brilliance are the WordPress.com tag pages. Tag pages aggregate (excerpts of) postings with a particular category or tag (see their explanation) across the WordPress.com network (whereas tag pages on self-hosted wordpress blogs are internal links in your blog).

See the tag page for “Emergent Church” as (arbitrary, I swear!) example . They’re a searchengine’ s Gefundenes Fressen: tags are typically the keywords you use in search queries as well, and here you have pages optimised for such a keyword, with lots of inlinks from relevant posts using that keyword as anchor text, on a high-authority domain. What’s more, since tag pages are the result of coincidental co-production, no community member will dispute the site’s owner’s right to exploit this no-man’s-land.

wordpress.com-tag-emergent-church

I used to see a lot of these pages in search results (especially for non-English queries) and I guess this has been a gold mine for a while. Google however is seriously pushing back tag pages nowadays (or maybe on over-optimised pages as well…). Tag pages can be considered search result pages by themselves… and who wants to see search results in search results? (See a similar argument on Technorati tag pages.) Still, they do show up, although you might need to fiddle a bit to get a first-page result:

google-search-emergent-church

Paid accounts profitable?

A lot of other community sites are using the same techniques, yet none pushing it as far as WP.com… Apparently the strategy is successful to that extent that I’m wondering it will ever be worth their time to offer completely ad-free blogging accounts. Would people be willing to pay the equivalent or more of the advertising income their blog generates – after all, they never see an ad on their pages themselves?

I guess people like Kris Hoet might well be interested for reputation reasons, but maybe this market is not big enough to offer paid, large-scale, low-cost blog hosting?

* I’m using Kris as my guinea pig here as a late follow-up to a discussion we had at a bloggers’ meeting a long time ago.

45 Responses to “Making money with Adsense – without annoying your users: WordPress.com”

  1. Kris Hoet Says:

    Good post Pascal. I wasn’t aware of WP.com doing this actually, but I’m not really sure whether I like it. I can’t remember reading about it on WP – mmm. Something to think about.

  2. Pascal Says:

    It’s been around for a while actually – but hardly any WP.com user knows about it.

  3. Paul Cobbaut Says:

    Very informative, thanks! This is the reason for reading blogs.

  4. never mind the usability, feel the dollars « wordpress™ wank Says:

    [...] 23, 2007 at 4:56 pm · Filed under bubble, cars, design, dot com, global tags, wank Interesting post on how wordpress.com chooses when to serve ads. Especially good on the global tags racket: tags are typically the keywords you use in search [...]

  5. Making money without annoying your users: Wordpress.com « Someday I Will Treat You Good Says:

    [...] Making money without annoying your users: Wordpress.com Ah, that’s how they do it. [...]

  6. Ads on WordPress.com: Intrusive or Elusive? « Changing Way Says:

    [...] 23, 2007 Pascal van Hecke recently used WordPress.com as a case study in making money with AdSense without annoying your users. I found his post via that girl again, a WordPress.com user annoyed by, among other things, the way [...]

  7. Best of Feeds - 12 links - blogging, blogs, google, mashup, comments « // Internet Duct Tape Says:

    [...] [WORDPRESS.COM] Making money with Adsense – without annoying your users: WordPress.com [...]

  8. Dave Says:

    WordPress.com users can block ads with the $15/year CSS upgrade, simply by using “display:none” for “div.postcontent table”.

  9. drmike Says:

    Dave’s URL to his site is broken. May want to fix that. [done by pvh]

    I seem to remember a staff member mentioning in passing on the forums that hiding the adverts was a TOS-able offense. I’d link to it but last time I did such a thing, the post was deleted.

  10. Dave Says:

    (Thanks for fixing my link.)
    If it violated the TOS as currently written, I’d have thought Matt would’ve mentioned it when he weighed in on this thread: http://changingway.org/2007/07/19/wordpresscom-and-adsense/
    Be sure to follow the link there to wank’s post for some good discussion of the issue, including an email response from Matt. It does sound like something to be wary about, and I will purchase an ad-free option for at least one of the WP.com blogs I administer as soon as it becomes available.

  11. Dave Says:

    (Damn, I thought I had my link right that time! Oh well. I’m not doing this to troll for readers.)

  12. Pascal Says:

    Some updates:

  13. What I had not mentioned: no ads are shown on a blog front page to a first-time visitor, not even after a search. Quite important because lots of people use Google (and other SEs) as a navigational tool, i.e. they type in URL or title of the blog into the search box instead of the address bar. Those searchers intent is to go and read the blog, they’d be just annoyed by ads and not eager to click through anyway.
  14. People from Automattic have announced paid upgrades before, both for actually being able to display Adsense for their own account:

    Mullenweg plans to allow users to add Google’s AdSense to their blogs. But will this open the floodgates to sploggers? “Part of the WordPress brand is high-quality blogs, and we’re not going to do anything to damage that. We have an extraordinary number of really high-quality blogs, and some of them could do quite well with AdSense,” says Mullenweg. “We plan to make it a paid upgrade, at least $15 (£7.45) a year per blog, and our policies on splogs or spammy content aren’t going to change.”

  15. … or to have an ad-free blog:

    Bloggers who never want an ad will be able to turn them off. Both ‘more ads’ and ‘no ads’ will likely be a paid feature.

  16. It’s also listed on the features page
  17. How ads work on WordPress.com « Sakib on WordPress Says:

    [...] I got an excelllent one articels on Internetducttape’s blog. Pascal did an informative post Making money with Adsense – without annoying your users: WordPress.com. “updated on comments section by Pascel- People from Automattic have announced paid upgrades [...]

  18. Poll: Will you pay to remove advertising from your wordpress.com blog? « WPBLOGGINGTIPS Says:

    [...] Making money with Adsense – without annoying your users: WordPress.com Is WordPress.com sneakily displaying advertisements in community content? Ads on WordPress.com or [...]

  19. Ray Says:

    Interesting.
    Thanks for this post, I never noticed that before.

  20. tema indir Says:

    you are right about , make the community after make the money

  21. Mel Cartera Says:

    Wow! I learned something new today, and it’s just 11am. Thanks!

  22. AnneTanne Says:

    Thanks for this interesting article (although I have a self-hosted WordPress.blog)
    I digged it…

  23. Emil Says:

    How many visitors a day on your website is good enough to make decent money on good adsense?

  24. Pascal Says:

    Typically you make between 50 cents and 5 dollar (depending on the content) per 1000 visitors…

  25. The Edublogs Magazine : In defense of… this! Says:

    [...] provide a great tool for teachers and students (that’s ad free, unlike the platform Judy uses that plasters adsense all over the site, surreptitiously) and to put food on our [...]

  26. Anonymous Says:

    i have read on WordPress’s TOC that they frequently run AdSense (they said it is very rare) …. if this true (Matt run “hidden Adsense script) that answer my question before why Matt just let thousands/millions visitors to wordpress.com without adequate adsense.

    still, the above fact you explained is rather shock me ….. that’s rather “a tricky business”. Matt should put Adsense not in quiet way. Do as what http://eSnips.com/ do, they put AdSense in member page.

    http://akusuka.wordpress.com/2008/01/17/wordpresscoms-own-adsense/

  27. New Feature - Google Adsense Widget | Cynix Says:

    [...] adverts on your blog. No hidden links. No banners across the top of your blog. No ads at all. Some other services display them pretty much without your knowledge and, to be honest, we think that’s rather [...]

  28. The Internet Guy Says:

    When I read your post, I didn’t believe it. It cannot happen…

    But after reading http://wordpress.com/blog/2006/09/06/on-ads/ I was surprised. wasn’t expecting it. Users won’t accept adsense on member pages. Thats why his program is gonna stay experimental IMO. WordPress is going to scare away users if they start putting ads on user pages.

  29. drmike Says:

    Thats why his program is gonna stay experimental IMO

    Um, note the date of the page that you link to. It’s long past experimental and has been around for quite some time. Since members don’t see the adverts, they’re not aware of them. You may want to scan the support forums at wp.com and see folks who have complained about seeing the adverts. There really hasn’t been that many of them.

  30. Anonymous Says:

    to anonymous@ 2/1/08 @ 2:56 -

    There is nothing in the TOS about ads, http://wordpress.com/tos/

    (I just provided a link to the TOS – if it does not come through, it is wordpress dot com / TOS )

    “that they frequently run AdSense” <<< you didn’t read this there. It’s not there. There is nothing in the terms of service, nothing at all, stating that wordpress is going to be placing them on a person’s blog. I suspect you might have read what you stated in the september 2006 blog post that The Internet Guy linked to 2/10/08. That is not Terms Of Service though. That is just a blog post. Like what this is that we are commenting on right now, a blog post…

    Actually, the TOS mentions nothing about ads.

    There is this in the TOS:

    “Our service is designed to give you as much control and ownership over what goes on your blog as possible”

    and

    “you are fully responsible for all activities that occur under the account and any other actions taken in connection with the blog.”

    and

    ” You must immediately notify Automattic of any unauthorized uses of your blog”

    and

    “the Content is not spam, and does not contain unethical or unwanted commercial content designed to drive traffic to third party sites”

    and

    “By submitting Content to Automattic for inclusion on your Website, you grant Automattic a world-wide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, modify, adapt and publish the Content solely for the purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting your blog.” (emphasis mine)

  31. drmike Says:

    @anonymous – We (the current and former forum volunteers) have pointed that out to staff many times over over the years without any response. The one time I got a response was from a staff member to point folks to the FAQ on adsense. of course then staff stated that the FAQ had no official status and shouldn’t be used for ToS matters.

  32. incorporated subversion - education, media, community » Blog Archive » More Edublogs stuff than you can take in one hit. Yet still, apparently, it is not enough… Says:

    [...] some much nicer themes alongside much more extensive functionality… and we won’t even insert sneaky adsense into your [...]

  33. Adsense klikken als vriendendienst? Misschien beter niet… | Getwist en Gezeur | Weblog Pascal Van Hecke Says:

    [...] die via zoekmachines komen (waarvan de kans groter is dat ze echt iets willen kopen),  zoals WordPress.com het doet, is helemaal niet zo’n gek idee als op het eerste zicht lijkt…   Naast de [...]

  34. PRblogs.org Upgrade :: Now Fully Integrated in Edublogs Campus Edition | PRblogs.org Says:

    [...] For clarification, please check out this post in the edublogs forums to see what it is all about – On ads « The Edublogs Forums. The basics (most important info) for you is as follows: We’re considering trying out some adsense, in the same way that wp.com do it. [...]

  35. Ashish Says:

    Hi,

    I am have a wordpres blog http://www.hurricanesoftwares.com and http://hurricanesoftwares.edublogs.org/ I think getting some money for cheap hosting from Google won’t hurt the users much. They are already getting their required content, specially in my case as my blog is related to Computer programming and Technology with lots of helpful content.

    I hope that allowing Advertisement a bit won’t hurt users not the webmasters, people may differ on this.

    Ash

  36. Dr. Mike Wendell Says:

    Greets:

    Just for reference, adverts are now showing up after you log out of your wp.com account and on VIP account blogs as well. This is a change from what had been occurring. Once you were logged in, you never saw adverts even if you logged out and they were not appearing on VIP blogs.

  37. Johns Jo Says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for the consistent info provided in these grand pages. I used to write about Google AdSense, but today I have learned some thing that I didn’t know before.

  38. Help! Mijn Wordpress is gehackt! Wat te doen en hoe te vermijden? | Weblog Pascal Van Hecke Says:

    [...] voor een kleine fee kan je ook je eigen domeinnaam of je eigen stylesheet gebruiken.  Nadelen: af en toe staat er reclame, en je kan geen eigen javascript (dus Adhese, Adsense of andere reclame) [...]

  39. running your car on water guide Says:

    I have neither thought it that way nor observed. Really this is very amazing to know. I also used to think that how they make money. after reading your post i noticed the similar thing in famous digitalpoint forum. I am member of that forum and i opened one of my thread and it showed a banner ad between two posts( as i opended it as guest) and when i signed in and opened the same post, the ad was not there.

  40. Sneaky, Geeky, Advertising « Cheerful Megalomaniac Says:

    [...] Sneaky, Geeky, Advertising May 9, 2008 — Ryan Check out this post about how WordPress makes money from these here free blogs. [...]

  41. Wealthkick Says:

    Thank you so much. This is exactly what I need. We are not utilizing AdSence just yet, but as traffic grows, this may be one route we consider. Just want to follow the steps to avoid making our content look messy.

  42. Engedi Says:

    Thanks a lot, very informative…

  43. Pascal Says:

    Comments closed… with this a title like this, the post was becoming a honeypot for “manual spammers”…

  44. Why no AdSense on wordpress.com is NOT a good thing « TypePad versus WordPress Says:

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