Consumers have always wanted entertainment on an a-la carte basis. This has been a hot topic in the cable TV market for a while. Why pay for channels you don’t watch? This same concept led to the success of Netflix and other internet connected media sources for mere dollars per month. Additionally the success of skip-the-commercials technology is a must-have for many people, whether a TiVo or a DVR.
This is what Google Contribute essentially is; skip the commercials for a few dollars per month. I signed up as soon as I heard of it, and received my invite this week (4/24/15). I immediately clicked though, set up my payment information and hit the (virtual) streets. Here is my first impression.
There are 3 different levels of contribution (ad suppression), $2, $5 and $10. Interestingly, this is the price is for the entire web and not on a site-by-site basis (what I thought it would be). So far “millions of sites” have signed up for Contribute. Although you can’t pay an individual site directly, you can allocate funds by how much you visit them. This is good because you only pay for what you use from each site; imagine if Netflix only charged you $.50 because you only streamed 1 movie this month. That being said, the level you choose is purchased up front, so if you don’t use your entire balance that month you lost it (it is not clear if unused balances carry over to the next month).
The $2 level buys you 5-15% fewer ads, $5 reduces ads by another 15-25%, and $10 reduces ads by 25-50%. So, clearly if you hate seeing advertisements the $10/month option is the best way to go. I signed up for the $5 just to give it a try.
Armed with my new super-powers, I went straight to Mashable.com, one of the suggested sites. I opened up another browser to compare the Contributor experience with non-contributor, but I didn’t see any difference in ads. The three main ad sections on the Mashable homepage were the same.
Is There A Difference?
First I hit up The Next Web. On this site, my $5 tip to the valet was indeed honored. With both browsers still open, I dove into the main content section where I observed the following:
In my Contributor browser, I saw this instead:
It is hard to see, but in the usual ad space was a “Thank you for being a contributor” message. Hey, that’s cool- at least I know it’s working.
I kept going through the articles, taking note of the 4 main ad sections on the page: top banner, left rail banner, in-body ads (above) and the footer. The above example happened on page 1, one of the less prominent ads being hidden. This was the only hidden ad on page one.
Page 2 was better… sort of. The ad which was about 200 pixels tall in the left rail was replaced with another thank you message… about 600 pixels tall. Really? So instead of seeing the ad, I get less screen real estate. Clearly there are some wrinkles to iron out.
Another observation: This not only applies to native banner ads, but also promoted content being sold to other advertisers. The example above has a promoted blog post from the Gap; absent in the Contributor view. Obviously this has implications for content distribution networks and their customers. Sites participating in the Contribute program need to accurately estimate impressions and article reads to potential advertisers by taking into account the effect Contributor will have on those numbers.
How Does It Work?
The deeper I went into the site, the less ads I saw. By page 4 of the blog archive, I saw no ads at all. Google Contribute isn’t a random deletion of ads, but instead enters you into the existing auction for ad space between you and the advertiser. In this case, instead of advertisers bidding against each other, Contribute bids on the user’s behalf against the ad program itself. Google states the advertisers have a number of criteria which must be met in order to display their ad, like the site it is on, the geographic reach, and the time of day.
The factors with which Contribute judges ad display include your remaining balance for the month and the cost of the ad space where the Thank You message has displayed in the past. Each auction happens in real time, just like traditional Adsense. So the more pages I went through, the less competitive an auction I was participating in, until finally ads were completely absent.
As a Contributor user, Google provides a handy (although light weight) dashboard of where your contributions go:
After one day of using Contributor, I’ve only visited one site (thenextweb.com) and contributed a total of $.07. I wonder what would happen if I exceed my $5 contribution in a month. Would I see ads again? This was not clearly explained in my Contributor dashboard. The above is a view of the Basic User dashboard, but for a publisher there is a similar dashboard of your incoming contributions.
What Are We Really Contributing?
The dashboard also brings up a privacy concern, although “this list is only visible to you.” I’m using Firefox (not Chrome) and there is no Google property tool bar on the screen, so they’re tracking all of my browsing habits, whether on a contributor site or not. I’m paying Google to keep track of all the sites I go to. This in itself could help Google show me even more ads. The notion is certainly thought-provoking: Paying Google to not see ads but at the same time giving them ammo to show you even more relevant ads. Google again is having their cake and eating it too. Although I haven’t looked into exactly how it works, it could be likely that instead of keeping track of all sites visited, only the sites which participate in Contributor fires a tracking event to Google saying “This is a contributor site.” Hopefully this is the case.
On the webmaster’s side, there are a ton of advantages. First of all, revenue is almost surely greater than what could be generated by the abysmal click through rates of display advertising. However if they’re being paid by impression, it might be a different story. Lack of ad space has more advantages too, like cleaner designs,
more screen real estate for actual content, and possibly site speed improvements. I truly think this will improve the quality of the average person’s web experience by removing the distractions we’ve been trained to ignore.
Google Contribute is a promising tool for both users and advertisers, although it has some implications on personal privacy and content promotion. For users, your ads are reduced, and you only pay for what you use from each site. Comparing Contributor to a normal browsing experience, I found less ads the more content I consumed. However in one case, I found no visible difference on the highly-prized homepage. Contributor is based on an ad auction between you and the advertiser, an auction you’re not likely to win for the high impact placements.
For site owners, this could be a great way to make additional revenue. Instead of relying on impressions or clicks through advertisements, you get a nice direct revenue stream from Contribute. Google Contribute places even more importance on quality content because your customer isn’t just advertisers; it’s readers. Give your audience a reason to come back and a reason for Contributors to spend on you.