Let’s have a serious talk about Ads

I have already expressed my opinion on Internet Ads months ago, so I would suggest you all to start reading from that, as I don’t want to have to repeat myself on this particular topic. What I want to talk right now is whether Ads actually work at all for things like my blog, or Autotools Mythbuster.

I’ll start by describing the “monetization” options that I use, and then talk a bit about how much they make, look into the costs and then take a short tour of what else I’m still using.

Right now, there are two sources of ads that I use on this blog: Google AdSense and Amazon Native Ads. Autotools Mythbuster only has AdSense, because the Amazon ads don’t really fit it well. On mobile platform, the only thing you really see is AdSense, as the Native Ads are all the way to the bottom (they don’t do page-level ads as far as I can tell), on desktop you only get to see the Amazon ads.

AdSense pays you both for clicks and for views of the ads on your site, although of course the former gives you significantly higher revenue. Amazon Native Ads only pays you for the items people actually buy, after clicking on the Ads on your site, as it is part of the Amazon Affiliate program. I have started using the Amazon Native Ads as an experiment over April and May, mostly out of curiosity of how they would perform.

The reason why I was curious of the performance is that AdSense, while it used to mostly make decision on which ads to show based on the content of the page, it has been mostly doing remarketing, which appears to creep some people app (I will make no further comments on this), while the idea that Amazon could show ads for content relevant to what I talked about appealed to me. It also turned out to have been an interesting way to find a bug with Amazon’s acapbot, because of course crawlers are hard. As it turns out, the amount of clicks coming from Amazon Native Ads is near zero, and the buying rate is even lower, but it still stacks fairly against AdSense.

To understand what I mean I need to give you some numbers, which is something people don’t seem to be very comfortable with in general. Google AdSense, overall, brings in a gross between €3 and €8 a month, with a very few rare cases in which it went all the way up to a staggering €12. Amazon Affiliates (which as I’ll get to does not only include Native Ads) varies very widely month after month, as it even reaches $50. Do note that all of this is still pre-tax, so you have to just about cut it in half to estimate (it’s actually closer to 35% but that’s a longer story).

I would say that between the two sources, over the past year I probably got around €200 before tax, so call it €120 net. I would have considered that not bad when I was self-employed, but nowadays I have different expectations, too. Getting the actual numbers of how much the domains cost me per year is a bit complicated, as some of those, including flameeyes.eu, are renewed for a block of years at the same time, but I can give you makefile.am as a point of reference (and yes that is an alias for Autotools Mythbuster) as €65.19 a year. The two servers (one storing configuration for easy re-deployment, and the other actually being the server you read the blog from) cost me €7.36/month (for the two of them), and the server I use for actually building stuff costs me €49/month. This already exceeds the gross revenue of the two advertising platforms. Oops.

Of course there is another consideration to make. Leaving aside my personal preferences on lifestyle, and thus where I spend my budget for things like entertainment and food, there is one expense I’m okay with sharing, and that is my current standing donations. My employer not only makes it possible to match donations, but it also makes it very easy to just set up a standing donation that gets taken directly at payroll time. Thanks to making this very simple, I have a standing €90/month donation, spread between Diabetes Ireland, EFF and Internet Archive, and a couple others, that I rotate every few months. And then there are Patreons I subscribe to.

This means that even if I were to just put all the revenue from those ads into donations, it would barely make an impact. Which is why by the time you read this post, my blog will have no ads left on (Autotools Mythbuster will continue for a month or two just so that the next payment is processed and not left in the system). They would be okay to be left there even if they make effectively no money, except that they still require paperwork to be filed for taxes, and this is why I have considered using Amazon Native Ads.

As I said, Amazon Native Ads are part of their Affiliate program, and while you can see in the reports how much revenue is coming from ads versus links, the payments, and thus the tax paperwork, is merged with the rest of the affiliate program. And I have been using affiliate links in a number of places, not just my blog, because in that case there is no drawback: Amazon is not tracking you any more or less than before, and it’s not getting in your way at all. The only places in which I actually let Amazon count the impression (view) is when I’m actually reviewing a product (book, game, hardware device), and even that is fairly minimal, and not any different from me just providing the image and a link to it — except I don’t have to deal with the images and the link breakage connected with that.

There is another reason why I am keeping the affiliates: while they require people to actually spend money to get me anything, they give you a percentages of the selling price of what was sold. Not what you linked to specifically, but what is sold in the session that the user initiated when they clicked on your link. This makes it interesting and ironic when people click on the link to buy Autotools Mythbuster and end up buying instead Autotools by Calcote.

Do I think this experience is universal or generally applicable? I doubt so. My blog does not get that many views anyway, and it went significantly down since I stopped blogging daily, and in particular it went down since I no longer talk about Gentoo that much. I guess part of the problem with that is that beside for people looking for particular information finding me on Google, the vast majority of the people end up on my blog either because they read it already, or follow me on various social media. I have an IFTTT recipe to post most of my entries on Twitter and LinkedIn (not Google+ because there is no way to do that automatically), and I used to have it auto-post new entries that would go to Planet Gentoo on /r/gentoo (much as I hate Reddit myself).

There is also the target audience problem: as most of the people reading this blog are geeks, it is very likely that they will have an adblocker installed, and they do not want to see the ads. I think uBlock may even make the affiliate links broken, while at it. They do block things like Skymiles Shooping and similar affiliate aggregators, because “privacy” (though there is not really any privacy problem there).

So at the end of the day, there is no gain for me to keep ads running, and there is some discomfort for my readers, thus I took them down. If I could, I would love to be able to just have ads for charities only, with no money going to me at all, but reminding people of the importance of donating, even a little bit, to organizations such as Internet Archive, which saved my bacon multiple times as I fixed the links from this blog to other sites, that in the mean time moved without redirects, or just got turned down. But that’s a topic for another day, I think.

Tinderbox and expenses

I’ve promised some insight into how much running the tinderbox actually costed me. And since today marks two months from Google AdSense’s crazy blacklisting of my website, I guess it’s a good a time as any other.

SO let’s start with the obvious first expense: the hardware itself. My original Tinderbox was running on the box I called Yamato, which costed me some €1700 and change, without the harddrives, this was back in 2008 — and about half the cost was paid with donation from users. Over time, Yamato had to have its disks replaced a couple of times (and sometimes the cost came out of donations). That computer has been used for other purposes, including as my primary desktop for a long time, so I can’t really complain about the parts that I had to pay myself. Other devices, and connectivity, and all those things, ended up being shared between my tinderbox efforts and my freelancing job, so I also don’t complain about those in the least.

The new Tinderbox host is Excelsior, which has been bought with the Pledgie which got me paying only some $1200 of my pocket, the rest coming in from the contributors. The space, power and bandwidth, have been offered by my employer which solved quite a few problems. Since now I don’t have t pay for the power, and last time I went back to Italy (in June) I turned off, and got rid of, most of my hardware (the router was already having some trouble; Yamato’s motherboard was having trouble anyway, I saved the harddrive to decide what to do, and sold the NAS to a friend of mine), I can assess how much I was spending on the power bill for that answer.

My usual power bill was somewhere around €270 — which obviously includes all the usual house power consumption as well as my hardware and, due to the way the power is billed in Italy, an advance on the next bill. The bill for the months between July and September, the first one where I was fully out of my house, was for -€67 and no, it’s not a typo, it was a negative bill! Calculator at hand, he actual difference between between the previous bills and the new is around €50 month — assuming that only a third of that was about the tinderbox hardware, that makes it around €17 per month spent on the power bill. It’s not much but it adds up. Connectivity — that’s hard to assess, so I’d rather not even go there.

With the current setup, there is of course one expense that wasn’t there before: AWS. The logs that the tinderbox generates are stored on S3, since they need to be accessible, and they are lots. And one of the reasons why Mike is behaving like a child about me just linking the build logs instead of attaching them, is that he expects me to delete them because they are too expensive to keep indefinitely. So, how much does the S3 storage cost me? Right now, it costs me a whopping $0.90 a month. Yes you got it right, it costs me less than one dollar a month for all the storage. I guess the reason is because they are not stored for high reliability or high speed access, and they are highly compressible (even though they are not compressed by default).

You can probably guess at this point that I’m not going to clear out the logs from AWS for a very long time at this point. Although I would like for some logs not to be so big for nothing — like the sdlmame one that used to use the -v switch to GCC which causes all the calls to print a long bunch of internal data that is rarely useful on a default log output.

Luckily for me (and for the users relying on the tinderbox output!) those expenses are well covered with the Flattr revenue from my blog’s posts — and thank to Socialvest I no longer have to have doubts on whether I should keep the money or use it to flattr others — I currently have over €100 ready for the next six/seven months worth of flattrs) Before this, between my freelancer’s jobs, Flattr, and the ads on the blog, I would also be able to cover at least the cost of the server (and barely the cost of the domains — but that’s partly my fault for having.. a number).

Unfortunately, as I said at the top of the post, there no longer are ads served by Google on my blog. Why? Well, a month and a half ago I received a complain from Google, saying that one post of mine in which I namechecked a famous adult website, in the context of a (at the time) recent perceived security issue, is adult material, and that it goes against the AdSense policies to have ads served on a website with adult content. I would still argue that just namechecking a website shouldn’t be considered adult content, but while I did submit an appeal to Google, a month and a half later I have no response at hand. They didn’t blacklist the whole domain though, they only blacklisted my blog, so the ads are still showed on Autotools Mythbuster (which I count to resume working almost full time pretty soon) but the result is bleak: I went down from €12-€16 a month to a low €2 a month due to this, and that is no longer able to cover for the serve expense by itself.

This does not mean that anything will change in the future, immediate or not. This blog for me has more value than the money that I can get back from it, as it’s a way for me to showcase my ability and, to a point, get employment — but you can understand that it still upsets me a liiiittle bit the way they handled that particular issue.

Flattr and funding

Last month I observed on my Twitter feed that it looked like Flattr is losing traction, compared with something as “old school” as Google AdSense service. At the time I was confronted by one angry user, who seemed to think I don’t know what I’m saying. Given that I’m probably one of the early adopters (although not too early, admittedly), it didn’t make much sense.

I repeated the same concerns a few days ago, after coming back from my (long-needed) vacation, as I could compare the Flattr revenue with the AdSense one.. Flattr did come out on top, but for less than half an euro difference. Not really an indication of Flattr performing any better. If anything, considering that I have much more content with Flattr buttons than I have with ads, it is performing relatively worse.

Turns out I’m not the only one concerned with Flattr’s well-being — and I remember Michal being one of the early adopters of the idea as well.

Why does this happen? It’s a very tough question to ask, but I might theorize a few reasons that make sense to me — your mileage may vary though.

First of all, Flattr wanted to expand its reach and removed the first barrier it had, which required you to spend money to receive money. While such a requirement made it a closed circle, which Flattr didn’t want to be, it also ensured that there was not a “money black hole”. Nowadays, you can be flattr’d without even flattr’ing anyone.. it can easily be seen as right from one point of view, but it doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. This also tends to ignore one detail: if you have things that are being flattr’d, you never had to keep adding money to your balance.. you could just convert the revenue into means. I think that myself I only added the original €10 to the account, and I’m flattr’ing through the means since then…

This leads me straight into another issue that probably make Flattr not an option for many: the fees. As Michal points out, the 10% fee that Flattr takes is … hefty. But that wouldn’t be the trouble if the fee was applied to the fund you add to your account. Instead, the fee is applied, each month, to the revenue you receive. Which means that, once I transfer the funds to the means, they’ll be cut another 10% when they are transferred to my flattr’d targets. Honestly, it bothers me; not as much as stopping from using it, but it does bother me.

Then there is the most obvious problem which is what most people, including me and Michal, already noted before: it is hard to find flattr’able content! It’s not that there isn’t much content that is flattr’able (there is quite a bit), but for people like me who like to use Google Reader over Twitter to read news (i.e. using the feed and not a link to the blog itself), it’s difficult to know when the post you just read and saved you ton of time comes from an author that does use flattr. It’s not much of a technical issue – it is true that Typo does not allow me to automatically add content at the end of the posts, but it wouldn’t stop me – as much as most Planets (which is what I use to find posts, for what it’s worth) who seem to frown upon such “advertisement”.

At this point.. I’m honestly doubtful about its well-being.. so if one day you no longer see a Flattr button on this blog.. you know why.

A story of a Registry, an advertiser, and an unused domain

This is a post that relates to one of my dayjobs, and has nothing to do with Free Software, yet it is technical. If you’re not interested in non-Free Software related posts, you’re suggested to skip this altogether. If you still care about technical matters, read on!

Do you remember that customer of mine that almost never pays me in time, for which I work basically free of charge, and yet gives me huge headaches from time to time with requests that make little to no sense? Okay you probably remember by now, or you simply don’t care.

Two years or so ago, that customer calls me up one morning asking me to register a couple of second-level domains in as many TLDs as I thought it made sense to, so that they could set up a new web-end to the business. Said project still hasn’t delivered, mostly because the original estimate I sent the customer was considered unreasonably expensive, and taking “too much time” — like they haven’t spent about the same already, and my nine months estimate sounds positively short when you compare it with the over two years gestation the project is lingering on. At any rate, this is of no importance to what I want to focus on here.

Since that day, one set of domains was left to expire as it wasn’t as catchy as it sounded at first, and only the second set was kept registered. I have been paid for the registration of course, while the domains have been left parked for the time being (no they decided not to forward them to the main domain of the business where the address, email and phone number are).

The other day I was trying to find a way to recover a bit more money out of this customer and, incidentally, this blog, and I decided to register to AdSense again, this time with my VAT ID as I have to declare eventual profits coming from that venue. One of the nice features of AdSense allows to “monetize” (gosh how much I hate that word!) parked domains. Since these are by all means parked domains, I gave it a chance.

Four are the domains parked this way: .net, .com, .eu and .it. All registered with OVH – which incidentally has fixed its IPv6 troubles – and up to now all pointing to a blackhole redirect. How do you assign a parked domain to Google’s AdSense service? Well, it’s actually easy: you just have to point the nameservers for the domain to the four provided by Google, and you’re set. On three out of four of the TLDs I had to deal with.

After setting it up on Friday, as of Monday, Google still wouldn’t verify the .it domain; OVH was showing the task alternatively as “processing” and “completed” depending on whether I looked at the NS settings (they knew they had a request to change them) or at the task’s status page (as it’ll be apparent in a moment, it was indeed cloesd). I called them — reason I like OVH: I can get somebody on the phone to eat least listen to me.

What happens? Well, looks like Registro.it – already NIC-IT, the Italian Registration Authority – is once again quite strict in what it accepts. It was just two years ago that they stopped requiring you to fax an agreement to actually be able to register a .it domain, and as of last year you still had to do the same when transferring the domain. Luckily they stopped requiring both, and this year I was able to transfer a domain in the matter of a week or so. But what about this time?

Well, it turns out that the NIC validates the new nameservers when you want to change them, to make sure that the new servers list the domain, and configure it properly. This is common procedure, and both the OVH staff and me were aware of this. What we weren’t aware of (OVH staffers had no clue about this either, they had to call NIC-IT to see what the trouble was, they weren’t informed properly either) is the method they do that: using dig +ANY.

Okay, it’s nothing surprising actually, dig +ANY is the standard way to check for a domain’s zone at a name server… but turns out that ns1.googleghs.com and its brothers – the nameservers you need to point a domain to, for use with AdSense – do not support said queries, making them invalid in the eyes of NIC-IT. Ain’t that lovely? The OVH staffer I spoke with said they’ll inform NIC-IT about the situation, but they don’t count on them changing their ways and … I actually have to say that I can’t blame them. Indeed I don’t see the reason why Google’s DNS might ignore ANY queries.

For my part, I told them that I would try to open a support request with Google to see if they intend to rectify the situation. The issue here is that, as much as I spent trying to find that out, I can’t seem to find a place where to open a ticket for the Google AdSense staff to read. I tried tweeting to their account, but it seems like it didn’t make much sense.

Luckily there is an alternative when you can’t simply set up the domain to point to Google’s DNS, and that is to create a custom zone, which is what I’ve done now. It’s not much of a problem, but it’s still bothersome that one of Google’s most prominent services is incompatible with a first-world Registration Authority such as NIC-IT.

Oh well.