The myth of getting rich through ads

Some of you may have noticed that since May, my blog is displaying ads here and there. It was kind of an experiment, and here are my conclusions after six months.

When I got sick in March, I came down so hard that it wasn’t clear for a long time whether I would recover enough to be able to remain fully employed. More on that at another time maybe. However, this led to my looking at my then current blog situation. I ran three blogs. This one, a German technically focused and one where I blogged about some private stuff. All of them ran WordPress, a bunch of custom plugins because at some point I had obted out of the JetPack services and wanted to replace the functionality all with extra plugins. This resulted in constant stress of having to maintain WordPress itself, especially when major version upgrades came out, and plugins and themes. The worst was when one plugin at one point got updated and started pulling in malicious third-party scripts which broke the blogs completely. That was already when I was sick. I ended up just disabling that damn thing and not look for a replacement.

In addition, the web hosting was expensive, but not really performant. And they often let essential software get out of date. My WordPress at some point had started complaining because my PHP version was too old. Turned out that the defaults for shared hosts were not upgraded to a newer version by default by the hoster, and one had to go into an obnoxious backend to fiddle with some setting somewhere to use a newer version of PHP.

I then decided to try something completely new. I exported the contents of my three blogs and set up blogs at WordPress.com, the hosted WordPress offering from the makers themselves: Automattic. I looked at their plans, and the Premium plan, which cost me 8€ per month, per blog felt suitable. I also took the opportunity to pull both German language blogs together into one. I just added two categories that those who just want to see my tecnical stuff, or the private stuff, could still do so.

With that move, I got a good set of features that I would normally use on a self-hosted blog as well, so I set up some widgets, some theme that comes with the plan, and imported all my content including comments and such. I lost my statistics from the custom plugins, but hey, I had lost years of statistics from before that when I decided to no longer use JetPack on my self-hosted blogs, too, so what.

And I did two more things. I added a “Buy me a coffee” button so people could show their appreciation for my content if they wanted to. And I opted into the Word Ads program, that would display some advertisement on the blog’s main page and below each individual post. I simply wanted to see if my content would be viable enough to generate any significant enough income.

Problems

The quick answer is: No, it isn’t. Since I started displaying ads in May, until the end of October, this blog has generated $21.52 of ad income. The German blog is even better, it generated a whopping $0.35 in the same time period. The minimum amount for Automattic to generate a payout is $100. So this blog would effectively have to run two more years before I would see the first payout. The German blog much much much longer.

For full transparency: The German language readers have bought me coffee at a value of about 50$, and I just received the first 25$ on this blog in December, by one generous donor who bought me five at once.

And there are real problems with some of the ads that are being displayed, which put me in a moral dilemma. Some of these could be perceived as really offensive to some people or mindsets. The trouble is that I have no control over the ads that get shown. They are geographically tailored, and they are from a network I cannot make adjustments to.

Automattic do have a mechanism to report offensive ads. However, this requires that those readers who see such ads send me screenshots of said ads when they encounter them. I, myself, when logged in, do not see any ads because I am a subscriber on a paid plan. And all paid plans come without ads. But I have to be the one to report those ads to Automattic. In other words, a real chore to deal with.

If I wanted to switch to a service like Google Adsense, which would require me to install a third-party plugin, I would have to upgrade to the business plan at a whopping $25 per month per blog.

Consequences

As a consequence, once my extended advent calendar and the Christmas festivities are over, I will move blog contents once again. This time, I will move to a different web host, with more control and a very friendly, very technical, engaged team. I will run two self-hosted blogs and once again use the JetPack integration for some of the features I really like about WordPress. But I will stop displaying ads. It is clear that this is not a sustainable model for the type of content I generate. And you, the readers, deserve that this will once again be a safe space where you are not suddenly confronted with some sketchy ad content.

I was lucky enough to be able to return to work after all. But this episode clearly has shown that, despite precautions, such things can happen to me again. They did before. If that should one day be the case, and I need to generate some income through writing, the model will have to be different. There are some ideas, but since they are currently not a pressing matter, they are not more than that, ideas.

Comparison with more heavy traffic

When I compare my experience to that of my wife, who runs both a guide and a forum for the popular Sims FreePlay game in Germany, it is clear that even she with her thousands of visitors to both the guide and forum does not always generate enough traffic to get the minimum Google Adsense payout threshold per month. And that is just enough to cover her monthly domain and server costs, because the traffic is so heavy that shared hosting cannot cope. So she has to run a dedicated v server for those, which are way more expensive than shared hosting.

So, ads on the web are really not a sustainable model for many. Yes, there may be some very popular and widespread 8content-wise) blogs or publication sites that do generate enough revenue through ads. But the more niche your topic gets, if you don’t generate thousands of visitors per month, ads sometimes may cover the costs of a service like WordPress to run your blog, but only if you are on one of the lower plans with less control over what your blog can do or the ads that are being displayed.

I believe that a more engaged interaction with the actual audience is a better way to generate revenue, although that, of course, also depends on readers loyalty and your own dedication. I think that initiatives like Grant For The Web are the future of monetisation of content on the web, and I may start supporting that once my move back to self-hosting is complete. I’ll keep you posted.

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7 thoughts on “The myth of getting rich through ads

  1. I think Jetpack is useful for most people and most sites, just because maintaining WordPress can become something that takes up more time the more plugins you have installed. It’s probably the biggest reason I install and connect Jetpack on a lot of sites despite my own personal misgivings about parts of it, (not the developers). Maintenance is one of those things I encourage my clients in the strongest possible terms to be religious about because of all the things that can go wrong if it’s not seen to. I hope your move to self-hosting is not difficult, and because I’m a fan of the Indieweb of course I’m going to add that I hope your new self-hosted blogs have Indieweb features.

    1. Thank you, Amanda! I don’t know yet if I’m going to install the IndieWeb plugins, depending on how well they’re maintained. I had them installed once before I moved to the hosted versions, and sometimes found weird interactions with them. I also found that the different post types didn’t play well with the themes and screen reader interaction, for example those without titles were hard to find/easy to miss. I also found the Twitter and Mastodon integrations quite noisy in the comments at times. And everything had to be moderated and put a real burden on the queue. I’ll have a look at some of this stuff once I finish setting up the basics.

    1. It is this blog you‘re reading. I used to have two German blogs, one of which was technically focused. I always only had one English blog, this one, and it is mostly technical.

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