Contextual Advertising For Bloggers – Ethical Practices and Relevance

As a blogger, there have been times when I looked for more ways to monetize my blogs than just with sponsored posts and sidebar ads.

I’m sure you have done the same to try to boost your blog income.

Contextual advertising — also referred to as in-text advertising or content links in some cases – turned out to be the easiest way to generate a small passive income from my blog’s traffic, as all it took was inserting a link (or a script code) into my existing posts and let the links make me money.

As I found out, when done well, contextual advertising also benefits the reader. In fact, as Advertise.com puts it:

Content Links provide relevant advertisements to visitors who are already engaged with the content of your site, and are interested in the niche the advertiser is targeting.

There are 4 types of contextual ads you may choose from:

  • Textual ads – tracked textual links to other web resources, without modal popups
  • Popup ads – textual links that display modal popups upon mouse hovering
  • Banner ads – static, animated or video ads that are included in your posts
  • Affiliate links – textual or banner-based links that carry affiliate codes (yours or the advertiser’s) that earn you a commission when someone places a purchase using the code.

You could even use all four types of contextual ads, if you’d like.

There is also another side to content links, and it’s about a few rough matters in advertising that you need to handle carefully.

This guide is here to help you make important decisions about how to display contextual link ads on your blog in regard to UX, ethics and relevance.

Intrusive or Privacy Friendly?

Critical Matters in Contextual Advertising for Bloggers

Dynamic, script based contextual ads like those provided by Kontera, InfoLinks, and Chitika can be intrusive of the user’s privacy, because they track not just user clicks, but also behavior and browsing activities across your blog and other websites.

On the contrary, static links are more privacy-friendly and don’t track users. Even when they do, the tracking is limited to clicks and their destination.

There are two commonsense guidelines to follow:

  • Make sure users give you their “go ahead” for dynamic ads, as they will be more likely to accept your ads and feel that you are a trustworthy blogger who will not intentionally put their data at risk. You can do this with on-site polls, your mailing list or with modal dialogs that ask your visitors whether they want to enable ads (or disable ad-blocking devices) in their browsers. (More about this later in the guide).
  • If you use static links, insert them where they make more sense with your blog content and diversify them from your regular links with custom CSS.

In any case, have a privacy policy in place where you let users know what type of ads you allow on your blog and inform them about any privacy risks connected with ad loading, viewing and clicking.

I asked a fellow blogger — Christopher Jan Benitez — what he thinks about the issues connected with contextual ads, and this is the answer he gave me:

Regarding dynamic ads, the issue is relevance. Again, it also deals with how these types of ads can help make your content more useful in the long run. There’s also your target audience that you have to be concerned with — do you see them as valuable readers of your content or do you simply want to bait them into clicking your links? In my opinion, unless you are getting thousands and millions of views on your blog, then use static ads instead of dynamic ads. It is just too disruptive since the links just appear at random and do not really provide as much value as opposed to static ads, where you can control the variables on where and how your link will appear on the post.

The Disclosure Issue

This is usually not an issue at all with dynamic contextual ads. As you can see in this screenshot from EarnWithAWebsite.com, the dynamic ad system for InfoLinks automatically diversifies ads from regular links:

Example from EartnWithAWebsite.com: InfoLinks Links VS. Regular Links

Example from EartnWithAWebsite.com: InfoLinks Links VS. Regular Links

On this blog, blue links are regular links, while orange links with a dotted bottom border are contextual ads.

The case for static links is a bit different. For example:

Example: Static Ads are NOT Affected by AdBlock Plus Software

Example: Static Ads are NOT Affected by AdBlock Plus Software

These are all static banners on my n0tSEO.com blog and you can immediately notice two things:

  • The banners carry no self-disclosure. They are placed editorially in this case, so no need for a disclaimer. However, if I wanted to have one, I would have to write it myself.
  • While I had AdBlock activated when I took the screenshot, the software didn’t recognize these banners as ads at all, since they are not script based.

Dynamic contextual ads are in fact already shown with their own style and third-party disclosure, but static ads require that you add these two layers of disclosure manually:

  • CSS styling to diversify these links and banners from other links and graphics on your blog
  • On-site and in-post disclaimers to warn users about the presence of advertising and what to expect

“Bloggers must mark sponsored content to keep ethical standards and [readers’] trust,” said Ivan Dodig, editor of The Art of Tourism. “With unmarked sponsored content, you push [your] audience away.”

The disclosure format you use doesn’t matter, and it “could be in the form of [a] banner, or just [a] text note”, as Dodig says, as long as you let your readers know about the nature of those links.

International laws also mandate that all advertising relationships get disclosed to the public.

The Problem With Ad-Blockers

According to a 2015 ad-blocking report by Business Insider, the number of global ad-blocking users has grown from 121 to 181 million since 2014, a trend that is worrying the advertising and publishing industry.

“As of June 2015”, the statistics graph report says, “there were 198 million monthly active users for the major browser extensions that block ads”.

However, from the reader’s point of view, these statistics might mean an entirely different phenomenon. As a commenter to the above linked Business Insider page wrote:

Adblock came about because websites totally abused the viewer experience. Every website I visit, my adblock counter always shows a number greater than 10. It’s insane how many in-your-face popup ads and auto play videos there are.

(…)

I use ad block on forbes because their website is notorious for pop up ads. It’s so bad the page doesn’t even load. So when I now visit, they dont let me read their articles unless I turn adblock off. Well guess what, I don’t read forbes anymore. Too bad. You lost a reader because you screwed up the user experience so much.

So I would invite you to consider the types of ads you offer on your blog and any reasons why users might choose to block them.

The easiest way is to create a poll on your blog or to distribute a survey to your visitors and subscribers, asking if they are afraid of ads or if they encountered any malicious ads that rendered your blog unsafe for browsing.

If you use script-based, dynamic ads (e.g. InfoLinks), you may implement a cookie-based disclaimer that detects ad-blockers and pops up a message asking readers if they would be so kind to allow ads on your blog in exchange for free content.

For WordPress-based blogs, there is a free plugin called adBlock Alerter that does that for you.

For other blogs, you can use this script by Broadstreet Ads.

Another way to circumvent the problem – and lower your readers’ fear of malicious code in ads — is to use static links with counters. This method was used often in the past (and is still used) with affiliate links, to track clicks and their referrers, so it’s still a good alternative to dynamic ads.

Static ads, after all, work like affiliate links – they are simple links, without scripts, so they will not trigger action from ad-blocking software.

IZEA uses this method with advertiser links inside sponsored posts, but you can also advise your direct advertisers to track clicks and conversions with Google Analytics and a service like Bit.ly, or use proprietary systems like Linktrack (free and paid) or LinkTrackr (paid).

You may want to add this information to your media kit.

Contextual Ads In Your Posts… and Guest Posts?

Yes, you will want to place them in both your own posts and guest posts on your blog, but you want to analyze the two separate cases for dynamic ads and static ads.

Let’s see the case for static ads first, and as an example, say that you allow guest bloggers to include one or more affiliate or product links within their posts.

When you get a request from an advertiser looking to attach a contextual link to your guest writer’s keywords, and that link goes to a website that is a direct competitor of the writer’s brand, the writer might feel betrayed and end the relationship with you, or even ask that you return the guest post for her to publish it elsewhere since you were about to ruin her brand message with that link ad.

You don’t want that to happen! Blogger relationships are too valuable to hinder them for a small ad.

The safest way to go about static contextual ads in guest posts is to contact the writer and let them know there’s an opportunity for you to include a paid link in their post to a certain brand. Then ask the writer if any conflict of interest might arise from the ad placement and how they feel about the matter. Whether you get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ as an answer, you will have confirmed the writer’s trust and they may want to contribute to your blog again in the future.

Dynamic ads place links automatically within your posts, so unless you create a ‘Guest Posts’ category and exclude it from the software settings, or you reject the link ad altogether, there will be nothing you can do about the placement.

However, in such case, guest bloggers will already know they are contributing to a blog that runs dynamic ads. If they don’t for some reason, reach out to these bloggers and let them know about it.

As a general rule of thumb, you want to make sure no conflicts of interest arise with the linked-to resources and brand messages your guest writer placed in the body of the post.

Beyond Ethics – Is This Relevant?

Ads Should Make Sense TODAY For Your Readers!

Photo Credit: anahkalaf via Compfight (cc)

One of the biggest issues of advertising is that adverts need to make sense within the context of the page they are placed on.

When it comes to blog posts, relevance is key – every link you or the ad script insert(s) in the content has to work for the benefit of both the reader and the advertiser.

Ask yourself: Does this link add value?

This is essential: if the link doesn’t add value to your content, don’t place it.

Ideally, your advertiser should know better, but sometimes that will not happen because an advertiser might focus too much on keyword placement instead of contextual relevance, so you will have to step in and try to change things in favor of your blog readership.

The post from Advertise.com I previously mentioned states that content links

(…) are always relevant to the content of the pages on which they appear, offering the user a link to a product or page related to the content they have already shown interest in.

The fact is that they should be always relevant – hence the adjective ‘contextual’ – but:

  • when the advertiser puts keywords before the context
  • when the blogger gives it a pass just to earn money
  • when the ad script is badly configured

then both you and the advertiser risk alienating readers, diminishing their trust in the blogger and in the linked source.

For example, is bingo a good ad theme for a parenting blog?

Back in 2014, I found a way to make that kind of link fit one of my blogs for parents when I talked about games moms and dads can play to vent stress. Since I personally checked the advertiser’s website and I found it safe for someone who wants to play in a moderate, safe fashion (which is the only one that fits my personal ethics), the advertiser and I had a deal.

However, that post worked because it was for parents about parents, not about baby. If my blog was only about baby care, rest assured there wouldn’t have been a way to make it work in terms of relevance!

A Word of Caution With Topic Stretching to Welcome Ads

blog caution

Photo Credit: M i x y via Compfight cc

I have done this when I was less experienced as a sponsored blogger before 2010, but I have learned at my expense that letting advertisers convince me to disrupt the overall topic balance of my blog just so they could place a contextual link or have me write a sponsored post about a certain topic wasn’t right at all, nor wise. My readership began to feel disconnected with the content I was providing and eventually I paid the consequences. (And it was just a personal blog! Think twice when it comes to your niche blog that you make money from.)

Contextual links should also make sense in terms of which companies to link to and what to do to avoid driving readers away. Ananya Debroy from TechSling puts the dangers of not doing so in a simple list:

1. Placement of such ads right in the middle of the text may annoy users browsing content
2. Placement of competitors ads along with one’s own ads [are confusing]
3. Distract people from focusing on important content

The key points here are user annoyance, competitor ads and reader’s distraction. Pay attention to these three dangers.

How to Deal With Skeptic Readers

Some readers will take inline disclosure for static contextual links (e.g. affiliate links) the wrong way, avoiding these links altogether.

An example is blogger Oranckay, who wrote about why he strips affiliate parameters off any affiliate links he runs into:

Well, I’m giving the company which sells the product or running the site more money. (Since they don’t have to pay the affiliate) I also don’t appreciate the work the affiliate has done with recommending the site or product to me.

And what about WPMU DEV’s James Farmer on why he dislikes affiliate links?

Why do I hate them? Well, first up, because they corrupt and destroy the web. Seriously.

Christopher J. Benitez shared clever advice in this sense, working toward your readers’ trust when they become overly skeptical of your links:

You want people to click on your affiliate link and convert them into buyers so you can earn your commission. However, this will be difficult if you are required to inform your readers that your links are affiliate links. By saying that the links are from affiliate sites, it disrupts the flow of your content and may discourage visitors from clicking on any of your links. There are two ways you can deal with static ads to help your content flow better and not disrupt the user experience.

  1. Create a message on your footer or terms and conditions page that your posts may contain affiliate links so you don’t have to constantly mention it in your content. An example of this is Ryan Biddulph’s Blogging in Paradise.
  2. Be trustworthy. If people trust and believe you, they will buy from you even if you mention that there are affiliate links in your site. This will probably take a lot of work – networking, building relationships with other bloggers, to name a few – but it is the best way to make the most out of your static ads.

You may also want to read Carol Tice’s How One Blogger Stopped Sucking at Affiliate Sales and Amy Lynn Andrews’ Are You Disclosing Properly? post.

Takeaways

There are several takeaways from this guide:

  • Contextual link ads offer good opportunities to make a side passive income from your blog.
  • They can add value to your content if you keep relevance in sight, play it ethical and communicate any relevancy issues to your advertisers.
  • Be careful when joining dynamic ad platforms like InfoLinks or Kontera, because the ad system they use tracks users on your blog and outside of it, adding privacy and security issues your visitors may not want to put up with.
  • Use dynamic ads when your blog audience has grown to the thousands. Use static contextual ads (links and/or banners) if you have less than 1,000 visitors a day.
  • If your audience is strongly privacy and security aware and there are great chances they will use ad-blocking systems, opt for static contextual ads.
  • Get in touch with guest bloggers who contributed to your blog before you agree to an advertiser’s request to place a contextual link ad within their post (for static ads) or let writers know you run software that places contextual link ads automatically in all your posts (for dynamic ads).
  • Disclosing advertising relationships and having a privacy policy in place is a must to win the trust of your readers and to abide by international laws.
  • Pay attention that your ads won’t distract your readers, annoy first time visitors and put competitors on the same page.
  • Last but not least, don’t compromise the topical balance and relevance of your blog for an advertiser’s sake.

A good method to prevent issues is to poll your visitors at least once a year to learn about their feelings toward contextual ads in your posts and any other ads you may run on your website. If complaints and naysayers outnumber the positives, it might be better to rethink your advertising policy.