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How Many Ads Per Page? As Few As Possible

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The number of online ads per page is a critical strategy issue for any website publisher.

Like just about everything else online, Google set the dominant standard for many years. It announced in relation to its AdSense partner revenue program that it would allow three display ads and three textual link units. Any more would result in a penalty.

The second way that Google has set the standard was by announcing in 2012 that it will penalize any site with too many ads via its page layout algorithm.

“If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward,” Google said in its announcement.

In other words, such sites will not rank as high in search engine results.

For better or worse, Google announced in 2016 that it wouldn’t set a limit on the number of ads anymore. But with that announcement came a hidden truth. Google wouldn’t punish ad-heavy sites in another and more secretive way.

Google’s Other Standard

In separate announcements, Google has noted the importance of speed for websites. It is especially true with its mobile first strategy that led to AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages).

Speed became Google’s way of rewarding or punishing websites based on the number of ads they display. Sites with more ads are slowing user experience because they have more images and scripts. So Google gives those sites fewer, lower quality ads. It also doesn’t rank them as well in search results.

Likewise, sites with fewer ads are usually faster. Even a few hundred milliseconds will make a difference in user perceptions, according to Google research. So those slightly faster sites will get better quality ads and better rankings.

Publishers who rely only on AdSense can simply use Auto Ads.

Why 3 to 4 Ads Per Page is Best

Google is simply communicating a standard based on common knowledge among experienced site publishers. A site with too many ads will actually damage the user experience and ultimately the amount of revenue the site generates.

Forget for a moment, if possible, what Google thinks about a site. Instead, think about how users perceive a site, whether they like it and whether they will come back.

Slow, ad-heavy sites lead to:

  • Slower page load
  • Fewer pages per visit
  • Fewer return visits
  • Visitors who leave a page before the ad even loads
  • Declining clicks and impressions

In addition, too many ads competing for eyeballs will not even be viewed as a result of the 10-second window that most pages have before a visitor decides to leave or read more.

Ads in the initial viewing area of the browser — meaning the area that can be seen without scrolling — at most has enough room to display two ads without looking crammed.

That means any other ads will require scrolling to be viewed, and click rates drop way off because a small percentage of visitors actually scroll.

These usability principles mean that two ads at the top of the page will command the highest viewable impressions, click rates and CPMs. Ads that require scrolling will see lower numbers.

153 Ads and More

Some site owners are convinced that a completely opposite approach makes sense for them. Two real-life community websites have a couple of approaches in common:

  1. Place several ads across the top of every page.
  2. Place a gigantic column of ads that runs down the right side of the page.

One of those sites has about 40 ads running down the right side of the page. But the other takes it a step further — it has a left column that also is filled with ads.

That site has 153 display ads in total on every page on the site. It’s an astonishing number.

It doesn’t end there. The site also has dozens of text links on the left column that go straight to advertiser websites.

In both cases, the publishers charge a low CPM around $2-3 and claim to be making good money. They also have a strong local audience.

Why Does It Work for Them?

This completely Google-opposite approach probably works because they are local sites with little interest in or understanding about search engine results. They are totally focused on local branding.

They don’t use Google AdSense or any other remnant provider. They simply sell every pixel of space at a price so low that it undercuts the competition.

As long as they keep making money and gaining audience, they will keep following their approach.

Ironically, the approach is not just contrary to Google’s well-researched policies. It’s also contrary to a great deal of other research supporting the notion of fewer ads getting better awareness and response rates.

It just might be that the awareness and response rates are lower for these sites. But the low CPMs are probably too attractive for advertisers to ignore, especially local ones with small budgets and little experience in online advertising.

The old saying “You get what you pay for” comes to mind. In these cases, the publishers may be doing better than the advertisers.

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