Google AdSense: A beginner's guide

What is AdSense? How does it work? Can I make money from it? We answer these and other basic questions about Google's popular advertising program.

By Donald Ritchie

Whenever you see an advertisement on a web page - and, let's face it, there are a lot of them about - the chances are that it was served up by Google AdSense. AdSense is the largest advertising network on the Internet, and a vast number of websites take part in it. What's more, many of them are making good money from it. Maybe you can too.

In this article, I'll explain what AdSense is all about, and answer some basic questions about how it works. Note that I'm not a Google employee, nor do I have any inside information about the program. But I do have ten years experience as an active - and fairly successful - AdSense publisher. I'm happy to share that with you.

What exactly is AdSense?

At its simplest, AdSense allows anyone who owns a website or blog to show advertisements on their pages - and to be paid to do so. But instead of negotiating with hundreds of individual advertisers, you use Google as an intermediary. Google "sells" the space to the advertisers, collects payment from them, and passes a share of that payment to the site owner or blogger (who Google refers to as the "publisher").

Figure 1

Figure 1: Ads like these are a
common site on web pages
and blogs.

Unlike with other forms of advertising, the publisher doesn't earn a fixed amount per ad or per month. Instead, you get paid each time a visitor clicks on the ad (which is why this type of advertising is usually referred to as "pay per click", or PPC).

Actually, AdSense is more complicated than that, mainly because of the way that advertisers bid against each other for the right to show their ads. But that doesn't concern the publisher. All that matters to you is that the system is designed to maximize Google's - and therefore the publisher's - revenue.

How much money can I make from AdSense?

Alas, no-one can give you a firm answer to that - or even an approximate one. There are too many variables involved, not least of which is the amount of effort you are prepared to put into developing and promoting your site.

Over the years, I've met a few AdSense publishers who make a comfortable living from the program. But I've met many more for whom it has been a disappointment, often not even making enough to cover their hosting costs. Between those extremes, there are a substantial number of publishers like myself - people whose monthly AdSense payments provide a significant and welcome boost to their income, but will never be enough to retire on.

The best advice I can give you is to make a modest start with the program. Don't expect to make any significant amounts in the early months. But as you gain experience and put more effort into it, you should see your earnings gradually rise, hopefully to a point where you will be making some useful extra cash.

What kind of site do I need?

Google will accept AdSense publishers who have just about any kind of site (with some clear exceptions, such as sites that contain adult, hateful or violent content, that are gambling-related, or that contain material that unlawfully infringes copyright).

You will need to be able to access and edit the site's HTML code. Obviously, that won't be an issue if the site is entirely under your own control. Nor will it be a problem if you use one of the popular blogging platforms, such as Blogger or Wordpress (Blogger even has a widget that automatically places ads on your blog). But other platforms might not allow direct editing of the HTML, so check with the provider before you proceed.

If you have a particularly small site without much traffic, Google will still be happy to accept you in the program. But you're unlikely to earn any serious money from it. An obscure blog that's only ever seen by your family and friends will probably make next to nothing. To have any hope of success, you really need a steady stream of visitors - preferably hundreds or even thousands per month. Of course, you're not limited to a single site; several small blogs might together generate enough traffic to be worthwhile.

What kind of ads will I show?

The whole point of AdSense is that it's contextual. That means that the ads that appear on your site will be related to the subject matter of the site. That way, it's more likely that a visitor will be interested in what the ad is about, and more likely that he or she will click on it.

Although this aspect of AdSense is largely automatic, there's a lot you can do to improve the relevance of the ads and therefore your earnings from them. A site that provides solid material on a well-defined topic is likely to attract better advertising than one that only contains vague information. If you make your site as relevant as possible to the needs of your visitors, relevant ads are likely to follow.

Can I choose which ads to show on my site?

You can't choose to show any specific ad or advertiser. But you can block ads that you would prefer not to show. A common reason to do that is to disallow your competitors' ads. You might also want to block any ads that you think your visitors might find distasteful or inappropriate.

In addition, you can disallow certain categories of advertising, such as political messages, dating services and get-rich-quick schemes.

How do I go about putting the ads on my site?

This is where the editing of the HTML comes in. But don't worry - you won't need any detailed HTML knowledge to do it. All you have to do is to copy a chunk of code from the AdSense control panel and paste it into your pages, at the point where you want the ads to appear. That could be quite an onerous task if your site already has a large number of static pages. It'll be a lot easier if you're using a blogging platform or content management system that uses editable templates.

Do I have to be in the USA to take part in the program?

No. AdSense is very much an international program. It has publishers and advertisers throughout the world. In many countries, publishers can track their earnings and receive payments in their local currency. To improve targeting, advertisers can choose for their ads to be served only to visitors from specified countries or regions.

How and when will I get paid?

You will receive a monthly payment from Google, but only if your earnings in the month exceed a given threshold. At present, the threshold is $100 in the USA, and a roughly equivalent amount in other countries. If you don't earn enough to trigger a payment, the unpaid amount will be carried forward to the following month. On top of that, there is usually a delay of four to six weeks before you actually receive the money.

Depending on your country, you can usually choose to be paid by check, bank transfer (electronic funds transfer) or Western Union Quick Cash.

Publishers in the USA (and possibly some other countries) will need to provide Google with certain tax information before they can receive their payments.

How do I sign up?

Go to the AdSense home page and follow the link for signing up. The page also has links to a lot more detailed information about the program than I have been able to give here. You should read this carefully before you commit yourself.

The sign-up process is completely free. But note that it involves two stages of approval, which together could take several days. So don't expect to be making money from Day 1.

Final word

If you're still in doubt about whether or not to join AdSense, my advice would be to give it a try - but to keep your expectations reasonable. It costs nothing to get started, apart from the effort of pasting the relevant code into your pages.

I wish I could tell you that you are certain to succeed with AdSense. The fact is that many AdSense publishers make little more than pin money from the program. But there are many others for whom it has proved a valuable source of income. It's worked for me, and it's worked for many like me. I hope it will for you too.

December 2011

Please note: The information given on this site has been carefully checked and is believed to be correct, but no legal liability can be accepted for its use. Do not use code, components or techniques unless you are satisfied that they will work correctly with your sites or applications.

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