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Understanding AdSense’s new “Ad balance” option

AdSense introduced a new Ad balance setting for AdSense publishers in . With its introduction, AdSense made some vague claims about it “improving the user experience” without clarifying what that meant. Here are my experienced with the new feature to help you understand and get the most out of the new setting as a publisher.

Unlike AdSense, I like to clarify things: The settings and details I refer to in this article applies to your whole account and all registered websites. Unless stated otherwise, it’s currently not possible to apply anything discussed here per ad-unit or per domain. This information was accurate as of the time of publication, but AdSense may change things up in the future as they hasn’t committed publicly to anything described in this text.

So what is the new ad balance setting all about? AdSense explains the feature like this:

“Focus on your best-performing ads

“Only show the ads that make you the most money, improving the overall visitor experience of your site at minimal cost to you.”

Ad balance essentially gives publishers the same tool as users gets with Google Contributor —a subscription program that lets users support their favorite websites by outbidding the least interesting ads. With ad balance, publishers can now opt-out of the least interesting and least profitable ads when there are no better ads available that AdSense believes would turn a profit. Instead of filling the ad space with a low-paying untargeted and unattractive ad unit, the ad space can be left blank.

It’s interesting to note that the ad balance feature became available to publishers just weeks after the Google Contributor program temporary kicked out all existing subscribers and shut down pending major changes to the service and a relaunch in “early 2017”. It could be that AdSense wants publishers to carry the cost of improving online ads rather than users.

Adjusting your ad balance

Publishers can adjust their ad balance for all their ad units by logging in to their AdSense account and going to My ads: Ad balance: Ad fill rate. The slider will suggest a recommended range that will provide a “better user experience”. This range is unique per account and is based on the account’s historical and predicted future performance.

The “Better user experience range” is also an indicator of how well your website is performing in the AdSense network. A high upper range on the “better user experience range” indicates that a large percentage of the ads shown on your website are deemed to be well targeted and of a high value, whereas a lower range indicates that there are few ads that fit with your content and audience. A low ratio here may mean its high time to rethink your content strategy or maybe look for an alternative ad network. It could also mean that you should consider changing your ad units and formats to see whether this will bring in more targeted ads.

The ad fill rate range slider is not something you should set-and-forget. AdSense Help warns that it may change over time, and notes specifically that its estimates may be off for web pages and sites with low traffic. The better user experience range is updated daily.

“If your site has low traffic, then our predictions for your revenue behavior may not be an accurate representation of your revenue performance over a longer period of time. […] As your traffic increases over time, these high-value ads will result in less skew in your data and our revenue predictions will become more accurate.”

By setting ad balance very low, a website can also control its own premium feel by excluding lower paying advertisers. The ad units won’t be guaranteed to be of exclusive watches or expensive cars regardless of your ad balance setting. However, if your audience consist of people who’re likely to see those kind of ads — you can exclude the occasional cheaper ad unit from sneaking onto your page and lowering your visitors impressions of your website. This kind of control has previously not been possible without committing to the very time consuming manual ad approval system in AdSense.

What happens to the removed ads?

AdSense says: “When we remove an ad, your ad unit will show as blank.” Things aren’t that simple, however.

For your ad units with a backup ad configuration other than the default “show blank space”, you’ll get your backup ads instead of a blank space. E.g. if you’ve configured another URL to load backup ads from, these are shown instead. This ad unit won’t be removed or shown as blank. This makes sense as AdSense says that backup ads are used specifically if it can’t fill up an ad unit, but this isn’t spelled out anywhere in connection with the ad balance feature. Publishers may end up with just the same amount of ads, but just of even poorer quality than those AdSense would otherwise have served.

For ad units set to “show blank space” (the default), the ad will return a blank space for fixed-size ad units. For newer responsive ad units, the ad space may be hidden/collapse entirely if your layout allows for it. The behavior for responsive ad units depends on exactly how your layout is constructed and specifically on whether you assign a fixed size to the ad unit or its containing element.

This is absolutely something AdSense should mention in their documentation, but considering it can only break a publisher’s website layout they’ve not considered it important.

It would also seem that AdSense’s matched content ad units are excluded from the ad balance setting, as setting your ad balance to 0 % hides all ads except those in matched content units.

Better user experience — how?

What does AdSense mean when they say that a lower ad balance will result in a better user experience? The one example AdSense provides is that seeing fewer ads will leave visitors with a better impression of your website, and that they’ll hopefully be more likely to return later.

My take on this is that they’re actually referring to two separate ares of improvement:

  1. Loading fewer ads means the page will load faster and consume less mobile data. A low performing ad unit far down on a page may not even be loaded if the ad balance allows for it not to be. This is in line with users and Google’s stated preference for faster and smaller mobile and web pages.
  2. Excluding lower paying ads means a website can appear more appealing and “higher end” to their visitors. At AdSense’s discretion, publishers grant them the freedom to not only show fewer ads, but to drop the lower quality ads altogether.

Let us not forget that reducing the number of ad spaces that are available online will enable AdSense to charge advertisers more as fewer ad spaces becomes available. I’ll not be surprised if AdSense start forcing publishers to accept a default ad balance of 90 % or even lower in the not so distant future. In general, this would be good for publishers, user experience, and the web in general. Low budget advertisers might get hurt in the process, but the price for online ads is already ridiculously low as it is.

Improving the online ad experience for visitors should a key priority for AdSense and publishers alike. The ongoing rise of ad blockers didn’t come out of nowhere.

I think it’s super interesting to see how AdSense are trying to improve the quality of their ad network by enabling publishers to make more decisions about what kind of ads they’re willing to accept on their sites. This has been a long over-due change of focus, and I hope publishers will experiment with lower ad fill rates. AdSense suggests many websites can drop as much as 50 % of their ads at the cost of less than 1 % of their revenue. Regardless of how publishers feel about this feature overall, dropping 20 % of their under-performing ads at an estimated loss of 0 % of their revenue should be a done deal for any publishers.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for sharing. I didn’t realize how much information was in this feature. I’ll experiment with a secondary network instead of Adsense for low value ads like you suggest!

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