Google’s advertising platform, Google AdSense, works as an instantaneous auction where potential advertisers bid on every ad spot on the web as they’re loading. The bidder who offers the highest bid gets to display their ad banner to the visitor who loaded up the page. With Google Contributor, you yourself can bid in this auction and thus get rid of bad advertisements while simultaneously help funding the websites you visit. But can it fix online ads?
Update 2017 June: Since this post was published, Google Contributor has transformed into a service that works differently from what is described in this article.
As a Google Contributor subscriber, you set a monthly Contributor budget ranging from 1 USD to 10 USD. Google will then place bids on your behalf in the advertisement auction, restricting the bid value based on how many web pages you normally view per day and how much you can afford to bid, to win as many auctions as possible per month. The more times you win an auction on a website, the bigger cut of your monthly Contributor budget that website receives. So the pages you visit the most often will earn the most from you and you thus help fund the little sections of the web that you enjoy the most. Learn more about how the bidding system works.
Subscribers can use Contributor on full automatic mode where it will try to buyout as many ads as it possibly can. Optionally, they can maintain a list of domains that they want their contribution budget to go to. The bidding prices for ads on the domain list will be significantly higher as the limited ad inventory means the user can bid a higher amount per auction.
When a visitor wins in an action they can choose to have the ad spot replaced by some random neutral blocky art, cute pictures of cats, or hide the ad spot completely. While hiding the ad, the user still helps pay for the website they visit. It must be said the effect can be accomplished for free using an ad blocker, but the websites you visit start losing money every time you visit as they can’t offset the cost of servers and creative work with advertising revenue.
The wickedly ingenious thing Google did with their Contributor subscriptions is to get their users to outbid the weakest/cheapest advertisers. These are often the non‐targeted and what users will consider bad advertisements that proclaim they can “cure belly fat” or want to show you “how this 60 year old woman now looks like she is 25”. Google’s own users will now help the company increase the average sales price for their ad inventory. Meaning advertisers will have to start paying more to get their message across to the user. Higher spending should also mean the advertisers have to apply a little more energy in making good ads as it suddenly costs more money to do bad and ineffective adverts.
Contributor is one of the very few scaleable models where users can make micro‐transaction payments to the websites they visit. As web publishers don’t have to do anything if they’re already using Google AdSense, the reach of Contributor is much wider than any micro‐transaction/‐donation scheme that has come before it. There are not even any noteworthy alternatives to mention when talking about it, at least not in the scale that Google Contributor is operating at.
Websites win on this because their ad inventory is worth more money when their visitors are also in the bid to give them money, and of course Google wins big because their ad platform gets a direct cash infusion directly from the end‐users. The big question that remains is whether users want to pay money for the websites they access, and if they want to do it through Google.
January 2016 update: Read the follow-up Two months as a Google Contributor.
The subscription service is only available in the United States at the time of writing. I hope it will expand globally soon, but Google does have a poor track record when it comes to rolling out paid services outside the US.