A few years ago, we spoke of the "AdSense Economy." It was so simple. Create a website, slap on an AdSense widget, and voila: "Insta-biz." Wow! Who knew business could be so simple? AdSense was proof of Google's genius, having grown into a multi-billion dollar business in only a few years after its launch in 2003. Google's search business continues to grow in dominance, and the company's apps business is putting a serious dent in Microsoft's franchise.

But cracks are appearing in AdSense. AdSense is 30% of Google's revenue, so this matters. Any weakness in AdSense is important for Google's investors as well as advertisers, publishers, users, and entrepreneurs.

Three Constituents Who Need to Be Kept Happy

AdSense was a runaway success because it met the needs of online publishers, advertisers, and users all at once:

  • Publishers could get revenue simply by pasting a widget on their website.
  • Advertisers could extend their performance-based search-driven advertising, which they already knew and liked, across the Web.
  • Users began to see ads that actually made sense in the context of what they were reading, and many of the ads came from smaller advertisers whose products and services would not have otherwise reached them.

But each of these constituents is starting to see problems with AdSense. Let's start with publishers.

Publishers

BtoB Magazine published an article on June 5th titled "Declining revenue has publishers rethinking Google AdSense." It quotes many B2B publishers who echo the conclusion that revenue from AdSense is no longer meaningful to them, that it does not "move the needle." This is less a reflection of AdSense's decline than the fact that traditional publishers have gotten smarter about how to sell advertising online. They have had to. Print is in decline, and the Internet is their only hope. Getting some "spare change" from AdSense may have been okay in the past, but they need a lot more now. Plenty of good alternatives exist on other advertising networks, and publishers are getting a lot smarter, too, about selling directly to their consumers.

Who cares about traditional B2B publishers that are migrating online, you say? What about those big native-online publishers? Well, Facebook just hired the guy who masterminded AdSense, but don't expect too see AdSense ads there. Rupert Murdoch wouldn't like to be thrown scraps of revenue for MySpace with a partner that makes all the rules. And one couldn't imagine Twitter pasting AdSense ads on its network. What large online publisher could get a meaningful amount of its revenue from AdSense?

Back in around 2006, all you needed to do to get VC funding was build a website that got user traction. "What about revenue?" they'd ask. "AdSense," you'd say. "Okay, then, here's the term sheet." Anybody try that with a VC lately?

Ah, so it's all about the long tail, right? Yes, a lone blogger has few other options. Everything else takes too much effort. They are not making a living from it, so they are satisfied with "spare change." Many of the alternatives to AdSense seem rather scammy, along the lines of, "Make a lot of money working from home." Google is well respected as a brand, and everyone knows what they'll be getting from AdSense. Don't they?

Actually, most people don't know one very important part of the deal: the percentage of the revenue that the publisher gets. You can parse the data from Google's financial filings in aggregate. But knowing its percentage in aggregate does not matter to a publisher. Google may be giving a great deal to a large publisher with clout. What do you, the little guy, get? You may know how much Google is paying you for the clicks that you generate, but do you know how much the advertisers are paying for those clicks? If you get $100, did advertisers have to pay Google $200? Did you get 50%? Was it only 10%? Maybe Google sold the clicks you generated for $1,000, and you got 10% of it? How would that feel?

To Google and its investors (more about them later) this ability to simply turn a lever and get a bigger percentage of revenue is marvelous. Who would not want that kind of pricing power? But to your average publisher, it seems to violate one of the most basic rules of business: knowing the terms of the deal, knowing who gets what.

The long tail is also where the problem of click fraud is most serious. To protect it, Google will (quite rightly) sue publishers who scam the system. But now publishers are suing back, and winning. This is ugly stuff.

In another murky corner of the Internet are "made for AdSense" sites that scrape other publishers to generate ad clicks. This is also considered click fraud.

So, the long tail looks rather like fishing in a murky bottom, full of nasty catches, and hardly a bright future for a great company like Google.

Advertisers

Hang on. Get real, you say. None of this matters because Google sells more advertising than any other company, and that's all that matters, right? Publishers, big and small, will take whatever Google gives them because Google has advertisers locked up.

Yes, that is true in search. Neither Yahoo nor Microsoft, nor any of the myriad of search startups, has made a dent in search advertising. AdWords reigns supreme.

Not so fast, though. First, some perspective. Traditional brand-based advertising is still bigger than search advertising, which is why Google bought DoubleClick. But the current excitement and creativity is centered on social media advertising, and Google is not a player in that game (yet). So, search is only one part of the ad market.

More importantly, AdSense clicks are converted differently than clicks on Google's search page. Getting people to talk about this on the record is hard. Off the record, many advertisers/marketers and ad agencies will tell you that those conversions are not the same.

Conversions matter. Clicks are only the first step in the process of earning revenue. Conversions, either directly into revenue or into something deeper in the conversion funnel, such as a free trial, are what advertisers care about.

Logically, an AdSense click wouldn't convert as well as a click on Google's search page. That ingredient of direct intention on the part of the user is missing. Some advertisers may not be savvy about tracking conversions and will therefore pay the same for both types of clicks. But Google can hardly rely on dumb advertisers for its growth strategy.

Advertisers will pay less for AdSense clicks, then. This could cause AdSense revenue to decline (more on that later). Or instead, Google might "dial back" the percentage it pays out to publishers, which would almost certainly spur the system's decline in a vicious cycle. Smart publisher and smart advertisers would desert AdSense, leaving Google to profit by mediating between dumb publishers and dumb advertisers. Not a good long-term strategy.

And then there is the "brand safety" issue. The keyword approach to contextual relevance can create those ugly mismatches that you occasionally see. You know, like when you see an ad for kitchen knives while reading an article about a vicious stabbing? Readers are only faintly upset or annoyed by it when they notice it, but advertisers consider it a major issue. This is the kind of thing that keeps brand-builders up at night.

Weaker conversions and brand safety issues in search-based advertising will only fuel the excitement and creativity in social media advertising. Is AdSense simply a bottom-fishing volume game?

Why is it hard to get advertisers and their agencies to talk about this on the record? Martin Sorrel, founder and CEO of WPP (the world's largest advertising agency) speaks of Google as a "frenemy." Actually, now he has renamed it a "froe." WPP buys $850 million worth of ads per year from Google, which would normally give WPP a lot of clout with media firms. Yet Google also disintermediates ad agencies. One just buys AdWords ads directly from Google.

The relationship between advertisers and Google is delicate, one that would not be helped by advertisers speaking to journalists on the record about weaknesses in one part of Google's services. Advertisers with clout prefer to negotiate behind closed doors.

Users

The most important person in the AdSense eco-system is the user. As long as the user is clicking and buying, all is well. Publishers and advertisers will both be happy. Users may be buying less now, but that is a simple cyclical issue: we are in a consumer recession. When the economy recovers, AdSense will recover.

Well, maybe. There are three reasons to doubt this:

  1. Ad blindness. Advertisers are in an arms race for attention, leading them to produce ever more creative ads, in turn leading users to tune out those bland, familiar old AdSense ads all the more.
  2. Social media alternatives. People trust other people more than they trust ads. That is why Ad-land is channeling its creativity into inserting its brands into their conversations.
  3. Declining relevance. Users who do not get what they want from clicks will stop clicking. If they don't see AdSense ads on high-quality websites, and if the ads they do see are not relevant to what they are thinking about at the time, they won't click.

Google's Investors

Let's jump to Google's Q1 2009 results. The headline was that Google's revenue grew 6% (compared to the same quarter a year prior) to $5.51 billion. We can break that down as follows:

  • Revenue from Google websites grew by 9% to $3.70 billion,
  • Revenue from Google's partner sites, also known as network revenue or AdSense revenue, fell 3% to $1.64 billion.

According to the numbers, not all is well with AdSense. Still, a 3% decline does not sound like much; it would raise questions only with a fast-track company such as Google. Maybe this is simply the effect of the recession.

But maybe it is an early sign of a fundamental weakness in AdSense. With AdSense making up about 30% of Google's revenue, such a sign is big enough to matter. This should be a serious concern for investors. If I owned Google stock, I would be looking very hard at network revenues in Q2. Network effects can lead to explosive, hockey-stick-like growth on the way up... and falling-off-a-cliff declines on the way down. When all three constituents (publishers, advertisers, and users) were getting great value from AdSense, revenue exploded. If all three suddenly lost interest, that virtuous cycle of growth could turn into a vicious cycle of decline.

Judging from its actions, Google management fully understands the issue. Follow the money. Look at what Google is acquiring. Its two biggest acquisitions have been:

  1. DoubleClick, which it purchased for $3.1 billion, allowing Google to diversify from search-based advertising, so that it could have more clout with advertisers;
  2. YouTube, which it purchased for $1.65 billion, allowing it to lock up the fastest-growing inventory, video.

Look at the websites and services Google invests in. It plays to control inventory so that it doesn't have to depend on publishers, and so that it has better control over relevancy matching. Some of this has gotten a few publishers riled enough for them to go on record, particularly when their services lie directly in Google's path.

So, don't feel sorry for Google. It's taking care of the AdSense problem. We'll have to see, though, whether investors buy that story. Investor reaction to Google's Q2 report will be interesting.

Opportunities For Entrepreneurs, New Venture Intermediaries

If AdSense is in decline, that leaves open a big market for entrepreneurs. Publishing is not a winner-take-all market. Google will not control all online inventory. Advertisers and their agencies like choice. And users click on whatever is relevant.

We see two plays in this environment:

  1. Match relevance. Match relevance means parsing content to deliver more relevant ads. This is easy to say and hard to do. A lot of smart semantic tech ventures are focusing on this problem. This is smarter use of search technology than Quixotic tilting at Google's search bar dominance.
  2. Connecting CPM to CPA. This is another hard problem to solve but promises a huge payoff for the winner. Publishers like selling CPM (cost per mille): it is easy for them, and the burden of performing lies with the advertiser. Advertisers, on the other hand, like CPA (cost per action or acquisition): it is easy for them, and the burden of performing lies with the publisher. Both parties look at the CPC (cost per click), because that is trackable from both sides of the transaction. But CPC is just a proxy for what each really wants: CPM and CPA, respectively. Any venture that brings publishers and advertisers together with a deal that satisfies the needs of both will do very well. There is a huge opportunity here. High-quality websites that really engage with their audience will certainly do well by CPA metrics, but the solution will have to be really easy to implement.

What Do You See?

Please give us your feedback. And if possible, tell us your vantage point: publisher, advertiser or new venture intermediary.