Jetpack is starting 2017 with a major release that is heavy on enhancements and improvements. Version 4.5 includes more than a dozen new shortcodes and widgets, along with revamped support for VideoPress. One of the most intriguing new features announced in this release, however, is the integration with WordAds, WordPress.com’s advertising program.
Jetpack users are required to be on the Premium plan ($9.00/month or $99/year) in order to sign on with WordAds. The feature is then available within the Engagement tab along with settings for adjusting ad placement.
Eligibility for WordAds was previously limited to sites that had thousands of page views per month, but this requirement is lifted for those who have purchased a Premium or Professional Jetpack plan. Unlike Adsense, which pays for clicks, WordAds pays based on the number of impressions combined with many other factors. According to Derek Springer, an Automattic employee who has worked on WordAds for several years, the traffic requirement was given to set earnings expectations and to ensure support resources were adequately available.
How Much Can Publishers Earn through WordAds?
It’s difficult to to gauge how much a publisher can earn using WordAds, and Automattic doesn’t publish any sample earnings. The WordAds network has more than 60 partners bidding for advertising space in realtime, including Google’s AdSense, Google, AdX, Facebook Ads, AOL, Yahoo, and Amazon. WordPress.com’s Daily Post blog likened the network to a stock market with prices rising and falling as available space changes.
When asked about the average return for every 1,000 impressions, Derek Springer said it’s challenging to estimate due to the complex set of factors influencing the revenue publishers can earn. These include location and number of ads, geography of viewer, percentage of viewers with ad blockers, and other factors.
“Generally speaking, a site with majority US views with high-quality content can expect to earn the most, while non-English language, low-quality (copied content, nsfw, spam, purchased traffic) sites can expect to earn very little (if anything),” Springer said. “Our network over the past year or so has gotten pretty good at appropriately rewarding high-quality sites with high-quality traffic (and penalizing the inverse).”
For years, bloggers have traded stats and earning records, speculating on what influences WordAds’ unpredictable payouts. In 2014, the Human Breed Blog published a collection of data from blogs that made their WordAds earnings publicly available. The data demonstrated inconsistency in earnings for many publishers, including the author’s own blog, where earnings varied wildly from 2014-2015:
My earnings have dropped down to half (From $22.55 in October 2014 to $11.77 in May 2015) despite my page views being higher than 20,000 views per month. The return per 1,000 Ad Impression (CPM) has dropped from $2.25 in October 2014 to $1.17 in May 2015 and the return per 1,000 Page views (CPV) has dropped from $1.39 in October 2014 to $0.51 in May 2015.
This example is representative of the experience of many WordAds publishers in 2014-2016.
“On my blog SQLwithManoj.com, for the months May, June, and July, the ‘Ad Impressions’ were around ~10k and earnings were in the range of $25 to $48 respectively each month,” said Manoj Pandey, blogger at SQLwithManoj.com. “But in the month of August the ‘Ad Impressions’ were showing ~100k, i.e. ~10 times the previous months, but earnings are still in the same range.”
For many publishers participating in WordAds, there seems to be little correlation between impressions and payouts from month to month. Numerous publishers have reported progressively lower earnings despite having higher traffic numbers than previous months. Clarissa’s Blog, included in the collection of public earnings above, published stats from June 2014 to December 2015 that show a dramatic decrease in the amount paid for impressions.
“You have no way of knowing where the ‘ad impressions’ figure comes from and why it varies from one month to another,” Clarissa said. “You will have to trust WordPress on that. I experimented with placing the maximum amount of ads as opposed to a moderate amount of ads and that had absolutely no impact on the number of ad impressions.”
Things started changing in 2016 for Clarissa who now reports that earnings are increasing. “I have no idea why but the payments seem to have returned to the higher rates,” Clarissa said. “Right now is a good time to do WordAds.”
Others continue to report declines on the WordPress.com forums as recently as this week.
“I used to get $800 for 800K impressions,” said the owner of rebirthonlineworld.com. “A few months ago I got $100 for more than 2 million impressions. Last month, only $90 for 500K impressions. This is a big problem for me.”
WordAds Vastly Overpaid for Low-Quality Traffic During Its First Years
In 2013 WordAds paid out $1 million to publishers on its network. According to Derek Springer, earnings since then have been “pretty flat the past year” due to industry-wide declining ad rates.
“We’ve been slowly clawing our way back from the trough of early 2015, which was a historical low for us,” Springer said. “So more folks were paid out, but rates as a whole were at their lowest point in 2015. We’ve been steadily increasing our rates and paying out less to low-quality content/traffic, so if you’re a high quality site it’s likely your rates haven’t fallen too much.”
Behind the scenes, WordAds was quietly evolving its network to better distinguish sites that would deliver more value to its advertising partners, which accounts for many of the dramatic declines in earnings.
“Pre-WordAds 2.0 our network didn’t have the precision to distinguish between high-quality and low-quality (spam, nsfw, bot views, etc) traffic and we had to make some coarse estimations on how to chop the earnings value up,” Springer said. “The net effect was that we vastly overpaid low-quality traffic for the first handful of years.”
Since WordAds 2.0 the program is gotten better at paying users for high-quality content and traffic. The team has more information on the traffic the network is getting and buyers have more information about the content they are bidding on.
“The net effect is that advertisers refuse to bid on low-quality content and traffic and those sites that were previously earning lots are now getting pennies on the dollar,” Springer said. “I would estimate that after investigation 95% of the time the folks complaining about low payout have something kinda scammy going on, usually copied content or paid traffic (and frequently both).”
“Paid traffic” in this instance refers to users who have paid a service to send bots to a page to refresh constantly in order to artificially inflate pageviews. One recent highly publicized incident of this kind of fraud is a case where Russian hackers stole more than $3 million per day from video advertisers using nonhuman bot traffic. Similar tactics have been used on WordAds, motivated by a misconception that pageviews are equal to ad views.
The Decline of the Advertising Industry
Another factor contributing to lower earnings over the past few years is the general decline of the advertising industry. A 2015 Reuters Institute Digital News survey indicates that nearly half of US internet users have some form of ad blocking software installed. Reuters Institute’s latest predictions forecast a 24% increase in US users with ad blocking in 2017. Advertisers have to fight harder to get the attention of the remaining half of consumers and many companies have decided to allocate those funds elsewhere.
According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s latest Internet Advertising Revenue report, search advertising on desktop declined for the first time in 2016, falling 12% to $8.9 billion. However, mobile advertising grew 105% from $3.6 billion to $7.4 billion. Mobile search is having an increasingly strong impact in shaping a site’s traffic.
These factors are outside of WordAds’ control but they weigh heavily on how many impressions publishers will receive. If the vast majority of a site’s visitors are using ad-blockers and the site isn’t easily found via mobile search, it is likely to suffer earning declines on any ad network.
“Ad rates industry wide have fallen over the past few years,” Springer said. “Ad buyers just aren’t paying what they used to and more users are using ad blockers. They heyday of the late aughts/early twenty-teens may never return as ad buyers realized they just aren’t getting the return they were expecting.”
WordAds Needs More Transparency Around Partners and Reporting
It is difficult for publishers to improve their strategies for generating ad revenue when earnings fluctuate wildly without any explanation beyond changes in advertising rates. After reviewing the product’s forums, many are requesting more transparency around why their earnings have dropped despite higher numbers of impressions. They want to know if advertising rates have dropped for the month, if partners have dropped out of the network, or if their content failed to connect with visitors on certain days.
WordAds users have experienced problems with incorrect reporting, record low payouts, and blank banner displays. In the past there have also been considerable delays in publishers receiving their monthly earnings. Springer said improving the reporting process is a top priority for the team this year.
“The flip-side/challenge of working with dozens of networks is that none of them pay us very consistently,” Springer said. “In the past there was no unified collection process on our end, so we would have to wait to collect from each partner and then split it up and send folks earnings out in one batch. However, for the past year and a half or so we’ve been working with a company called IPONWEB to unify our earnings, reporting, and ad buying process (this is what powers WordAds 2.0). We’re at the point where we can begin to provide closer to real-time earnings reporting.”
Automattic is Optimistic about Expanding the
WordAds Program with Jetpack
The number of WordAds sites are up 111% year over year. WordAds currently has a few thousand self-hosted sites running AdControl/Jetpack Ads and Springer said the team is expecting that number to grow considerably now that integration has been added to Jetpack. The AdControl plugin is still available for non-Premium Jetpack users but the standard application and traffic requirements apply. Springer said they plan to phase out the plugin at some point in the future but there are no definite plans yet.
“Tens of thousands of WP.com sites are approved WordAds (meaning they applied and were approved) out of many tens of thousands more total applications,” Springer said. “Additionally, every freemium WordPress.com site is running our ad network, though we naturally keep all the revenue from those sites.”
With a gaggle of new publishers joining WordAds through Jetpack, one might imagine that rates and payouts for existing users would decrease as more advertising space becomes available. However, this isn’t how advertising networks work.
“Generally speaking, advertisers want to display more ads than most publishers are able to provide (known as inventory), so adding more publishers/inventory to a network is a net benefit to advertisers and is what attracts the bigger, higher paying ad buyers,” Springer said. “If we can tell our ad partners ‘We have 10,000,000,000 pageviews available this month across our network,” then that attracts much more lucrative buyers than if a user has to try to attract them on their own. Advertisers also like that they can cut one deal for a million sites as opposed to having to cut them piecemeal and are generally willing to give us better deals. The whole ‘powers 27% of the web’ is a pretty tasty morsel for ad networks.”
Advice for Publishers New to WordAds: Keep Expectations Realistic
Seamless advertising is a major incentive for Jetpack users to sign up for the Premium plan, which also includes backups, one-click restores, security scanning, and 13GB video storage. The prospect of being able to flip the switch to turn on ads and potentially start earning money is very compelling, especially for users who have struggled with other forms of advertising that were not WordPress-compatible.
The general outlook for WordAds is improving, as the product has evolved to reward higher quality content. As advertisers receive a better return on their investments, their confidence in bidding should increase. However, most publishers should expect to see fluctuations on earnings.
WordPress.com’s Daily Post Blog advises new publishers to temper their expectations with the knowledge that they would need “hundreds of thousands of pageviews to generate meaningful earnings.” For most average bloggers, the ad revenue may not buy more than a decent cup of coffee.
Mortiz Linder, an owner of traveluxblog.com, published his earnings and described his experience as “rather average.”
“It’s a nice idea to gain something without effort, to get at least something back for all the work we put into traveluxblog each day,” Moritz said.