On Generic Banner Ads vs. Affiliate Links

Today I came across a tweet which linked to an article by the Interactive Advertising Bureau: Ad Blocking: What you need to know. After sleuthing through the <meta> tags I realized the post came out back in September, 2015. But, the mentality of the article—the belief that Ad Blocking is evil and costs publishers money—is still as applicable today as when the article was written.

And why do these evil users betray us friendly content publishers by disabling our banner ads and starving us of our hard-earned income? It's because banner ads are invasive, kill browser performance, cause mobile browsers jump while reading, and have massive security implications.

Adding insult to injury, the IAB article goes on to suggest websites engage with users who enable ad blocking. Such engagements usually involve a fullscreen modal which prevents the underlying content from being read.

The Ubiquitous Mobile Banner Ad
The Ubiquitous Mobile Banner Ad

Simply put: Banner ads just aren't working out. Often times they link to products irrelevant to the visitor. Visually, banner ads contrast with the content so much that they're completely ignored.

The only reason banner ads are so prolific is because us content producers are lazy. They're just so damn convenient! Paste some code to import a JavaScript file and the ad server does the rest. It will do a bit of machine learning, A/B testing, and will determine which ad seems to get the most amount of clicks for a particular page rendering.

Another thing to consider is just how easy banner ads are to block. At the network level, a browser plugin only has to block requests being made to domains within a blacklist. Or, for the paranoid visitor, disable JavaScript entirely. As an author with a technical audience, my visitors will be using ad blockers at a much higher rate than the typical internet audience.

Fellow content publishers: It's time we try harder.

There exists a much better form of advertising out there. This advertising comes with none of the caveats of the banner ad. It requires no third-party JavaScript be loaded, it doesn't slow performance, it's always applicable to the reader, and—content publisher willing—is unobtrusive for the visitor.

An affiliate link requires the content producer to do some research, find a product somewhat related to the content of the post, and add the link within the body of the article. Since such a link merely relies on an anchor with text, it requires no third party JavaScript and is naturally unobtrusive.

If you really want to step up your affiliate marketing game, I would suggest grabbing a copy of Affiliate Program Management: An Hour a Day. This guide will teach you how to profit using affiliate marketing. Wasn't that pleasant? Did you realize that you had encountered an affiliate link? Poetically, the intrusive banner ad is very easy to block, yet the humble affiliate link is nearly impossible to block.

Let's talk numbers

Of course, my recommendation to stop using the lazy banner ad and start meticulously integrating affiliate links would fall on deaf ears if I didn't prove they can make as much money. Let's take a look at how much money the website you're currently reading earns using these two ad revenue techniques.

Most pages (~250) contain a banner ad in the right column of the page. These are through a respectable ad company called Carbon, which recently merged into Buy Sell Ads, and do not ever leave their allotted rectangle. The ads displayed by Carbon are highly targeted towards web developers and software engineers. This synergy between ad and audience is much higher than with generic ad networks like Google AdSense.

Eight Months Revenue via Buy Sell Ads
Eight Months Revenue via Buy Sell Ads

Very few pages on my site, about three dozen, have a contextual affiliate link. On the pages which contain affiliate links—like the one you're reading now—I disable banner ads (to see some of these checkout the reviews tag). I use Amazon Associates for adding contextual ads to my website.

Eight Months Revenue via Amazon Associates
Eight Months Revenue via Amazon Associates

Looking at my revenue over the past eight months we can deduce that contextual affiliate links earn 2.5x what banner ads earn. However, this conclusion ignores the fact that banner ads are seven times as prevalent so the real difference should be even higher.

Why do affiliate links earn more money than banner ads? Well, affiliate links depend on actual sales being made. No number of impressions (views) will make any money. With Amazon Associates, once a link is clicked a cookie is set. The last affiliate to set a cookie makes a small commission once a sale happens. If a visitor clicks a link, doesn't buy the item, but later buys something else, we still make a commission.

Banner ads typically pay a small amount per click, and a tiny amount per impression. Pay isn't calculated based on an actual sale, but instead based on a bid for an impression. The number of overall clicks will be smaller because of the aforementioned irrelevancy to the visitor, ad blockers, and years of learning to ignore banner ads.

I will be concentrating on using affiliate links in future posts and to stop using banner ads. I implore you to consider doing the same. Tools like the Brave browser hint at a future where banner ad blocking is ubiquitous. Embracing affiliate links and shunning banner ads will prepare us all for this much-needed inevitability.

Thomas Hunter II Avatar

Thomas is the author of Advanced Microservices and is a prolific public speaker with a passion for reducing complex problems into simple language and diagrams. His career includes working at Fortune 50's in the Midwest, co-founding a successful startup, and everything in between.