The Shady Side of Design Blog Monetisation

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Every now and then I like to throw an opinion out there on Facebook or Twitter, and gauge the reaction from my followers.

Sometimes they agree, sometimes they disagree, but it always helps me to achieve some perspective on a particular issue.

A few weeks ago, I sent out this Facebook post:


While I admit the post was a tad melodramatic, I stand by it. In my opinion, Google AdSense has no place on a design blog. It’s spammy, kills the user experience, and just plain annoying, especially when placed smack bang in the middle of a blog post.

The response to my Facebook post above was overwhelmingly positive – 13 Facebook likes is quite high for my humble following. When I tweeted the same message, for the most part the feedback was very positive as well.

Great, so at least I am not alone on this one.

But here’s the thing.

Some of the most followed and trafficked design blogs out there monetise their blogs with AdSense, and it doesn’t seem to effect their readership one bit. They still have thousands, in some cases tens of thousands of subscribers consuming their content.

So while AdSense isn’t really something I approve of, perhaps it doesn’t bother everyone. Fair enough.

There is another aspect of design blog monetisation that I do take particular issue with however. And truthfully, I think you should too.

Text Link Advertising Must Die

Before continuing, let me clearly state that I have nothing against making money from a blog. In fact, given the amount of time and effort it takes to run a successful design blog, I think site owners are damn right entitled to make money off them.

If you are going to monetise a blog however, I think you should choose your methods with some consideration for ethics in mind. Without taking too much of the moral high ground, I think you owe that to your subscribers, and the very industry that pays your bills.

Text link advertising is something  I see too many design bloggers abusing, and in my opinion damaging our industry in the process.

If you are not familiar with text link advertising, it is a SEO-optimised link that a blog owner agrees to place somewhere on their site (usually in the sidebar under a heading like ‘recommended’) in return for payment. The fee can vary from anywhere between $20 to $100 per month, depending on how much traffic the site gets.

For some blogs, text link ads are a very nice little earner, bringing in hundreds, and often thousands of dollars of easy revenue per month. From a purely financial perspective, I understand the temptation to do it.

The main problem with text link advertising however, is that it typically attracts all sorts of spammers from dark corners of the internet pushing low quality products and services. A lot of the links you will find on design blogs are promoting anything from shady design firms to online casinos.

Taking a really quick survey of some very popular design blogs, here are some text link ads that I found; ‘Logo Design Firm’ –> pointing to a cheap logo warehouse, ‘Free Logo Design’ –> linking to a repository of free logos for download, and ‘Online Logo Design’ –> Yet again, pointing to a logo warehouse.

What becomes obvious is that there is little vetting going on here. Some sites see it fit to link out to anyone, as long as they are getting paid. And that’s just plain wrong.

Final Words

If you run a successful design blog and are accepting text link advertisers, I implore you to look at the bigger picture. Every time you link out to another site, you are vouching the content on the other side of that link.

Do you really want to associate that with your brand?

Somebody had to say it. Now it’s time to move forward. Your thoughts?


Image by Freezelight

  • Hi Kevin, if you are not getting enough visitors to be eligible for BuySellAds, etc, I seriously doubt that you are making a fortune from your current AdSense setup. Is making a few bucks a month from AdSense really worth making your blog look unprofessional?

    I recommend taking a look at the first link David Airey left in his comment.

  • Hi Kevin, if you are not getting enough visitors to be eligible for BuySellAds, etc, I seriously doubt that you are making a fortune from your current AdSense setup. Is making a few bucks a month from AdSense really worth making your blog look unprofessional?

    I recommend taking a look at the first link David Airey left in his comment.

  • I didn’t touch on Google penalties in the post, but you are right, some big players in the online design community are taking a huge risk by linking out bad neighbourhoods.

    What concerns me more however, is that design bloggers are inherently vouching for these sites by linking out to them. In my opinion, its a very questionable practice to establish yourself as an ‘authority’ in the design community , while at the same time linking sites that degrade the our industry.

    It’s disappointing that so many are willing to sell-out for a quick buck.

  • Duane, Ha! I wondered what you meant when you tweeted about this the other day.

    I couldn’t agree more! I would go further and say that many design sites have advertisers who are completely naff. The adsense ads are just wrong full stop.

    Some of the Buy Sell Ads I’ve seen are tottally incongruous with the ethos of designers generally.

    I’m not having a go at Buy Sell Ads, they’ve got to make a living and so do the blogs that they advertise on. They just feel so tabloid and I don’t think I’ve ever used the vast majority of the products that they are selling. I’ve worked in the design industry for nearly 20 years and haven’t seen most of these products in any studios I’ve worked in.

    Why wouldn’t google do something about the text linking?



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  • Duane makes a good point, Kevin. If your site is at the early growth stage, you won’t be making much from AdSense (a few monthly dollars?). You need to decide what’s more valuable, those few dollars or a more professional website appearance.

    • David & Duane, you both make extremely valid points. I am in the beginning stages of a redesign and you made me realize that it ultimately isn’t worth it to have ads at the moment.

      Thanks for the tips guys, I appreciate you 🙂

      • No problem Kevin. Best of luck with the redesign. Let me know when it goes live.

  • Duane, Great topic and something I haven’t really been paying much attention to. David’s links were a real eye opener into just how fragile a blog and its ranking can become through a few poor choices that do not align with Goggle’s guidelines. Thanks to both of you!

  • The over-simplified lure of AdSense is understandable, but it doesn’t match reality when it comes to making money of one’s site.

    Nothing will ever be as profitable in general as your own product, nothing. Ever. If you generate the traffic for a topic in a niche, own it. And sell a product around that niche. A close second is selling quality products made by someone else that match your content very closely. These two options are the most profitable ways to monetize a personal site. If you are Smashing, you can go the direct advertising route, of course, because they are Smashing. However, in either case, nothing whatsoever can replace the sheer amount of work required for any of these options.

    Google dangles a carrot and people bite. People don’t realize that when they make .5 cents, Google makes .25 cents (or maybe vice versa, but it doesn’t matter at the scale Google does this), and Google makes that money times a zillion people fiddling with ads who come and go. All Google really needs is to keep encouraging silly content and free low quality blog creation to generate zillions of dollars. Don’t fall for it!

    Focus on your niche. Focus on writing. Focus on maybe 10 or so SEO basics. Make relationships. Work hard. Make a product or find real products to sell that you have passion about and can write about. Do that, and you’ll be well on your way to make pretty good dinero on your site in one form or another. My first ebook is doing, honestly, much better than I realistically hoped, and is gathering steam, not losing it, 6 months after launch.

    Work. Hard work. More hard work.

    I could almost blog and write a book about this topic 🙂

  • This kind of topic reminds me of the kind of discussions that evolve around spec work, or cheap logo factories. There is always someone out there who wants to make a cheap buck. It seems to be human nature. There are those who keep the standards, there are those who don’t.

    I agree with you Logobird. There is nothing worse that the distraction of adverts on a blog and in particular, when those adverts are clearly pointing to some shady businesses. But if there’s money to be made, designers will sell their space.

    It’s interesting to see other people’s reaction and it’s good to educate others on this. But just as there are logo factories, and people who design on spec, there will always be a fair share of people willing to ruin their blog designs for a few pence a month.

    I don’t understand it myself. As designers, we spend hours trying to create the perfect design for our clients. Why then ruin your own site with ugly Google Ads. There are double standards at play here.

    Interesting to read what others think. Thanks for bringing this up. Maybe there are a few out there that will listen. Here’s hoping.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with you, but design blogs have to monetize their content somehow. We try to avoid Adsense advertising as well — it’s annoying and ungly. But in the end it’s just a matter of finding a way to reward your invested time and resources into producing something meaningful for the Web. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is. Probably nobody hates advertising more than I do, but it just has to be here, because it pays the bills. However, I do have a huge respect for advertisers who are actually the driving force behind the design community these days.

    — Vitaly Friedman, editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine

    • I think the main issue here isn’t the existence of advertising, it’s what is actually being advertised. If design blogs want to plaster themselves with advertising, that is their issue to deal with. Where it becomes a community-wide issue is when influential blogs are selling advertising and links to services that are not in the best interest of the design industry — such as $49 logo sites and the like.

      It’s a slippery slope and I am not sure what the solution is. I am not sure how many influential bloggers will be prepared to give up what is obviously a lucrative income stream, however we can just continue pretending there isn’t a problem.

      Hopefully this discussion moves us a step closer to resolving the issue.

  • Anonymous

    great article. On a plain aesthetic level Google text ads are just plain garish. It’s quite an elaborate and even transparent scam. I feel that ads can have a place on a website. But it’s about synergy. An ad should be vetted first, make sure there’s real sympatico…I think this is the way they used to do it before the web. I wrote an essay a few months ago about my relationship as a designer to advertising, more in a professional sense. But funny enough I think there’s some correlation with the issue of design blogs taking mediocre advertising and having actually worked on the creative ad side of the biz:

  • I am not a designer by profession, but follow design out of passion. I agree that ads really ruin my experience of the site if they are intrusive but

    1. usability research tends to show that most people ignore the ads
    2. these “low quality” ads- they exist because someone who reads your blog actually has use of that underpriced, warehouse quality design.
    3. it is safe to assume that a majoirty of design blog readers understand the difference between deliberate links and the ads- one comes with endorsement, the other is ignored.
    4. perhaps instead of doing away with the ads altogether, you should/design bloggers should negotiate with the providers for excluding certain kinds of ads.



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