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So . . . About That Post That’s Been Giving Me A Headache

So . . . About That Post That’s Been Giving Me A Headache

Turns out it’s not just one post. It’s more like a series of posts, or possibly a new reason for Brian Williams to set up a fake house in Middle America and invite people over for sweet tea and cookies. I cannot explain everything in one post, people, it’s impossible. But I’m going to chip away at it, bit by bit, and if you want to hear about it, then you can, and if not, then you can ignore me, and if you are already annoyed by the whole thing, then I suggest you take me off your reader and go on your merry way. Because my former ad network has already kicked me off for a violation that is, in my (not very humble) opinion, bullshit, so I feel like I have very little left to lose here by exposing the method by which they make their sausage to the rest of the audience. If you don’t eat very much sausage anyway, and would prefer to continue enjoying what little you do eat, that’s your choice. Stop reading now, and bear in mind that many of my posts here (though not all) in the following weeks will probably concern this topic.

This topic?

Why have people seemed to be making less money on the BlogHer ad network lately? This is a question I’ve gotten over and over again in recent months? Can you please figure it out? Do you know why? Anna, will you look into it? Ever since I first addressed this issue of allocating the inventory of ads in the BlogHer Ad Network, I’ve been dreading writing the follow-up I knew I would have to write. Because even if I believe that BlogHer is a business that can do as it pleases, under the law, there is still an absence of open commentary, at present, on its revenue allocation model. And because of this, new people thinking about getting involved in the network are not able to make informed decisions about whether or not to partner with BlogHer for monetizing their blogs in its post-Pioneer Woman incarnation. Let me be clear: you are not going to find a bigger fan of Ree Drummond than myself. You are just not going to find a bigger cheerleader for her and how she has grown her business in such a short time and with so much class and grace. Period.

Also: I knew it could not be so simple as all the money is going to Ree. It just could not be that simple. And as it turns out, I was right. But the thing is, knowing that and proving how it happens are two different things, and the way online advertising works is very complicated and the system benefits from the fact that so few people are willing to take the time and effort it takes to understand how it works. Just as an introduction today, though, let me tell you the facts you need to know in order to understand the whole picture. Then, you can come back here to see the follow-up posts to get a more fleshed-out understanding of everything, because like I said, if I tried to present it all here, it would take up like sixteen screens and give us all a headache.

  1. BlogHer used to have approximately 20.5 million pageviews per month on its entire network total. It then added ThePioneerWoman.com, which is a site that has 21.1 million pageviews on its own. This is a big problem in terms of balancing ad inventory, as you might imagine. Now, it might be the case that ThePioneerWoman.com will be a selling point for BlogHer with advertisers, but because advertisers buy their inventories way in advance, this has not happened yet. The site was brought on the network before it was able to help promote its sales.
  2. BlogHer Ads Uses A Tier System That, Together With Traffic, Governs How Many Ads A Publisher Serves.
    The tier system is the elusive “valve” in the metaphor I used in my post on ABDPBT on Friday. It is the most difficult thing to explain about all of this, and the thing that is going to involve graphs and probably the most crossed eyes from all of you. Remember that, as a business wanting to make a profit, BlogHer can form whatever contracts it wants with each individual blogger, provided it can get us to sign them. But most of us have signed contract that suggest it will give us equal access to all of the given paid ads available for our subcategory (e.g. parenting, food, life, whathaveyou) at any given time). When I wrote about this earlier, and speculated about Ree Drummond’s contract, I suggested that it was possible she had some kind of special arrangement to serve a higher percentage of paid ads than the rest of us, but that it would be impossible to say for sure because we didn’t have access to her contract.

    Then I found out about tiers.

    What happened was this: people have been noticing that there have been real, paid ads served on the Pioneer Woman’s site when other other BlogHer sites had unpaid, house ads, or PSAs, for months now. They noticed this long before I even wrote about it. The phenomenon has just been more widespread since then. Basically, everyone has just accepted that there has to be some kind of value system that differentiates us from her.

    But then somebody said something to me, offhandedly, about how BlogHer must have “changed their tiers again,” and I said, “Ummm, what? Tiers?” and that’s how I found out that, yes, there was some kind of thing at BlogHer Ads called tiers, and a publisher could get bumped up or down one, based on something like swearing too much or getting on somebody’s good or bad side, or being especially popular, or being somebody somebody wanted to promote. Now, it’s very hard to find information out about tiers, because very few people know about them, and even fewer people are willing to talk, but here’s what I’ve been able to discern: the decision to be bumped up or down a tier does not sound like it’s tightly controlled, because it was the kind of thing that — at least in a case that I had heard of — that an employee could change without anyone really noticing or caring. And this is all rumor and allegation, of course, and not on the record, so it’s not like I can take it to anybody and do anything about it.

    Unless I can look at the stats and prove that something like tiers exist with math.

    As it turns out, I can.

    So later in the week, I will show you the nuts and bolts of how, and demonstrate that it’s not only your traffic that decides how much money you make when you serve BlogHer Ads.

  3. The tiers include Pioneer Woman versus everybody else, but that’s only one small part of it. When this started, we thought that the big problem was that all of our ads were going to Ree Drummond’s site. As it turns out, Ree’s immense traffic is just what made it easier for us to figure out that something was wrong. If we hadn’t had something that big pulling stuff away from the higher traffic sites, we might never have realized there was a system of favoritism directly lining pockets of people within this advertising network.
  4. Sometimes a little is more than you think. The vast majority of the network makes so little money from serving ads that they are not motivated to do anything about this kind of stuff. This is probably not news to anybody, but the people who are really being exploited by this system are the people who are used to making like $20 or less per month from BlogHer, because they allow the network to exist — and I really mean this, they allow the network to exist by running ads on the over 2,500 blogs that are on the network, and without them the worst companies in the world like, well fuck you know who they are, they are the ones who pay for all of the parties at BlogHer — they wouldn’t be interested in buying advertising on the network. And those people wouldn’t be raking in the dough no matter what, but if they’re makign $20 now, they should be making $40. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a huge amount to you, but if I’m making $300, I should be making $600. And if somebody else I know is making $1200, they should be making $2400. See? You start noticing when your percentage is big enough to notice. But they thrive on the fact that most people have such a small amount coming to them that they won’t care. This is just something to take into consideration.
  5. Tiers for house ads versus defaults? As I delved further into the stats, I realized that getting to the bottom of this problem is probably beyond me, mathematically speaking. In other words, I’ve uncovered stuff, but I’m not sure that I’m gifted enough with numbers to uncover everything that is there. So this story is one that is very much developing. And every day, somebody new gives me more information that gives me a new direction in which to go. For example, I thought that the tiers just governed how many highly paid ads somebody got access to, but it turns out they also will serve more house ads (low paid) to people versus defaults (totally unpaid). So it’s very complicated, and this just underscores, in my mind, the need for regulation of this industry.

Again, thank you to everybody who has helped so far, and anybody who wants to throw their stats into the mix (anonymously and without repercussion because you can do it without BlogHer ever knowing you helped) please email me at anna at ABDPBT dot com.

UPDATE: After various accusations of withholding information, I’ve posted my termination email from BlogHer here.

Comments (32)

  1. Apr 25, 2010

    This is absolutely fascinating, and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

    My guess is that there is a fairly simple (to the people who understand/write them) algorithm that governs the whole system. I wish I knew how those things work, but my brain doesn’t do algorithms.

    I also think it might be useful, at some point in the future, to disclose what you’ve lost now that BlogHer has shut off your ads. NOT because I think you’re a Bitter Betty–I think you’re coming at this from an intellectually honest investigative perspective (more obviously so because you were doing the digging before they axed you)–but because it might help those below you on the “tier” understand better what is at stake for them.

  2. Apr 25, 2010

    Whoah, I spent the whole week packing up my apartment and winding up my projects at work and only caught this latest development. I read your last post but didn’t understand the progression-it seems like they said you violated the contract, you told them that you didn’t and advocated for yourself by counter-arguing that they were repudiating, they started to re-serve the ads and then what? Obviously they decided to kick you off after that. Was it for a different reason?

  3. Apr 25, 2010

    Hi Monkey,
    I was wondering where you’d been! Yes, they said I had violated the contract through various ways. I changed all of the things they had complained about, and they started reserving ads. Then I tweeted something promoting my post on Friday by saying “Blogger Case Study: 24% unpaid or low paid ads before PW, 78% low paid or unpaid after PW.” About ten minutes later I got an email that said they were terminating my contract because this was a breach of contract because I had committed libel by misrepresenting my own statistics.

    For one thing, I wasn’t representing my own statistics, which I think is clear by that. But even if I had been, I don’t think that would be a grounds for terminating my ad contract, it might be grounds for legal action against me, but not termination of an ad contract.

    But whatever.

    I’m not a lawyer. And I’m not really interested in playing one on the internet.

  4. Apr 25, 2010

    I’m sure there are lawyers you could hire if you wanted to go down that road but is it really worth it for you? It looks like your ad revenue was decreasing, anyway.

    I admit that I am curious to read what thoughts you have on the subject. But on a serious note, are you concerned about whether or not future ad networks will think of you as “too controversial” or difficult to handle if you write those posts? I read the tweet about Mr. Right-Click and burnt bridges and kind of agreed with him.

    I’m asking because you’ve seemed a little melancholy lately and it seems like another couple of slaps in the face might make it worse-I’m sure the money is no big deal but feeling constantly excluded for rocking the boat or asking questions must really suck.

  5. Apr 25, 2010

    Monkey, I see what you’re saying, but here’s the thing. What I’m learning is this: to make money in blog advertising, you have to either sell your own ads, have your own ad network, or have crazy traffic levels. The way the networks make money is to have a bunch of very small sites that only make small amounts of money who will not question their percentages because they are so small. Once sites get big enough, like say, over 50,000 page views per month, that’s when they start asking questions and causing problems. The vast majority of people who have come to me and who have noticed problems with their revenue are of people with sites over that traffic threshold — some way over, but very few under. Yes, if I want to be attractive to other ad networks, I should shut my trap, but I don’t think that’s where the money is anyway. Because I’m going to run into this problem in another network anyway, and even if I get to a crazy traffic level, I know there are problems from that perspective, too, though I haven’t discussed them with those people directly, but I would imagine they include having to carry sites that don’t generate traffic, etc.

    But here’s the thing, right now I feel like my message is more credible than ever because I don’t directly benefit from any traffic increase — at present, I have no traffic-based ads on my site. I have never been one for countenancing douchebaggery. I mean, if people would just behave with integrity, do business with integrity, then I wouldn’t have to deal with them. If I were observing this from the outside, perhaps I would be one of those people jumping on the “she’s just trying to get attention” bandwagon, I don’t know. But my perspective is this: nobody else is going to do this, people have asked me to do this, this isn’t earth shatteringly important, but it is important, and it is corrupt, and it is something that is costing people money, and it is something that I think is important enough to be exposed.

    So, yes, it’s upsetting to me. It’s upsetting, in particular, to see people who supposedly liked me talk about me badly as if I’m not in the room on Twitter. It’s upsetting to act as if I’m just making allegations out of my ass for no reason, especially when, as I say, I did not want to deal with any of this, this is something that came and found me, but look, this is a new industry and it’s not regulated. And money is being made, and nobody understands how. And BlogHer the company is like four years old, and it’s doing some things that might be corrupt, might be, might not be, but doesn’t look so good, they look kind of bad from where I’m sitting, and they’re tolerating my questions with what amounts to a giant fuck you in corporate speak. So does it feel good to continue to ask questions? No, it feels like FUCKING SHIT. But oh well. If that’s my place, then I guess it is. In other words, I can take it.

  6. Awesome detective and reporting work here.
    Praise worthy.

    I have been saying for YEARS that BlogHer Ads are the worlds biggest RACKET there is…..

    Boycott people. and if you agree- be sure to send everyone you know a link to this story. Facebook, Twitter all of it…….

    We might be mommies. BUT WE ARE NO IDIOTS.

  7. Apr 25, 2010

    I think you’re asking the right questions, and I don’t see why people are getting all BUNCHY about it. Like, this stuff affects a lot of people, and if they can prove otherwise, why not at least allay people’s fears? I’m getting pissed off at people passive-aggressively attacking you, making sweeping generalizations and not showing their cards. You’re trying to show yours. I see no harm in them showing theirs. If you’re wrong, what’s the harm? Why can’t you TALK about it without getting thrown under it?

  8. Apr 25, 2010

    And this is where hailing from academia becomes useful: you are accustomed to feeling like shit pretty much 24/7, with few back-pats and breathers in-between. So, yes, you can totally take it.

    On another note, Magpie Lovely is indeed lovely. Want. Buy. Pretty Things. 🙂

  9. Apr 25, 2010

    Fascinating. I’m not part of the BlogHer network so I have no piece in it. It sounds basically like you want some accountability, some “fair” rule system on the table, and that is fine and good. I’ve left companies that have refused to do this.

    I have also learned that companies who do things by the Man Behind the Curtain method are also not likely to change. So, this information is good and nice and a sort of airing of the dirty laundry, but what would fascinate me more is for you to propose something better. You can put it together, shop for a buyer, and possibly land yourself something bigger than a Blogher casualty. Do it!

  10. Heather
    Apr 25, 2010

    People who don’t have anything to hide don’t react this way. Period. You’d think more people would be concerned about it.

    Does this mean I won’t be able to meet you at BlogHer this August?

  11. Apr 25, 2010

    I totally missed whatever happened on Twitter. I’ve been all up in real life crap lately.

    I’m dying to read what you’ve found. My experience with BlogHer has been good (I love my contact person, and they took me back when I completely switched genres…which I did not expect). I would prefer to continue to like them. But I think my corporate experience has made me so cynical that I’m not surprised by anything anymore.

    I do think that anyone who has decent traffic should sell their own ads (or hire a contract person to sell ads for them…companies do this with lead generation all the time, on commission. HireMyMom.com is full of ads for people like that.). Ad networks are like consignment stores…you’re paying for the convenience of not having to think about how to sell your stuff. If you have really good stuff, though, it’s never worth working through a middleman like that.

    I don’t envy you. None of this looks like fun at all.

  12. Apr 25, 2010

    Perpetua, sorry I didn’t answer this before. It was changing all the time recently, but my best months were over three hundred and sometimes closing in on four hundred dollars a month just from BlogHer display ads alone. That isn’t a ton of money, but there are people who have written to me who have more coming in, and if you put all of us together there is more at stake. Also, bear in mind that this is what is netted to me, it’s not what the gross is for my traffic — my take represents about 30% of the overall take, and it’s impossible to say what BlogHer is actually making on the whole deal, because we only know what they are quoting as the CPM, not what the advertisers are really paying them. There’s a lot of leeway there.

    Plus, BlogHer runs ads on its own site, which I’ve always found a little strange. Federated media does not do that, and I don’t understand why BlogHer pulls ads out of the network for its own site, not to mention ones without headlines.

  13. Apr 25, 2010

    I think because they think I’m trying to ruin their happy funtime all girls weekend, which I am NOT. This is a separate issue from the BlogHer conference, and should not affect anything about the BlogHer conference!

  14. Apr 25, 2010

    Well, it might be that I have to build something better, yes. Though to be honest I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I don’t know, it scares me. The thought of it is daunting. I don’t know how to make something better. I mean, I could try to do it, but it’s not like I got up in the morning and thought, “You know what I should do with my life, start an ad network!” I mean, it’s just not what I ever envisioned. But I will think about what a better network would be, and what it would required, etc., at the very least, as I write these posts, so that whomever comes after me can think about it.

  15. Apr 25, 2010

    Oh, I’ll be there, unless they ban me from the premises. Should be interesting. LOL. I have paid for my ticket. Twice, in fact, so I don’t think there’s any way they can keep me from going.

  16. Apr 25, 2010

    It was suggested that I was withholding information that repudiated everything I was saying here. Which is not true. I am not withholding anything of the kind. I think the person who said that is referring to the email that BlogHer sent me — the confidential email about confidential publisher information that of course BlogHer would not ever share with anybody — that showed that my stats had not gone from 24% unpaid lowpaid ads before PW to 78% unpaid/lowpaid afterwards. That was the charge for which I was officially terminated from the network, incidentially — tweeting that and therefore officially libeling them by misrepresenting my own statistics. Of course, I wasn’t representing my own statistics, because I was talking about another blogger’s statistics, but whatever.

    She thinks that I have stats that disprove the existence of tiers, I guess. I think I have stats that prove them, but that are way too complex to present in one post. So I’m posting them over the course of a week or so. This is the first in that set of posts.

  17. Apr 25, 2010

    I have long thought that these ad network type sites/blogs are some kind of a racket. It reminds be of a friend who used to fall for one internet get rich quick scheme after another. The whole tier structure has always seemed suspect to me. I have tried a couple of these blog networks (Not this one) and been stuck in the bottom tier forever…No matter what I did…

  18. Sara
    Apr 25, 2010

    Speaking of which… are you still planning to go to the BlogHer conference? As I recall, it was going to be a family affair for the Right-Click Clan, yes?

  19. Betty
    Apr 25, 2010

    I’m confused about a few things,though I’m guessing that you are going to into depth. But just in case you aren’t going to talk more about the contract termination, here is my question. Let’s pretend you did misrepresent the facts in your tweet in error or intentionally. Do the Editorial Guidelines for network properties extend to your FB and Tweets, which are not part of their network?

  20. Apr 25, 2010

    HI Betty, I know it’s really confusing and there are so many moving parts. The posting of that email makes it even worse, which is why I didn’t post it at first, because I really did consider posting the entire email exchange, in fact — there are some AWESOME bits in that exchange, let me tell you, but I didn’t want to confuse everybody about what really matters.

    The thing with the termination email: it’s bullshit. Because, first of all, I wasn’t tweeting about my own stats anyway. But yes, you’re right, it doesn’t matter what the hell I do on Twitter, as far as I can tell from looking at my contract, and they clearly did not have a lawyer look at this before terminating my contract. They were just trying to figure out a way to get me out and pounced on that. The wrongful termination of my ad contract is one issue and we are dealing with that on the one hand, and then this tier system and whether that will be regulated or not is another.

    The tweets sent out by Queen of Spain today suggested that the termination email would somehow make my other arguments irrelevant and that’s what I wanted to just clear up right away. They sent me my own stats as if to say haha! you did your math wrong, and I sent it back to them and said, “No shit, you idiots, I’m talking about another blogger’s stats,” because I guess they assumed that nobody else was talking to me, and that nobody else was willing to look at this critically. They assumed wrong in this case. People are scared of BlogHer, yes, but they are also very, very pissed off. And there are a lot of them.

  21. Apr 25, 2010

    I am so monumentally fascinated by this whole topic and all the twists and turns of events therein. And, my god woman, what a massive pair of balls you have. Grade A brass.

    I can’t wait to see what will happen next. The suspense is KILLING ME.

  22. Apr 26, 2010

    This was an EMPLOYEE of BlogHer who was tweeting about you?

    Wow. That is…wow.

  23. Apr 26, 2010

    Yeah, and tweeting about information that is supposedly “confidential.”

  24. Wow, Anna. I’m sorry you are having to deal with all this, even though you can “take it” (because I agree with Perpetua academia trains us to deal with shit like this) it’s NOT fun. And Jenny is right, you have a massive pair of grade A brass balls.

  25. Apr 26, 2010

    Okay, question for you — didn’t you say earlier that your Blogher monthly revenues were dropping. If so, does this mean that even while you were getting a lower percentage of low paying/no paying house ads, your overall revs were decreasing?

    Also, I am a bit mystified about how complicated this can actually be. In the end, it’s just a program about where to send ads. Or it’s a program plus some human overrides.

    I’d be happy to look at the data if you want.

  26. Apr 26, 2010

    Agree. Stuff like that makes me cringe.

  27. Apr 26, 2010

    Ann, yes my monthly revenues have been dropping per capita. There is a couple reasons for this. BlogHer changed its percentage take within the past year it — it used to be something like 60% – 40%, then they switched to something more akin to 70% 30% (that’s not it, but I don’t know what it is, exactly, because I cannot remember, right now, exactly how it is calculated, and I don’t have the ad contract in front of me). So my percentage of paid ads in November was higher, but I had been getting a smaller cut of things, and they had been selling fewer ads anyway, and there are way more people on the network. If you look at the numbers over last year they will tell you that BlogHer the ad network has grown in the past year, and that is true, but that is only one small portion of the picture, there are so many factors that go into how much money you make. When I said my revenue was going down I meant mainly it was going down way too much between November and now, EVEN with the standard decrease that always happens from Q4 to Q1, and that is what they always say, advertising is cyclical bullshit, bullshit bullshit.

    Here’s why it is complicated, there is soooo much room for plausible deniability in these statistics. I’ll give you some of the factors that go into how you get paid:

    *how many defaults are you running?
    *how many house ads are you running?
    *what primary network (eg parenting versus food versus life versus personal finance) are your ads coming from?
    *what secondary network (eg all of the above) are your ads coming from?
    *has your traffic decreased or increased during this time period?
    *have you posted less or more during the time period?
    *is it a cyclical downturn for advertising?
    *was there some kind of significant event in your life or in your blog during the relevant time period?

    etc. etc. etc.

    This is why I started looking at percentages, it was the only way to look at things on a semi even playing field. Even then, it’s still not totally even, but it’s the only way to map out something to theorize about how an algorithm might be working. Does that make sense? Probably somebody who knows more about math could do it better than I can.

    Re: letting you look at it, I can let you look at my own numbers, but the other people I’d have to get their permission first.

  28. Apr 26, 2010

    dammit anna, i take a 2 wk blog break, am preparing myself for another, and this shit goes down?!?! 🙂

    umm… first of all, brava to you, lady!

    secondly… don’t get me started on BlogHer…

    *releasing cat claws*

  29. Apr 26, 2010

    I can’t think of a better, bigger, juicier brain to applied to this than yours. I only run BlogHer ads on my secondary blog (very small), and have never seen ANY money from them. But I’m really fascinated to see how it all works out.

  30. Apr 26, 2010

    Yes, there are indeed a lot of moving parts.

    But what do you mean that your revenues have been dropping per capita? By visitor?

    And does BlogHer really take 60-70% of revs? That’s an awful lot. My understanding is it’s rare for a network to even take as much as 50% although many — like Google, for example — are very secretive.

    Thanks again for your work on this although I’m sceptical about the ad-only path to flexibility. Apparently in the good old days Google AdSense paid well — until it didn’t.

  31. Apr 27, 2010

    This is interesting. When I first started reading blogs, maybe around 2006/2007, there was a lot of talk about people getting paid what they were worth. At the time BlogHer was being hailed as the network for women by women. I thought of putting ads on my blog until I read about it on their website. Didn’t sound like a good deal for me, since I was not getting any big numbers by any means. However, it sounds like even for medium size bloggers, not as big as PW but not as small as me, are not coming out well in these deals. Interesting. Glad to have someone like you to look at all the data and sort it out for us.

  32. Apr 27, 2010

    Well, actually, it’s interesting. The people who REALLY get screwed are the very very low and the people over about 50,000 pageviews. There is a sweet spot at about 20,000 – 30,000 pageviews that, together with some carefully applied asskissing, can be lucrative. When I’m done with all of these posts, I’m going to develop a recommended plan of action for bloggers of all sizes and then people can do what they want, because basically there’s no one-size-fits all solution here. It’s kind of a complicated problem, as you can see, and what you decide has a lot of different considerations. But I’m coming up with some kind of interesting ideas for how to explain it to people.

    Here’s my favorite so far . . .

    Running BlogHer ads on your site is like feeding lunchables to your kids.

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