It's no secret that Google's contextual advertising program, "AdSense", is shaking up the very foundation of traditional internet advertising but when it comes to AdSense on a forum community, all things are not equal. For many forums, AdSense has meant the first reliable revenue stream that actually performs well while keeping users popup free but for many forums, poor placement and bad planning is holding back AdSense earnings and dampening their potential.
Incase you don't already know, AdSense is not a new concept but instead is simply taking an old concept of context based ads and moving it to a whole new scale. Harnessing the same power used to run Google's main search engine, AdSense spiders publisher websites to obtain a list of targeted keywords based on a sophisticated yet secretive algorithm. What we do know is that AdSense works by the page and fast; on large sites newly created pages with focused content can start receiving targeted campaigns within minutes. For forums this means that if your overall theme is Sports but you have a thread about digital cameras you'll get digital camera ads on that page. Google's spidering process may not be perfect at picking up keywords or showing an array of ads but compared to the static, off-target banner it's a god send. Deploying AdSense on an otherwise untargeted website doesn't just mean a rise in results; it's a whole new league of conversions. To put things simply, users like content, users like quick shopping links and when you target the links to what the user is viewing you've got a match made in heaven.
Looking back to forums however we see a major problem. Stock software like vbulletin, phpbb, ikonboard and so forth have a hundred different features all of which clamor for screen space leaving little room for ads. For most webmasters AdSense placement is done in the same fashion as old banner ad placement -- this is the first mistake for AdSense is no banner. Because of the text format of AdSense ads and the amazing level of content targeting the goal of AdSense is not to treat the ad like a banner but instead to treat it like content which means putting it in a place where users are looking for content. This doesn't mean you want to trick a user into clicking the ad; on the contrary, you want them to acknowledge that it is an ad but by embedding it in content the hope is that they are interested in converting on the ad and not just performing a blind click to visit some unknown, random site.
This brings us to ad placement and opens the doors to a host of competing ideas. In the past I've tried placing small 468x60 banner style ad in the very top of my header along side the logo. Like with traditional banner campaigns this placement preformed poorly as users simply blocked out the ads like they would any other banner. After a few months I moved my AdSense bar down to the bottom of the page but expanded to a 728x90 leader board. Surprisingly I saw an increase in conversions even though the ads were now far below the page "fold" (first visible screen of a page). This told me that it isn't initial placement of the ads but rather visibility within a section of a site as well as content integration. For the most part I expect that users were surfing through posts and visiting AdSense sponsor pages after reading an interesting message as the ads were only a few pixels below the end of post tables.
After some additional tweaking I came up with the idea of adding sidebars to my main template to help hold some extra content. As soon as the new sidebars were up I saw an opportunity for new AdSense placement so I integrated a little vbulletin conditional into my newly created sidebar to display 1260x600 skyscrappers and 120x240 Vertical Banners depending on the page being viewed. In order to help integrate the ads into the site they are not the first element shown on my sidebars but rather they display after two small content boxes. While Google forbids me from telling you the exact improvement this change had the mere presence of this article should more than convey the impact.
Even with my improved results it is clear that there is a whole extra level AdSense integration can be taken to as discovered by FansofRealityTV at TheAdminZone.com. What is evident from the findings of this user's forum and my own is that the deeper you integrate AdSense, the better the results. Traditional banner campaigns have always told us that putting ads in distinct, visible, separate places yields better results, especially if those locations are at the top of a page. However, because of the unique look, feel and targeting of AdSense there is nothing traditional about the campaign and thus nothing traditional about its optimization.
If you run a forum and currently use or plan to use AdSense I recommend you evaluate your priorities on a 1-2-3 scale. If your first goal is to keep ads out of the face of your visitors you may want to go with a less direct integration like placing your ads under your navigation bar, at the top of your forum content (inside an element) or on a sidebar. If your priority is profit you may want to go the extra distance and come up with a cleaver way to integrate the ad into the content. Some unique ideas include placing the ad before the Quick Reply box, after the first post, inside a post cell, inside a summary at the top of a post and so forth. Finally, as a 3rd option you can combine both methods placing ads in a separate "safe" area for registered members while putting them in a more integrated environment for guest users (this can be done with a simple template conditional for vbulletin3 or minor hacking for other boards).
No matter where you place your AdSense code remember to follow the idea of fitting the code to match your site. Avoid color combinations that stand apart from the layout, the goal isn't shock, flash or beauty but instead integration and companionship. Once your users notice useful, targeted content ads right next to the content they are already reading they will convert on their own and that's something a flashy banner could never accomplish.
For help with AdSense integration and your forum check out TheAdminZone.Com (that's here incase you didn't notice the URL bar).