Why I run Google Ads on Contacting the Congress

I recently have gotten several emails about both the left- and right-leaning ads on Contacting the Congress, a site I set up to be non-partisan.  These ads have been more partisan in recent days, as the debt ceiling debate rages on.  Those emails have somewhat justifiably questioned how a site that claims to be non-partisan, can run such partisan ads.  I want to take this opportunity to explain why I choose to run the ads.

The problem for me is that Contacting the Congress costs money to run.  It started off as a small website hosted on the computers of the University where I was a graduate student.  The problem was that I couldn’t continue to host Contacting the Congress on the University’s servers without the state of Minnesota potentially claiming ownership over it (justifiably, since I would be using state resources to develop it).  It is for this reason that almost 15 years ago, I moved the site to a commercial server.  I had to choose a larger commercial ISP because I had rather specific requirements for the server in that it had to run certain database and scripting software.  As such, I settled on a good ISP, Vector Internet (now VISI.com) that offered me a fair price on a small, non-commercial grade server shared with many other small websites.

Over the years, Contacting the Congress has gotten more popular, it started straining the capacity of this small server.  And in 2008, during the debate over health care reform, my site almost brought down my ISPs non-commercial grade server.  It was at that point that I had to move the site to a full VPS server solution that could handle the high loads with ease.  This decision has proved to be the right one, as demonstrated earlier this week when my website kept right on working without a hitch despite the nearly unprecidented traffic to the site.

However, as the cost of running Contacting the Congress grew, so did my family.  I got married and then had twins.  As a result my disposable income shrank.  My job as a college professor doesn’t pay me well enough to sacrifice the cost of maintaining Contacting the Congress which is essentially my ‘hobby’.  So I had to come up with a revenue source.

I didn’t want to turn the Contacting the Congress into a commercial service, charging people to access data that should be (but isn’t really) free.  I didn’t want to solicit donations, since then I would be in the same boat as many politicians, accused of being biased by the largest donations.  I settled on using Google Adsense to serve ads on my site.  I added the following disclaimer to those ads:

(Please note that while we are grateful to our advertisers for allowing us to pay for our server, bandwidth,and data costs, we play no role in the selection of the advertisements shown above. They are chosen by Google.)

I considered it a balanced way to make it clear that I needed the money for running the ads, but had no editorial control over them.   Now, I need to be honest here and say the choice of ads is not completely Google’s fault.  Google Ads does offer the option of filtering ads out based on content and I actually filter out ads for get “rich quick schemes”, dating services, and so on.  In fact, I have a very narrow set of ads I will run, which is why you will sometimes see Public Service Announcements on my site, which don’t generate any revenue at all.  But I don’t filter the political ads for two reasons.

  1. The content of my site is inherently political so political ads match the content somewhat.
  2. Political ads work and pull in the most revenue for the site.  Maybe it is the demographics on my site, but when I have deactivated the political ads, it knocks the revenue down 75% at least, making the site no longer cost neutral for me.

So this is not all Google’s fault, it is a decision I made.

I don’t consider this the ideal situation, but I can’t have my family go into debt to provide this service.  I haven’t found another alternative revenue source that can cover the costs of the service.  If anyone has any suggestions, I would certainly entertain them.

Update Notes for July 28, 2011

Sometime yesterday this site had its 11 million visitor, its been about 58 weeks to accrue this last million visitors.

Today’s updates to the congressional directory include the following:

Update Notes for July 27, 2011

And during all this deficit cutting/debt cieling debate and the aftermath of shut down Capitol HIll servers and swamped Capitol Hill phone lines, Congress Merge has worked to keep the congressional contact information we use up to date.  Here are the updates for this morning:

A lot of people trying to contact Congress yesterday

Wow, a lot of people must be trying to contact members of Congress.  There were reports that the House and Senate web servers were down and that the Capitol switchboard was completely swamped.  I’ve been recommending people contact the DC offices by phone if they can and when that fails, to contact the district offices by phone (You can get district office phone information on the Contacting the Congress site by clicking on the name of a member of Congress when it appears).

Yesterday was also a very busy day for the Contacting the Congress site, our second busiest ever!  The servers sent out over 137,000 page requests, that works out to about 2-3 page requests every second during the United States daylight hours!  Luckily, thanks to last year’s server upgrade, we handled this spike in traffic with ease.  Here’s a plot from Google Analytics showing the number of unique visitors every day over the last two weeks.  You can see the spike in traffic start on Monday, July 25.  Yesterday, we had 34,165 unique visitors, an 1100% increase over the average!

Web Site Traffic Plot
However, we can break this down even further by looking at the hourly unique visitor counts.  Here’s the profile of the last two days of traffic:

Hour by Hour stats

The green line shows monday’s number of unique visitors hour by hour, the blue shows the same data for tuesday.  Looks like you can see that the traffic spike started at between 6 and 7 pm on Monday night (times are Pacific Daylight Time) and then dropped off overnight.  This was right around the time of the President’s speech and his call for people to call their members of Congress.  Clearly President Obama;s request got a response.  That initial spike in traffic continued the next morning and then trailed off all day.  Based on this morning’s stats, today’s traffic looks to be about only 35% of yesterday’s traffic, although that is still about 400% a typical day’s traffic.

As a warning for those trying to read the political tea leaves, before you think of this as a victory for President Obama, the few people who contacted me yesterday were split evenly between opposing the President and supporting him.  We’ll have to wait a few days to see what the members of Congress truly heard from their constituents.

Contacting the Congress site getting hammered

Well, people have certainly have woken up about this debt cieling thing.  The traffic on the Contacting the Congress site has skyrocketed since yesterday as evidenced by this graph from Google Analytics of the total number of unique visitors every day over the last two weeks.

Google Analytics

Notice that uptick for yesterday’s traffic, and today we have had 40% more visitors than yesterday and it is only about half way through the day!  My server has been handling about one search of the matching members of Congress to a given address every 1-2 seconds today!  These are the highest traffic levels since the health care debate. I had one minor outage last night, but overall, the new server is handling the load well.


Update Notes for July 22, 2011

A few small updates to the contact information for today:

Update Notes for July 19, 2011

We had some rather extensive updates today: