The Ultimate German Chocolate Cake Recipe

Updated on April 5, 2018
Robert Kernodle profile image

If a cake fails to impress my taste buds after the first bite, then I trash it. I've been doing this for about a year, starting in 2017.

German chocolate cake baked by and photographed by Robert Kernodle
German chocolate cake baked by and photographed by Robert Kernodle

This article is long, because it discusses details that inexperienced cake bakers might not know.

After you read the entire article, for what I hope is detailed insight, you can use the short, printable version of the recipe provided. Just click on the previous linked (colored) text for a copy that you can easily take into the kitchen.

Origin of the Recipe

Using three different recipes that I found online, I tried to assemble the best of all worlds into one, awesome German Chocolate cake. Unfortunately, my first attempt was a blunder. I threw out the whole thing, after sampling one, small slice. Failure is the best education. My second effort, thus, produced what my article title claims.

In case you don't already know, "German chocolate" has nothing to do with Germans or Germany. The name comes from Samuel German -- the name of the person who formulated dark, sweet chocolate, first used to make such a cake.

For over fifty years, I thought the cake's name referred to the country of origin or to the country where a particular brand of chocolate originated. Consequently, using Mr. German's chocolate is not a requirement here. Pure, 100%, unsweetened cocoa powder works fine -- it is closest to the raw material from which chocolate is made, and so think of this recipe as a process that includes making your own chocolate, as you go.

Traditional German chocolate cake also has zero chocolate in its icing -- just a blend of sugar, evaporated milk, egg yokes, pecans, grated coconut, and vanilla extract. Again, I had no clue until I focused on making one from scratch, even though this style of dessert has been my favorite for more years than I can remember.

Equipment You Need

Photo of cake-baking equipment by Robert Kernodle
Photo of cake-baking equipment by Robert Kernodle

Equipment List

For Butter-Egg-Sugar Component
For Flour-Raising-Agent Component
For Chocolate-Paste Component
For Heavy-Cream Component
For Icing
Large Mixing Bowl
2 Bowls
Bowl
Cup (preferably sealable)
Saucepan (at least 3-quart capacity)
Measuring Cups
Wire Whisk
 
 
 
Serving Spoon
Flour Sifter
 
 
 
Soup Spoon
 
 
 
 
Measuring Spoons
 
 
 
 
Electric Hand Mixer
 
 
 
 
Rubber Spatula
 
 
 
 
Container for Eggs
 
 
 
 
Equipment is grouped for each component of the batter and icing. Some equipment from the butter-egg-sugar component rides over to be shared for the other components.
For Baking Cake Layers and Icing the Finished Cake
3 Nine-inch Cake-baking Pans
Food Brush
Cooking Oven
Microwave Oven
Hot Pads
Cake Plate (with slight depth)
Dull Knife
Cake Carrier (for refrigerator storage)
Wax Paper
Metal Spreader (for frosting)
Yes, there are lots of things to wash at the end -- this is the reality of baking from scratch. I try to clean as I go, as much as possible.

A Word about Ingredient Proportions

This cake contains lots of real sugar, lots of fat from real butter and heavy cream, and lots of real eggs. If you cannot handle a very sweet, intensely cocoa-flavored, high-calorie, taste-bud explosion, then you might want to make some adjustments to the recipe to suit your own preferences.

The original recipes on which I based this one seemed lacking in some areas -- too little sugar, too few eggs, skimpy on the butter, skimpy on the flour. I added more of all of these. The result was a tall, soft-browny-like, thick-layered, moist cake, with, coconut-pecan frosting that required some pains to ice all the way around and up the sides (more on that later).

For a less intense chocolate taste, maybe use only three fourths or less of the chocolate-paste component of the recipe. Think candy-bar intensity, and you get the idea.

Because of how I proportion ingredients, and because of how tall and rich the cake is, you are best to savor it in thin slices. A one-inch slice seems more than sufficient, and for some people, half of this is enough to call a serving.

What about All the Calories?

Before anybody accuses me of being a nutritional idiot, let me first say that I was a dedicated physical fitness advocate, an intense practitioner of good health habits, and a dance exercise instructor for over twenty years. In the beginning, I counted calories, worried about eating the "wrong" things, avoided certain foods altogether, substituted fake butter for real butter, treated eggs like poison, and, when asked, I sometimes advised other people to follow my lead. I was a trim, toned, muscular, six-foot-tall specimen who never tipped the scale at more than 175 pounds.

Today, I am, of course, older. I have some physical issues, but, generally, I am still trim, toned, muscular for my age, and I tip the scale at just around 155 pounds. I now eat items that I once avoided. I do so without fear or guilt. What I eat has become much less of a focus than how I eat. I eat responsibly and conscientiously, which includes moving and stretching my body, every single day.

Obviously, I eat cake, but only if I make it from scratch. The following recipe is one such cake. By offering information about how to make it, I am not encouraging you to gorge yourself on sugar and fat. Instead, I am inviting you to enjoy what your taste buds love, in moderation.

Eat this dessert responsibly at your own risk. If you cannot do this, then stop reading now and click to another page, because I cannot take responsibility for adverse, addictive reactions to rich desserts. Dietary issues associated with conditions such as diabetes, gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, Crohn's disease, kidney stones, nut allergies, and obesity also are beyond the scope of this article.

Grouping the Ingredients

I list ingredients in groups, the way I mix them in separate phases. For example, you will see the word, "sugar", wherever you need to add sugar in a particular ingredient group, for that particular phase of mixing. In this recipe, therefore, you will see the word, "sugar" (in an ingredient list) multiple times, because you need sugar, first, for the main batter, second, for the chocolate paste added to the main batter, and finally for the icing.

After I list a group of ingredients, I will tell you the steps to combine the ingredients in that group. This is how I lay out the step-wise process leading up to the finished cake.

In general, you make the cake batter, bake the batter into cake layers, cool the cake layers, make cake icing, and then assemble the finished creation.

Yes, it is involved, but many things worth achieving usually are involved. This is why so many people purchase cakes already made. Sadly, though, most of these cakes taste terrible to me, because of inferior ingredients and the mechanical requirements of mass-production. Even though some boxed cake mixes taste okay (I understand that a number of professional bakers use these), I still prefer to make my own.

Yes, it is involved, but many things worth achieving usually are involved.

Ingredients for Butter-Egg-Sugar Component of Cake Batter

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 1/4 cups white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons 100% pure vanilla extract
  • 5 large eggs, room temperature

Butter has to be softened, either by allowing it to sit at room temperature, or by very carefully microwaving it (I use heat level 5 for a time of 20 seconds).

My choice of vegetable oil is peanut oil.

Eggs have to be at room temperature -- plan on removing them from the refrigerator about an hour ahead of time, or you can warm them carefully in the shells by placing them in barely lukewarm water for about fifteen minutes.

I recommend breaking all your batter eggs into a sealable cup with a handle, because doing so makes it easier to add eggs one at a time. You can fast-warm the eggs by placing the sealed cup into barely lukewarm water, with all the batter eggs in it.

For sugar, any brand of table sugar is okay.

For salt, regular table salt is okay.

I make my own vanilla extract, but store bought is fine -- just be sure it is 100% pure vanilla extract, not vanilla flavoring.

Instructions for Butter-Egg-Sugar Component

  1. Into a large mixing bowl, place salt, vanilla extract, butter, and oil.
  2. Using a handheld electric mixer, beat for a minute or so, until the butter and oil look softly whipped.
  3. Add the sugar to the butter-oil, and mix until well combined.
  4. Scrape down sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
  5. One at a time, add the eggs, incorporating each one with the electric mixer, before adding the next. You will notice the batter starting to take on a fluffy, meringue-like texture.
  6. After incorporating the last egg, scrape down the bowl again with your rubber spatula, and continue mixing for five minutes, which dissolves the sugar.

At this stage, you cannot over mix. In a later stage, you switch to hand mixing and only use the electric mixer again at the end for about thirty seconds. Once the flour goes in, over mixing with the electric device becomes a possibility. This could ruin the texture of the cake, because too much electric mixing activates gluten in the flour, which results in an overly-dense cake.

Ingredients for Flour-Raising-Agent Component of Cake Batter

  • 3 level cups all purpose flour, sifted before measuring
  • 3 level teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 level teaspoon baking soda

Instructions for Flour-Raising-Agent Component

For this stage, use two more bowls. You will also need a flour-sifting device -- I use a simple, fine-wire strainer, which I pat against the side of my hand to cause the sifting action.

  1. Load about three unsifted cups of flour into your sifter, and sift it all into one of your two flour bowls.
  2. Using a soup spoon, gently dip out and measure the sifted flour into your measuring cup -- do NOT pack it down -- keep it light -- that was the whole point of sifting it. Using the handle part of the spoon as a knife edge, level off the flour in the cup, so that it exactly fills the cup perfectly to the top without running over. This is a true, measured cup of flour -- airy, with separated particles, exactly leveled. Do this three times, loading three cups total of the sifted flour (from your first flour bowl) back into your sifter. The three cups of sifted flour (now in the sifter again) are the dry bulk of your cake.
  3. Add the baking powder and baking soda to your three cups of sifted flour (now in the sifter) -- this helps mix in these two raising agents, during the second sifting. Proceed to sift all this into your second flour bowl, and then stir a little more with a wire whisk to better blend in baking powder and soda. The sifted flour (with baking powder and soda) in this second flour bowl is what you will eventually add to the butter-egg-sugar component of the cake batter.

Ingredients for Heavy Cream Component of Cake Batter

  • 1 cup heavy cream

Heavy cream must be at room temperature -- about an hour seems to work for this.

There is only one ingredient in this component of the batter, and so no separate instructions for it are needed.

Ingredients for Chocolate-Paste Component of Cake Batter

  • 1 1/4 cups 100% pure (unsweetened) cocoa powder
  • 1 1/4 cups white sugar
  • 1 cup (brewed, close to boiling) French roast coffee

Here is where I did something significantly different from other recipes that I studied. I discovered that, indeed, the chocolate part of a German chocolate cake needs to be sweet too.

Mr. German had good reasons for his "chocktological" endeavors.

Instructions for Chocolate Paste Component

  1. Mix the cocoa and sugar in yet another bowl -- be sure to stir it a lot, to integrate all the dry sugar and dry cocoa particles completely.
  2. Add hot coffee and mix, until a smooth chocolate paste forms.
  3. Put aside for incorporating later.

At this phase of mixing, you should have four main components of the cake batter:

  • one bowl with the butter-oil-egg-sugar mixture (still at room temperature)
  • a second bowl with the sifted-flour-raising-agent mixture
  • a third bowl with the chocolate paste (probably at room temperature by now)
  • a cup of heavy cream (still at room temperature)

The other flour bowl is there too, which contains sifted flour that you did not need -- you can use it to flour the baking pans.


Why all the room-temperature stuff? -- because, as you might already know, cold eggs and cold cream do not mix well and fluff up into a lightweight, thick batter that cooks into soft, moist, cake layers. Ever try to whip cold egg whites? -- don't. Or, do, if you want to see, first hand, what happens. Let me save you some anxiety, though. Just don't do it. Make the effort to plan for your ingredients to be at room temperature.

My reference recipes seemed geared for thin cake batters, where chocolate was involved. By comparison, this modified recipe of mine produces a thick chocolate-cake batter. Hang on, though -- we are not ready to do the final mixing that produces it. Before proceeding further, you need to prepare your baking pans.

Prepare the Baking Pans

Photo of three aluminized steel cake-baking pans, digitally made by Robert Kernodle from a product photo of one pan
Photo of three aluminized steel cake-baking pans, digitally made by Robert Kernodle from a product photo of one pan

Non-stick, aluminized, steel, cake-baking pans work great for me. I make a detailed effort to prepare them further to yield a perfect, non-stick experience. This involves a bit of time and a bit of mess. There is no other way to do it.

  1. Preheat your main oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In your microwave oven, in a microwavable cup, melt about three tablespoons of unsalted butter, for coating the baking pans.
  3. Pour a small pool of melted butter into each of your three baking pans.
  4. Use your brush to paint the melted butter onto bottoms, edges, and sides of the pans, coating all your pans with melted butter at the same time, before dusting with flour. I usually warm my baking pans too (in the preheating, main oven), in order to keep the melted butter from re-hardening too fast, since wet butter is a better glue for flour dust.
  5. Add a few teaspoons of flour to each pan for dusting -- the melted-butter coating holds flour dust to the sides, to keep cake layers from sticking.

To get flour dust to adhere all over, you have to pick up each pan and manipulate it, shake it, move it around and around over one of the other pans. Flour will adhere, and the excess will fall out into the other pan, which is okay. Keep doing this for all three pans, until they are well coated with flour dust. The final bit of flour dust in the final pan can be dealt with over the kitchen sink or over a garbage can -- this dusting flour is of no further use and is not savable.

  • 6. Bang out excess flour from the pans over the sink, so that you have only a film of flour in the pans.
  • 7. Use a barely-damp sponge to carefully clean up the outsides of your floured pans, without allowing your fingers to slip and disturb the coating just created on their insides -- this can be tricky.

Do not press the sponge so hard that it depresses over the pan edges or risks releasing water to destroy your work. Set your prepared pans aside now, out of range of your sink or anything that might ruin their delicate flour-dust coatings. This produces a perfect non-stick experience every time, trust me, ... if you have done it correctly.

Now finish mixing the cake batter.

Finish Mixing the Cake Batter

Remember, at this stage, you have a bowl containing the butter-oil-egg-sugar mixture, a bowl containing the flour-raising-agents mixture, a cup of heavy cream, and a bowl containing the chocolate-syrup. Here is where you switch to hand mixing.

Diagram of cake batter components by Robert Kernodle
Diagram of cake batter components by Robert Kernodle

There is a proper order to do the remaining, final stage of mixing, and it goes like this:

  1. Add a third of the flour mixture to the egg mixture and incorporate (with your handheld mixing spoon).
  2. Add half the heavy cream and incorporate.
  3. Add the second third of the flour mixture, incorporate.
  4. Add the rest of the heavy cream, incorporate.
  5. Add the final third of the flour, incorporate.
  6. Add all of the chocolate paste, and incorporate completely (still by hand -- this takes a while).

When everything looks totally blended -- when you scrape down the sides of the bowl and scrape over the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula, detecting no dry ingredients or streaks of unmixed batter -- you are now ready to bring back the electric mixer.

  • 7. Use the electric mixer (at about medium speed) to mix for only 30 to 45 seconds -- no more than that!

I urge you to avoid any temptation to go a second longer, or you risk making a brick cake like I did one time, after enthusiastically electric mixing my final batter for many minutes.

Bake the Cake Layers

  • 1. Bring back your three floured cake pans, and divide the finished cake batter between the three.

Some people weigh out batter exactly. I say eyeball it, and judge by how high up the sides of the pans the batter extends. Try to get the distance from the top of each pan to the top of the batter the same for each pan. Do not dig down deep into a pan's batter to put more of it into another pan. If you must get some batter out (I usually do), then do so gently, skimming carefully from the top, to avoid disturbing the flour-dust coating on pan bottoms or sides.

Since the batter should be thick, you will need to push it towards the outer edges of your pans with your rubber spatula, carefully. Do not actually touch the flour-coated sides, doing this! Move from center to outer edge, without touching sides or bottoms of pans, in a progressive circular fashion, as you gradually rotate each pan.

  • 2. Carefully bang and/or drop each filled baking pan onto a counter top, allowing gravity and momentum to spread, slightly compress, and level the batter in the pans.

Each pan will be about one third full, which looks scant, but, trust me, the wet batter rises to almost fill the pans, when done.

  • 3. Place all three pans (on the same shelf, if possible) into your preheated, 350-degree F. oven, and bake for a full thirty minutes.

Thirty minutes might seem like a long time for single cake layers, but, for this cake, it is not. It takes this long for my chocolate cake layers to loose the wet look on top, since the layers are as thick as they are. Other cakes that I bake require only 21 minutes, but, again, this one requires 30 minutes. I tried 21 minutes here, and the result was a sticky, underdone chocolate cake, which was one reason why I fed my first attempt to the garbage can.

Cool the Cake Layers

  1. When the cake layers have finished baking, set them on top of your stove, and allow them to cool for about ten minutes in the pans (uncovered).
  2. Run a dull knife around the circumference of each cake layer, to make sure its sides have fully separated from the pan.
  3. Temporarily remove each cake layer from its respective baking pan by inverting a plate on top of the baking pan and then inverting this whole arrangement again, so that the cake layer drops onto the plate (you should hear a gentle "thud").
  4. Place a piece of wax paper over the now empty baking pan, pressing the pan (with wax paper across its opening) onto the cake layer that you just turned out onto the plate, and repeat the inverting process in the other direction, so that the cake layer ends up back in the baking pan with the gravity-sculpted film of wax paper hugging its sides and bottom.
  5. Repeat this process for all three cake layers. I do the whole removal and replacement trick for one layer, before moving to the next, which, I think helps hold in more moisture during final cooling.

This is how the cake layers fully cool in their pans. They have to cool until you feel no heat at all radiating from them. Don't even think about applying frosting, until the layers have completely reached this non-radiating level of coolness! Otherwise, you face a nightmare, where creamy frosting will melt and slide over the surface of a warm cake layer, never adhering. To repeat, cooling the cake layers in their pans this way seems to retain moisture better.

Ingredients for Cake Icing

The following ingredient quantities make plenty of frosting, where you can apply it very generously, without worrying about running short. I had a cup left over, which I stored in the freezer.

  • 2 1/4 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cans (12 oz cans) evaporated milk
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons corn syrup
  • 3/8 teaspoons salt
  • 6 large egg yokes
  • 2 5/8 cups pecan pieces, toasted
  • 2 1/4 cups frozen coconut, thawed
  • 3 teaspoons100% pure vanilla extract

Toast the pecans by spreading them, in a single layer, on a cookie sheet, and placing them into a 350-degree F. oven for ten minutes. If the pecans are in halves or in large pieces, chop them into smaller pieces, after toasting.

For frozen coconut, Birds Eye brand is a good choice -- I can find this brand at a local Walmart neighborhood grocery store. Three bags should be ample. Thaw the coconut at room temperature for about 15 minutes. The bags are very thin, and so they thaw relatively quickly.

Avoid dried coconut.

Fresh coconuts would be a whole other level of difficulty, and, honestly, these days, I have very little luck finding edible, fresh coconuts to prepare. They tend to be rancid, bone dry, molded under the shell, tasteless, or a combination of these flaws, even when I visually inspect them thoroughly.

From my childhood, I have no memory of such difficulty. Fresh, edible coconuts seemed always of acceptable quality, when I regularly prepared them with my mother for her cakes.

Product photo of Birds Eye frozen coconut
Product photo of Birds Eye frozen coconut

Instructions for Cake Icing

  1. Separate the six large eggs, keeping yokes for frosting, and saving whites for breakfast one day.
  2. Into a heavy-bottomed (if possible) sauce pan (at least three-quart size), over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the milk, white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt.
  3. Cook until the sugars dissolve.
  4. Whisk 1/4 cup of the hot liquid into the egg yokes, and then whisk this into the saucepan.
  5. Cook over medium heat, stirring until thickened (about 15 minutes). Some recipes call for adding cornstarch as a thickening agent, while other recipes do not. I avoid using it, relying instead on cooling the icing to thicken it (more on that shortly). The icing does not get very thick, while it is hot, and so do not worry.
  6. Remove the saucepan from heat, add vanilla extract, toasted pecans, and coconut.
  7. Start cooling by sitting the hot saucepan of icing into a cold-water bath. When the water bath cools it to warm, set the icing into the refrigerator (still in the pot) to cool (and thicken) further. Keep an eye on it, and make a judgment call as to when it is ready to spread.

Ice the Cake

Remember that your cake layers have to be completely cool before assembling the final creation.

Use a serving spoon to dip out globs of icing, and use a metal spreader to further distribute and smooth the icing over cake layers. I also strongly suggest using a cake plate with slight depth to it, because the icing runs some when you first apply it, and so it needs a place to pool without running off the plate.

Place your first cake layer. Generously spoon on icing, and push the icing outward from center to perimeter, allowing it to flow over the sides of the cake layer. Capture some of the icing with your metal spreader, and start trying to ice the sides of this first layer (all the way around), dipping more icing from your supply with the metal spreader, as you need it.

Proceed likewise with the remaining two cake layers, spooning on icing, pushing it out to the perimeter, allowing it to fall down the sides, capturing it and trying to ice the sides with your metal spreader (all the way around and up the sides repeatedly), dipping more icing from your supply with the metal spreader as needed.

At this stage, the work-in-progress might look a little less than pleasing, but have faith, it will take shape. Put the work-in-progress into the refrigerator, and put your icing supply into the freezer for a few minutes. Remove the cake and icing, and get back to sculpting it. Keep at it, until the icing stays on the sides most of the time.

When you reach a stopping point, place the cake into the refrigerator (I put mine in a closed cake carrier). Do not look at it again for a few hours. Come back later, remove the cake, inspect the icing, re-sculpt if necessary, and never loose faith. Eventually, that icing will stay in place, and you will have a cake that looks like the photograph at the top of this page.

The icing might crash a few more times, but just keep pressing it back on with your metal spreader, until it finally stays put.

Keep your finished masterpiece (I call it a "tasterpiece") stored in the refrigerator. If you prefer to follow the advice of some cake pros -- to avoid extended refrigeration at all costs to insure maximum flavor and moisture -- then I would suggest, maybe, dividing the whole cake into thirds, keeping one third out of the refrigerator to eat within three days or so, and then freezing the remaining two thirds for later. You might have to deal with icing running off sides of the room-temperature cake, however.

For my taste, the refrigerated cake tastes fine.

Now enjoy a slice.

Slice of German chocolate cake photo by Robert Kernodle
Slice of German chocolate cake photo by Robert Kernodle

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