When you talk about the programmatic ecosystem, you probably immediately think about demand-side platforms (DSPs), supply-side platforms (SSPs) and ad exchanges. Why? Because they are the key players — and they are big.

However, there are smaller pieces of this massive puzzle out there. Take ad servers, for instance. Ad serving technology is the “grey cardinal” in the digital advertising landscape because it exerts power behind the scenes. But just because ad servers stay hidden from sight, it doesn’t mean their work should be underestimated. Here are the top 7 FAQs about programmatic ad servers — answered.

What is an ad server?

Ad servers are technological systems (particularly web-based) responsible for hosting, optimizing and distributing advertising content across various websites, social media platforms, and mobile apps. Ad servers are also sometimes referred to as “campaign management platforms”, “ad tracking systems” or “ad-serving technology.”

Ad servers are used in online marketing, digital advertising, and programmatic ad buying. You can think of an ad server as a large container for raw creative graphics: Every time a user visits a web page or app, a specific ad creative is fetched and served in the advertising slot. Ad-serving platforms accumulate massive amounts of data because they were primarily designed to store and serve. However, with rapid ad tech development, today’s ad server functionality is far more sophisticated.

What is ad serving?

Ad serving is a technology cycle that uses software to place ads on various websites. An ad-serving engine is the core element of every ad server. It uses complex algorithms and advanced decision-making tools to select the most relevant ads for display. The ad selection process is strictly restrained by the rules that are defined by publishers, advertisers and the ad server itself. These rules include such settings as targeting criteria, the frequency of ad viewing, ad priority, ad placement, ad format, earning potential and more. Ad servers are also responsible for ad tracking, ad management, ad reporting, and ad billing.

How does ad serving work?

Ad-serving technology is a bit complex and involves many steps. Everything starts when a user visits a website or app. From there, an IP connection between the user’s computer and the publisher’s web server is established. The website begins to load. Meanwhile, ad tags on the site load, too, and call the sell-side ad server.

When the publisher’s ad server receives the ad request, it immediately analyzes data about the user, such as geolocation, language, time of day, online behavior and demographic attributes (age, gender, marital status, employment, etc.).

Then, the ad server sends requests to ad exchanges, where buyers bid on it if they are interested in the ad space and find the user-relevant.

Ad servers also check how many times the potential ad was shown to this particular user in the past, called frequency capping. If the ad was shown too often, it is rejected.

A publisher’s ad server processes millions of buyer requests and chooses the best paying ad in milliseconds. Then it redirects the browser to the marketer’s ad server and fetches the ad creative from the content delivery network (CDN).

Finally, the ad is retrieved and successfully downloaded on the web page. This counts as an impression. Regardless of the number of calls, the user’s browser makes, the whole process of ad serving, ad selecting, and ad placing must not take longer than a second.

What is a publisher ad server?

Not all ad servers are created equal. There are two types of ad servers in the programmatic ecosystem: publisher ad server (supply-side) and advertiser ad server (buy-side). These two platforms use similar technology but perform quite different functions.

Publisher ad servers help media sellers increase the value of every impression and maximize yield by serving the highest paying ads to viewers across their personal media domain. Ad servers help find optimal viewers for every impression, control how users engage with the ad (whether they click on it or not), check how many times the ad was displayed and monitor overall performance.

Sell-side ad servers allow publishers to run creatives with different targeting and technical requirements for multiple clients. The ad-serving interface makes it easy for digital media sellers to add new buyers to their contact lists and stay organized by editing, managing and deleting partners. Additionally, publishers can obtain independent reports about ad creatives, discover the best performing formats and optimize their ad space on time.

What is an advertiser ad server?

Advertiser ad servers (or third-party) help save advertisers time and money with the right tools. Marketers need to download ad units to the server only once and can modify them anytime they wish with no need to send the updated copies to every trading partner. Instead, the latest version of the advertisers’ creative content can be accessed by the provided HTML link tag, which ultimately leads to the server. Ad servers also provide advertisers with separate reports on the performance of their ads, revenues and ad spending.

Buy-side ad servers are designed with media buyers’ logic. They help achieve maximum profits for minimum costs and centralize the ad buying process across a variety of publishers. Ad servers also allow advertisers to track such metrics as impressions, clicks, conversions, and purchases. The core functionality of the buy-side server resembles that of the sell-side server, which is why so many small- and medium-sized brands use publisher ad servers, especially free ones.

What are the features of an ad server?

Most of the ad servers offer a mixture of powerful ad serving and ad management features for publishers, advertisers and ad networks. Others have limited offers. When choosing an ad server, make sure it includes the following features:

  • Ad creative upload: Supports all standard creative sizes and formats, such as text, image, video, animation, audio, games, interactive, native, rich media, in-app, mobile and others.
  • Campaign scheduling: Determines the dates by which the campaign has to run.
  • Automatic optimization: Chooses the best performing ads and serves more of those.
  • Delivery speed: Determines how often impressions are delivered (evenly or as fast as possible). Location-based targeting: Targets by country, state, province, metro area, city, zip code, language.
  • Technical targeting: Delivers ads to the web, mobile, tablet or TV screens and offers various operating systems and cross-device targeting.
  • Time targeting: Schedules ads to a specific time of the day when users are most active. Socio-demographic targeting: Focuses on age, language, gender, nationality, income, employment status, etc.
  • Behavioral targeting: Target consumers by their online behavior, search history, and interests.
  • Retargeting: Analyzes consumer engagement with the brand in the past and display the ad to draw more attention and trigger more interaction such as clicking, subscribing and purchasing.
  • SEO: Allows bidding on keywords and ensures ads appear on search engine results pages.
  • Creative sequencing: Allows setting a specific order for ads to appear, usually under the same creative concept.
  • Frequency capping: Controls how many times the ad is shown to the same user and limits it to the number of impressions per hour, day or a specified period.
  • Ad tracking: Monitors whether the creative content is generating desired results and the proper traffic of ads happens and guarantees the advertising content is shown in front of intended audiences in the correct time and place.
  • Reporting: Offers real-time, dashboard, notification alert, custom reports and provides granular reports on clicks, impressions, costs, ROI and eCPI.

How do you choose an ad server?

Today, many tech vendors offer full-stack solutions for advertisers and publishers. Such solutions are well-integrated and address all their programmatic needs at once. No need to buy technology separately and go through the annoying integration of multiple providers. For example, SSPs and DSPs go along with integrated ad servers. Technology from the same vendor is guaranteed to run seamlessly and work together cohesively.

Open-source advertising servers are also available as a part of inexpensive solutions. Open-source ad servers support basic functionality and are highly customizable. Examples include DFP Small Business, Orbit Open Ad Server and Revive Adserver.

Mobile ad servers offer to target mobile-based criteria, such as device, software, mobile carrier, operating system, connection type, screen size and more. Mobile advertising does not support cookies and requires more advanced tracking such as attributions using IDFA (Apple’s identifier for advertisers) or AAID (Google’s advertising ID). Mobile is the more speed-sensitive environment and places more workload on the cloud processing power. Mobile ad servers could be a part of mobile real-time bidding framework: mobile DSPs/SSPs and mobile ad exchanges.

Advertising servers are essential components of the real-time bidding ecosystem and bear major responsibility for storing and serving creative content onto various digital platforms, such as websites, social media outlets, and mobile apps.

If you have any questions about ad serving options for your ad strategy, please contact SmartyAds team.

Written by
October 2019