What is an ad server

  • 19 / 04 / 2024
  • Alicja Graczyk
What is an ad server

If we compared the process of selling ads on the Internet to a living organism, ad servers would certainly be the heart of the whole operation. Just as the heart sustains life by pumping blood throughout the body, ad servers sustain the online advertising ecosystem by efficiently managing the delivery, targeting, and optimization of ads to reach the intended audience. If you are a publisher armed with insights about ad servers, you can navigate more easily through the ever-evolving digital advertising landscape!

Ad server – definition

To put it simply, an ad server is a technology that can help publishers, advertisers, and ad agencies succeed in the online advertising industry. They help distribute and manage ads. Ad servers can be categorized as either server-side ad serving or client-side ad serving, which is a crucial distinction. Additionally, highly advanced ad-serving platforms come equipped with both first-party and third-party ad server functionalities, but we will delve more into this topic later. Right now, here are some of the most crucial things you need to know about how ad servers are used:

  • Ad servers hold information about ad placements and later enable to distribute them so they can be displayed on publishers’ websites or in their mobile applications;
  • With the help of ad servers, it’s possible to track ads and analyze many things. Ad tracking is an essential instrument for advertisers because it allows them to delve into the performance of advertising campaigns and helps to serve the most relevant ads possible. On the other hand, publishers, with the help of ad servers, can see how their ad inventory performs;
  • Ad rotation is a critical aspect that ad servers assist publishers with, especially when it comes to avoiding ad fatigue and banner blindness;
  • With a wisely chosen ad server, publishers should have a variety of ad formats to choose from, like rich media ads, video ads, and more;
  • Ad servers enable ad optimization and A/B testing. Advertisers particularly value the capacity to optimize ad delivery and the function of checking which ad performs better, reaches the intended audience more effectively, or generates more conversions.
source: https://giphy.com/

First-party and third-party ad servers

There are two types of ad servers that both advertisers and publishers need to be aware of:

  • First-party ad server is a type of server that grants its user full control over the optimization processes, reporting, and data. Thanks to direct access to first-party data, such as click statistics, both ad buyers and sellers have more control, which results in greater user privacy. Another advantage is the fact that advertisers and publishers can enjoy greater flexibility in integrating the first-party ad server with other systems;
  • Third-party ad server, on the other hand, is operated by external vendors and offers less optimization control. Using this kind of platform may lead to concerns around data privacy, as it involves sharing user data with an external party. While third-party ad servers may offer a wider range of features and services, they often come with standardized solutions that offer less flexibility for customization.

Hosted ad server vs. self-hosted ad server (open source ad server)

The main difference between a hosted ad server and a self-hosted ad server is that the first one eliminates the need for specific technical expertise. In that case, you usually have to pay a fee, but at most times, you can get some support in case of trouble and profit from built-in security measures. A second ad server type is usually accessible without charge or at a modest one-time cost, but you have to take care of maintenance, troubleshooting, and security. This includes keeping up with changing privacy laws. The good news is that, at the same time, you will be able to adjust the code a little bit. Interestingly, some large companies (like Facebook), weren’t restrained to this two-option deal. Instead, they managed to build an ad server of their own.

Short history of ad servers

The history of ad servers began in 1995 when FocaLink Media Services released the very first one. The main idea behind this was born several years earlier because of a dire need that would allow publishers to manage and track the performance of ads that appeared on their websites. Earlier, multiple publishers weren’t satisfied with their ad inventory being left unfilled during that time since only direct deals were available, and they had to sign Insertion Orders every time and use intricate code to publish an ad. That’s why ad servers came into existence, among them DoubleClick. This name may ring a bell for many publishers as they may be aware that Google Ad Manager was previously known as DoubleClick for Publishers.

Ad servers and ad networks – differences

A key distinction between an ad server and an ad network is that the former is a technology utilized for storing, managing, and inserting ads on websites and apps, while the latter’s main goal is a categorization of ad inventory that can later be sold to advertisers. That being said, ad networks are a bridge between the publisher and advertiser, so your ad space can be sold. However, most ad networks accept only bigger publishers, and some creators with smaller reach can have trouble meeting the requirements.

Why do publishers need an ad server?

There are many reasons why publishers need ad servers, here are a few of them:

  • It simply makes your life easier as you have access to a platform with which you have control over your ad inventory;
  • You can utilize many advanced tools, especially analytical ones;
  • From the publisher’s side, there are some features worth paying attention to, like key-value targeting in Google Ad Manager, with the assistance of which you can better define your ad inventory, so in consequence, it’s more attractive to advertisers;
  • Another reason why ad servers are useful to publishers is inventory forecasting, which is an operation that involves analyzing the available ad space for future sales. It prevents overselling and underselling;
  • Yet another advantage of ad servers is frequency capping, which limits the number of times they display an ad to a single user. This feature is crucial in maintaining a positive User Experience and preventing ad fatigue.

What is server-side ad serving?

Here are some features that distinguish this technology:

  • With server-side ad serving, publishers can directly request and place digital ads on their websites or apps without relying on coded tags;
  • Unlike traditional ad calls that involve on-page (client-side) pings, server-side calls are performed via a backend asynchronous request outside while the page is loading;
  • Server-side ad serving is frequently used by publishers for direct deals and server-to-server connections. It often results in programmatic ad serving.

What is client-side ad serving?

Check out several characteristics that set apart this technology:

  • A piece of code must be inserted directly into the website or app;
  • Direct insertion of an ad tag into the publisher’s website or app might, for instance, be carried out using JavaScript;
  • Once the advertisement and ad tag are sent to the user’s device, the device proceeds to render and display the ad.

How does an ad server work?

Here are steps without which it’s impossible to serve ads on websites:

  1. The very first step is triggered by a user who visits the website. In response to that, a request is sent by a browser to the website ad server;
  2. After processing the request, the ad server selects the most suitable ad from the inventory based on targeting criteria and ad campaign priorities;
  3. The ad creative is then delivered in real-time to the user’s browser and displayed on the website;
  4. The ad server monitors the whole procedure, so that later the parties involved can examine the ad performance. Important metrics like ad impressions, number of clicks, and conversions are later used by advertisers and publishers to analyze the process’s effects: the first uses this information to optimize the advertising campaigns, and the second to optimize their ad inventory.

How to choose the top ad servers?

Many publishers ask themselves the question of how to choose the best ad server. Here are some tips that might help you:

  • Try to find an ad serving platform that grants advanced access to many useful optimization features but also to a wide array of ad formats that could make your ad inventory more attractive;
  • Opt for a solution that many ad creators have already become familiar with. Often, if more people use certain solutions, it’s easier to find some know-how and helpful tips on the Internet;
  • A good ad server should match your technical proficiency. Look for a user-friendly interface and a solution equipped with fine client service options (so that you will be able to easily solve eventual minor issues). Opt for a more advanced option, like a self-hosted ad server, only when you are sure you or somebody (for example, a member of your team) will be able to handle it.

Best ad servers for advertisers and publishers

  • Google Ad Manager (formerly known as DoubleClick for Publishers or DFP) doesn’t have to be introduced to most publishers, as it’s an undeniable market leader and the most renowned third-party ad server. GAM enables you to manage ad inventory, whether you are a mobile app or website owner. As a monetization platform, it also provides many useful solutions, like access to an ad exchange solution known as AdX. Though it’s recommended for bigger publishers, smaller content creators with fewer monthly page views can also set up an account. What’s important is that it can be used for free up to some established threshold;
  • Adform (formerly AdZerk) is a solution for managing mobile and desktop inventory. This ad server supports many ad formats, including rich media and video ads. It also offers advanced analytics and forecasting tools. Additionally, with Adform, you can decide to use your own DMP (Data Management Platform) or the one offered by the company;
  • Kevel is a good solution for publishers who want to customize their own ad server. The company states that it’s possible thanks to its API suite, which allows the whole operation to take weeks only. The range of features offered by Kevel includes the ability to run sponsored listings, internal promotions, native ads, and much more;
  • AdButler offers a self-serve marketplace and a programmatic advertising SSP. This ad server is also known for its custom tech development capabilities. AdButler’s pricing plans are designed to cater to publishers’ varying needs. The plans are based on the number of ad requests, and the starting price is $149 a month (up to 1 million ad requests).

Choose wisely!

When it comes to the technology supporting your revenue-generating operations, it’s always best to play it safe and choose the most well-known and most often recommended solution, which is Google Ad Manager. What’s more, you can get additional help with the use of this ad server by establishing a collaboration with a monetization partner with expertise in Google’s products, like a Google Certified Publishing Partner.

As a GCPP Premier, we can provide all the necessary assistance related to using the GAM ad server. However, we understand that some digital content creators may prefer to use a different server due to their specific ad-managing needs. We are open to cooperate also in such cases, as long as the server chosen by the publishers is safe, verified, and meets our technical requirements. To start the monetization journey with us, please familiarize yourself with the requirements to join our network and fill in the registration form. Get the best support and start generating higher ad revenue now!

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