Ad Tech Gyan: WTF is Ad Servers?

When we talk about an ad server, what we really mean is a sometimes-small, but sophisticated piece of technology. Whenever we visit a web page with an ad, either the web server itself or our web browser makes a request to a remote server for that ad. This ad server will be provided a variety of information about how to find an ad that can earn the most money through clicks, views, or actions (I’ll explain these shortly).

In order to choose a specific ad, our server must be provided with targeting parameters. Servers will typically receive at least basic information about the viewer’s location (based on our IP address at minimum, and occasionally based on GPS information from our phone or computer), what operating system and web browser we’re using, maybe the content of the page we’re on, and maybe the last few pages we’ve visited on the current website.

What is Ad Servers?

An ad server stores information about ads and delivers them to one or more web sites for display to visitors. Ad servers also track ad displays, clicks on ads, and generate statistical reports. Ad servers can also selectively display ads to site visitors based on predefined criteria.

Ad server platforms are broadly of two types, hosted versions that are run and maintained on an ad server company’s site, and self-hosted versions that you install and maintain on your own server.

We’ll be looking at DFP, OpenX, Broadsreet, adColt, Adzerk and AdButtler hosted ad servers as well as Revive and OIOPublisher self-hosted ad servers.

Hosted vs Self-Hosted Ad Servers

Let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of both hosted ad server platforms and self-hosted ad servers.

Hosted Ad Server Pros

  • No Installation: Nothing to install. You just sign up for service and everything is already installed for you.
  • Updates: All updates to the platform are installed for you.
  • Support: In general support is of a higher quality with hosted platforms and is more readily available.
  • Speed and Reliability: Most hosted platforms are monitored for problems on a continuous basis. So speed issues and problems are solved quickly. Usually, before you are even aware of them.

Hosted Ad Server Cons

  • Price: The cost of a hosted ad server is higher than self-hosted.
  • Customization: Most hosted ad servers can’t be customized to your exact needs. A few do offer very limited customization.
  • Data Control: Your data is stored on the hosted ad server and is not 100% under your control.

Self-Hosted Ad Server Pros

  • Price: The price of a self-hosted ad server script is a one-time fee. Your only ongoing cost is that of the server you are running it on.
  • Customization: You can modify or hire a programmer to modify a self-hosted script to meet your exact needs.
  • Data Control: Your data is on your server and under your control.

Self-Hosted Ad Server Cons

  • Installation: You need to install the ad server script on your server. This takes a little technical knowledge.
  • Updates: You have to watch for updates and install them yourself.
  • Technical Issues: If a technical issue with the script or server arises, you have to fix it yourself.

Now that you’re aware of some of the pros and cons of hosted ad servers and self-hosted ad servers, let’s take a look at some of the popular hosted ad server platforms available.

Why run an ad server?

  • Direct Advertisers — You can use your ad server to add direct advertisers procured by your fantastic ad sales team.
  • Scheduling — campaign scheduling.
  • Targeting — various targeting options like geography, time,and the coveted behavioral targeting.
  • Reporting — most ad servers provide simple reporting on impressions, clicks, campaigns, etc.
  • Technical Support — Most ad servers provide some kind of tech support that varies between email, phone, and instant messaging service depending on your package.

Those are only some of the benefits and features provided by ad servers. But before you go running off to fill sign up forms you should know that in some cases, when serving ad networks through an ad server, you may see a decrease in revenue vs. running the same network by placing their tag directly on the page.

As always, it’s about trial and error. Try and see what works best for you.