An ad server goes through a meticulously complex process within the milliseconds it takes to decide which ad is displayed on a user’s web page.
The process begins with advertisers uploading their ad creative to the ad server’s interface with specific campaign goals and desired parameters including target audience, budget, and frequency capping. Once the campaign is set up, ad servers analyze each ad to generate necessary tags or codes for classification.
Then, publishers integrate these ad tags into their digital properties to code each ad space. Doing so, they are able to send a request to ad servers for ad retrieval upon a user’s visit to their webpage. Once the request is received, the advertiser’s ad servers (a.k.a third-party servers) go through a targeting criteria with the user’s information (i.e. demographics, psychographics, browsing behavior, etc.) and campaign settings (i.e. budget, target audience) to provide the publishers with the most appropriate ads. The ad is finally shown to users, with all of this happening within the time a user loads onto a webpage.
First-party ad servers are run by publishers who operate their own ad inventory and measurements to directly sell to advertisers and upload their campaigns. These servers have full autonomy in creating their own ad tags and displaying ads they believe are most profitable.
Third-party ad servers are managed by independent parties, and advertisers / demand-side platforms (DSPs) are the main users. These servers allow advertisers to interact with multiple publishers to measure different variables and placements of their creatives. Doing so, advertisers can optimize their campaign performance and put forth their best data and assets when delivering ads.
Hosted servers are run by third-party vendors. These servers do all the work for you, including high-tech services, data management, and maintenance, which can be beneficial for advertisers looking for a convenient and reliable solution to monetizing their ad campaigns. At the same time, however, hosted servers are costly, and advertisers do not have full control of the data as part of the ownership lies on the external server platform.
Self-hosted or open-source servers can be used freely by advertisers and publishers with full autonomy. These servers give you full ownership to data, and the code is usually offered for free. Yet, companies have to take the burden of independently maintaining and running the service as well as paying for additional plug-ins or installations.
In simple terms, ad servers can be defined as the function that manages and distributes all ads based on different target criteria. It operates behind ad network platforms to properly deliver advertisers’ ads.
Ad networks are responsible for overseeing the communication process between advertisers and publishers so that inventories are effectively traded to meet everyone’s needs. It acts as the mediator between advertisers and publishers and bridges the gap in between.
Ad exchanges are the online marketplace to directly buy and sell ad inventory through real-time bidding (RTB). They are considered the middleman between ad networks, as advertisers and publishers can buy ad space from multiple different networks to balance out the traffic among all digital spaces.