Ad Server definition

An ad server is used to deliver ads that meet targeting criteria set by both an advertiser and publisher.

What Is An Ad Server Used For?

Ad servers were developed to ensure a more efficient ad delivery than the one offered by direct relationships between advertisers and publishers. Chronologically, they were the first organized effort to connect publishers with advertisers. Ad servers have become a part of the ad tech landscape since the late 90s and they play a complementary role alongside other platforms, such as ad networks or DSPs.

Ad servers offer more control and flexibility over more automated solutions such as DSPs. On the other hand, they are more complex and require more human resources to make them work. If your goal is to have your ads delivered with minimal effort, you may be better off with a DSP.

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What Types Of Ad Servers Are There?

Although from a technological point of view ad servers are basically the same everywhere, they can be divided into two distinct types based on their place in the advertising funnel.

There are publishers (1st party) ad servers and advertisers (3rd party) ad servers. 

Publishers’ ad servers manage publisher’s inventory and analyze visitor’s characteristics, such as device type or country of origin to choose the best ad campaign. 

Advertisers’ ad servers do similar things for advertisers: they manage their ads and connect to various publisher ad servers or other platforms (for example, SSPs or ad networks) to deliver an ad to the best place possible.

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How Do Ad Servers Work?

The way ad servers work is as follows: when a visitor loads a publisher’s page, this page is rendered by a publisher’s web server. All the page’s content is ready to be displayed except for an ad which is yet to be chosen. Instead of an ad, the web page actually contains a piece of code that will call a publisher’s ad server.

A publisher’s ad server will then gather information about a visitor and connect to the advertiser’s ad server in search for the ad that matches best. An advertiser’s ad server will pick an ad that meets the criteria and deliver it to the publisher’s ad server. An ad will then be rendered along with the other web page elements. The whole process should take fractions of a second.

What Is the Difference Between an Ad Server and DSP?

While ad servers and DSPs are a part of the same landscape, they both offer different experiences.

An ad server is always a self-serve platform where you have to manually connect with various publishers. The buying model is direct. There are usually no bid markups with ad servers, but they do collect a usage fee based on the number of impressions served.

DSPs may be a self-served or fully serviced experience. They are usually more automated and offer a smoother experience. DSPs use a programmatic billing system – real-time bidding (RTB) or programmatic direct. They may employ some bid markups, although the platforms themselves are usually free to use.

The other noteworthy difference is that ad servers offer a direct buying model with no intermediaries. That’s why they are well-suited for companies with an established network of supply partners.