TechDogs-All About "Ad Serving & Retargeting Platforms": Part 1

Digital Marketing

All About Ad Serving & Retargeting Platforms: Part 1

By TechDogs

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This cheat sheet introduces the Ad Serving Technology used by web publishers and digital marketers. We will take you through how the Ad servers work, include a brief history of Ad serving and how it fits within the broader framework of digital marketing, along with some relevant examples of different types of Ad servers. We'll also take a dive into how Ad servers "select" the ads that you see when you visit a webpage, including the role that algorithms play based on specific ad targeting factors. It certainly doesn't end there! Read on to know more...
TechDogs-2D Image Along With Characters In Reference With The Role That Algorithms Play Based On Specific Targeting Factors-All About "Ad Serving & Retargeting Platforms": Part 1
"I'm Lovin' It ba-da-ba-ba-ba" - McDonald's

"Give Me a Break" - Kitkat

"Stuck on Band-Aid" - Band-Aid

How was your trip down the nostalgia lane with these iconic ads from the good old days? However, things have changed a lot since the time of catchy jingles: in today's digital world, ads are everywhere! No, that's not even a joke, if it were, you would be nodding your head and the words Haha would be coming out.

TechDogs-"Ads Ads Everywhere"-Funny Meme Cartoon Characters Showing Everywhere  
You log into Facebook, there are ads, switch to Instagram, there are ads and the story is the same with Twitter, YouTube and Spotify. They hover above the search results on Google Adwords and appear beside the content you read on websites like Yahoo! or the New York Times. Have you ever thought about the technology that powers all those billions of Internet ads and what makes them different for different users? No? Well, buckle up. Let's go for a ride.

The Technology Behind Digital Ads

An Ad Server is a solution that website publishers use to run or “serve” ads on a webpage. It’s the technology that drives all those banner, social, text, mobile and other digital ads you see when you do just about anything online.

Think of Ad Servers as traffic cops of ad tech. They guide the ad through a complex series of steps to ensure it is delivered safely to your device or browser. In fact, the term "ad trafficking" is often applied to the process of Ad serving.

A lot is going on behind the scenes to get these ads in front of you, as demonstrated by the following steps.
  • Step one

    An advertiser uploads their ads to an Ad Server.

  • Step two

    The advertiser (or publisher) sets the parameters for the ad to be served, including bid amount, websites or pages they want to advertise on and various targeting criteria such as age, location or time of day.

  • Step three

    The Ad Server selects the ad based on the aforementioned criteria and advertiser bid amount, then routes it to the webpage you're browsing (or in an app on your mobile device, embedded within a video, as a text ad in your Gmail account, etc.)

  • Step four

    The Ad server serves exactly one you as you eagerly browse (this is called an "ad impression").

  • Step five

    The Ad Server tracks the ad it just served, recording the ad impression, any interaction you had with the ad (e.g., clicks) and includes these statistics in a report for the advertiser to review.

  • Step six

    In some cases, you'll never see the ad or the advertiser again. However, many advertisers place a snippet of code on your computer called a "cookie," which enables them to show you ads as you browse other web pages. This is called "remarketing" or "retargeting." (we'll go into more detail about this in a minute).

TechDogs-What Is An Ad Server-A Pictorial Representation, Of Visit To The Webpage Triggers An “Ad Request” To The "Ad Server", Which Then Reviews "Advertiser Bids" And Targeting Criteria And Serves The Ad
In the above pictorial representation, your visit to the webpage triggers an "ad request" to the Ad Server, which then reviews advertiser bids and targeting criteria and serves the ad. Multiple advertisers compete to show their ads to you but only one advertiser will win the auction. The winner's ad then appears before you, in all its glory.

All the backend bidding, routing and serving happens in a matter of seconds, so the experience is seamless from your perspective.

Clear as mud? Stay with us here...

Look No Further Than Google…

Google ( has exactly one ad format - the text ad - which is, naturally, text all the time. The exception (there's always an exception, isn't there?) are Google Shopping ads which contain thumbnail images of products. Shopping ads are still primarily text-based ads.

The following is an example of search results for the term "cat food." The left side of the screen shows standard text ads and the right side shows shopping ads.

TechDogs-Look No Further Than Google-Screenshot Of Google Ads-Example Of Search Results For The Term “Cat Food.” The Left Side Of The Screen Shows Standard "Text Ads" And The Right Side Shows "Shopping Ads" 
As with most things in the digital advertising ecosystem, it's helpful - even necessary - to look at Google ad when trying to understand what an Ad server does. While Ad servers have been around since the late 90's, it was Google's platform, once called AdWords (now Google Ads), that made Ad Serving so ubiquitous.

Google is good at showing you ads that are relevant to what you're searching for, which is why it dominates the digital ad marketplace. Lots of companies advertise on Google because a lot of users flock there to search about anything and everything. It's free to search on Google because they make a ton of money from the more than 63,000 searches per second (last time we checked) that are performed on the site.

When you search on Google for just about anything, their sophisticated Ad Server matches your search query with the most relevant ad possible based on the advertiser's chosen keywords and targeting criteria to gain a potential customer. Google's Ad Server leverages an ingenious algorithm that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), massive amounts of data and fairy dust to serve you the most relevant ads possible.

We know you are intrigued but there is no need to Google the past of Ad Servers, we have done it for you. Keep reading.

A Brief History Of Ad Servers

According to our findings, it was NetGravity that created the first Ad Server in 1996 for the purpose of running ads on websites, such as Yahoo! and Pathfinder. NetGravity was purchased by DoubleClick in 1999 and the Ad Server was renamed DART Enterprise. Forward to nine years later, Google acquired DoubleClick in 2007 and renamed the Ad Server - DoubleClick Enterprise 8.0 in 2011. It has more recently been renamed Google For Publishers.

Got that? Good. Let's move on.

Ad Servers enabled web publishers like Yahoo! to begin making money from their content via ad revenue. We call this "monetization" in the ad biz. Before Ad Serving Technology, web publishers sold space on websites the same way magazines sold space within their pages, via an "insertion order" model where the advertiser committed to a specific "buy" at a fixed price for a set amount of time. However, since a webpage is not a static entity, the insertion order model didn't work very well. First, it was difficult to track or control the frequency of the ads (ad frequency is the number of times a user sees an ad). It was also challenging to manage and track ads when they were hardcoded into a webpage, manage multiple advertisers and ensure a pleasant experience for website visitor.

With the launch of NetGravity's Ad Server, web publishers could more easily place, manage, track and report on the performance of digital targeted ads across multiple websites from one handy advertising platform.

Over time, Ad Servers grew to support a variety of different ad types and targeting criteria, including display ad (banners), native ads (e.g., social media ads), video ads and digital radio/ TV ads. They also began incorporating retargeted ad into their list of features.

Ad Servers Come In Different Flavors

There are two different types of companies that use Ad Servers - website owners who want to monetize their website and advertisers who want to run ads on someone else's website visitor. Regardless of which of the two buckets you fit into here, you're still going to need an Ad Server. The way you deploy it is where we make a distinction.

Hosted Ad Servers are those run by the website that's being monetized. Google Ads is a hosted Ad Server. If you are a business owner who wants to run ads on Google, then you need to create a Google Ads account. So, you can create an ad campaign on the Ad Server to run ads on
Google also has a hosted product for publishers who want to serve ads on their website. It's called Google For Publishers (because why give it a creative name?). You might use Google For Publishers if you have a blog and want to monetize that blog with audience ad revenue but don't want to deal with the hassle of building or installing (and maintaining) your own Ad Server.

Hosted Ad Servers are basically plug and play. They require no installation, no maintenance from the advertiser or publisher's perspective and are typically reliable and fast.

Self-Hosted Ad Server is the other Ad Serving option available. These include tools such as Revive Ad server, which is an open-source server that's free to use. You might use a self-hosted Ad Server to save money and gain control since they're fully customizable to your needs. They also give you 100% control of your own data.

However, self-hosted Ad Servers can also be a big headache because they require website owners to install the Ad Server script onto their own server. This requires a person (or team) of technical administrators to address issues, keep the software up-to-date and ensure new features can be added to the server when needed.

A Segue Into Retargeting (Or Why My Ads Look Different Than Your Ads)

Most Ad Servers run by big platforms and publishers such as Google, Facebook ads and Yahoo! support retargeting campaign. That is, they enable advertisers to show you ads even after you leave their website. A Retargeting ad is why you see an ad for that great quilt you were looking at on Overstock when you're reading an article on the New York Times' website.

In the next installment of our two-part Ad Server series, we'll explain how Ad Retargeting platform works and why it's so effective. Trust us, by the time you're done with this series, you'll be able to explain to your paranoid cousin why they're seeing an ad for the exact couch they were shopping for when they're reading the morning news on a completely different website. We'll explain retargeting's role in Ad serving, in our next post, All About Ad Serving & Retargeting Platforms: Part 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an ad server and how does it work?

An ad server is a technology used by website publishers to display ads on webpages. It acts as a traffic cop, guiding ads through a series of steps to ensure they are delivered to the user's device or browser safely. Ad servers facilitate the process of ad trafficking, where advertisers upload their ads to the server, set parameters such as bid amount and targeting criteria, and then the server selects and serves the ad based on these parameters. It tracks ad impressions and interactions, providing reports for advertisers to review. Additionally, ad servers often utilize cookies for remarketing or retargeting purposes, allowing advertisers to show ads to users as they browse other webpages.

How does Google's ad serving system work?

Google's ad serving system, known as Google Ads, matches users' search queries with relevant ads based on advertisers' chosen keywords and targeting criteria. Google's sophisticated algorithm uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to serve the most relevant ads to users. Advertisers bid for ad placement, and Google's ad server selects and serves the winning ad in real-time, ensuring a seamless experience for users. Google Ads primarily features text-based ads, but also includes shopping ads for products. Google's dominance in the digital ad marketplace is attributed to its ability to deliver highly relevant ads to users based on their search intent.

What are the different types of ad servers and how do they differ?

There are two main types of ad servers: hosted ad servers and self-hosted ad servers. Hosted ad servers, like Google Ads, are managed by the platform or publisher and require no installation or maintenance from the advertiser or publisher's perspective. They are plug-and-play solutions that offer reliability and speed. On the other hand, self-hosted ad servers, such as Revive Ad Server, are fully customizable and offer control over data. However, they require website owners to install the ad server script onto their own servers and necessitate technical expertise for maintenance and updates. Hosted ad servers are convenient for advertisers and publishers who prefer simplicity and reliability, while self-hosted ad servers offer flexibility and control over data.

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