Ad servers are one of the crucial components within the publishers’ ad setup. In this guide, we will break down the types of ad servers you can use and will show how they work. Most importantly, we will review and compare the top 11 best ad servers for publishers available in 2022. No matter how big or small your ad inventory is, this guide will help you choose the best ad servers for your needs.
In the last two decades, display advertising has become the driving force of global web industry development. Monetization via advertising is one of the primary tools that publishers have in their arsenal. According to statista.com, spending on online banner and video advertising will amount to over 326 billion USD by 2025.
Tremendous budgets allocated to web advertising helped it grow into a full-fledged industry. It encompasses multiple players on the buy-side and sell-side. No wonder running ads has become a sophisticated task.
What Is An Ad Server?
An ad server is a technology used by publishers, advertisers, and ad networks to manage digital advertising campaigns. Publishers use ad servers to create ad units, traffic and refresh ads, track key metrics such as impressions, clicks, conversions, manage ad sizes and formats, set frequency caps, etc. The core value of ad servers is their ability to automate most of the above tasks.
Programmatic advertising technology, such as header bidding, has revolutionized the way ads are being picked, placed, shown, and tracked. For most publishers, these tasks would require an extraordinary amount of time and effort. That is where ad servers come into play.
Another immanent feature of any ad server is its connection to ad networks, SSPs, DSPs, and other parts of the programmatic ecosystem. Let’s dive deeper into this and see how ad servers function.
How Does An Ad Server Work?
At the dawn of web advertising, ad serving was done predominantly manually. This has changed over time and modern programmatic ad infrastructure is fully automated. Since their first days, ad servers have been continuously improving. However, even today, all ad servers follow the same operating procedure that is shown in the scheme below. Understanding how the various components of the programmatic advertising ecosystem interact can be challenging. Check out our ultimate Ad Tech Glossary for a quick overview of all the basic terms and jargon.
The whole procedure described below takes the ad server less than a second to complete:
- A user visits a website
- The user's browser sends a request to the publisher's web server
- The publisher's web server returns the website content and it begins to load
- At the same time, the ad tags start to load and send ad requests to the publisher's ad server
- The ad server analyzes incoming ad requests and frames available user data (geo, gender, age, etc.)
- The ad request that includes user data is then sent to the buying side (ad exchange, SSP, DSP)
- After the buyers have placed their bids, the publisher's ad server chooses the right campaign
As you now see, an ad server is an intrinsic part of the advertising process. As a technology, ad serving is often incorporated by DSPs, SSP, and Ad Exchanges. Yet, their functionality is effectively limited if compared to that of dedicated (or independent) ad servers. At the moment, it is independent ad servers that provide their users with the all-encompassing toolset needed to serve and track ads in the most cost-efficient manner.
What Are The Best Ad Servers?
Below is a list of the most well-known and trusted ad serving solutions available in the market in 2022.
- Google Ad Manager
- Smart Ad Server
Google Ad Manager - Hosted
Google Ad Manager (before 2018 known as Doubleclick for Publishers) is one of the most (if not the most) well-known and widely used publisher ad servers out there. Google Ad Manager provides an exhaustive list of features: easy integration with Adsense and Google AdX, elaborate reporting, intuitive interface, malware detection, frequency capping, etc. Learn more about the differences between AdSense vs Google AdX in our guide.
Most importantly, Google Ad Manager is free to use for all publishers whose number of impressions per month does not exceed 90-200 mln (depending on the GEO). Thus, it is a very appealing solution for small and medium-sized publishers.
Getting the most out of Google Manager (GAM) requires an adops expert who can optimize price floors, analyze campaigns, and continuously improve your ad setup and formats. Snigel is a Google MCM Partner, which means we can help publishers access GAM and enhance their GAM setup. As a result, Snigel can improve your ad revenue and ad quality. Contact our adops experts for more info.
Kevel - Hosted
Kevel (previously Adzerk) is a customizable API-based solution that allows publishers to build an ad server that is tailored to their needs. Kevel’s ad APIs provide access to ad serving, targeting, and reporting. Flexible and easy to use, the infrastructure of Kevel helps publishers to achieve great results while striking a balance between feature-rich setup and page load speed.
Thus, Kevel is the best choice for publishers who want to take full control of their ad setup. However, the price starting at $3000/month leaves this solution beyond the scope of most small-size publishers.
OpenX - Hosted
Founded in 2008, OpenX stands out among its competitors as one of the most reliable and reputable technology providers. Apart from a hosted ad server, OpenX operates a proprietary ad exchange and an SSP. It also offers its publishers an audience management tool - OpenAudience.
OpenX is a solution suitable for larger publishers. Its costs are above the market average, however, the fact that it is used by large companies such as Hearst, The New York Times, and Daily Mail, speaks for itself.
Broadstreet - Hosted
Broadstreet ad server is primarily targeted at small and medium-size publishers running local and regional news websites. Broadstreet provides an affordable yet comprehensive toolset to niche publishers. With a user-friendly interface and easy setup, it is a good choice for companies with little to no technical expertise.
One of Broadstreet’s features is its focus on direct digital sales. It also gives its customers access to an enormous library of ad formats specifically designed for a number of different environments and verticals. In general, given its reasonable pricing starting as low as $99 per month, Broadstreet can be considered a prime choice for small-sized and niche publishers.
Magnite - Hosted
It’s hard to imagine today’s online advertising landscape without this company. Founded in 2007, Magnite (Rubicon Project before 2020) pioneered the ad serving market. Today Magnite is one of the biggest sell-side advertising companies in the world. The company offers support of every existing format/channel including CTV, Video, Mobile, Display, Audio, and DOOH.
Magnite’s self-serve ad server allows publishers to efficiently manage their ad inventory while building up direct relations with top advertisers. Apart from the open auction, private marketplace and programmatic guaranteed deals are available to Magnite’s sell-side partners. One of the key features of Magnite’s offering to publishers is its elaborate audience management toolset that provides a convenient way to build, analyze, and activate audiences utilizing publishers’ first-party data.
AdButler - Hosted
AdButler is a technology company that has worked in the ad tech industry for over 20 years. It offers a full-stack platform suitable for any ad format, plus a programmatic SSP, and a self-serve marketplace. AdButler provides flexible pricing plans that are based on the number of ad requests and start at $109. Among other features are first-class live support, advanced targeting, and customization of solutions. AdButler is suitable for publishers of all sizes making it a highly competitive player.
Smart Ad Server - Hosted
Smart is another big name in the ad tech industry. Having over a decade of experience, Smart offers a variety of technological solutions for both buy-side and sell-side. Publishers can benefit from Smart Ad Server’s advanced algorithms such as a unified auction. Among other features is direct access to top demand sources including Smart’s proprietary DSPs (LiquidM and DynAdmic), advanced & cookieless targeting, real-time forecasting, unified reporting, and others. Smart supports different traffic types and formats: web, mobile, CTV; display, and video. Operating a full programmatic ecosystem, Smart can offer native integration of its proprietary Smart SSP into the ad server with a great deal of flexibility.
Epom - Hosted
Epom markets itself as a complete cross-channel advertising platform. While it is positioned as a solution for ad networks, publishers will also find it useful. Epom’s ad server is a fully-customizable white-label solution featuring hassle-free setup and integration with 3rd-party platforms. Live 24/7 support, an extensive ad formats library, sharp targeting, integration with over 60 DSPs, and automatic optimizations are all included with the price of the cheapest plan starting at $250/month.
AdGlare - Hosted
Since 2009 AdGlare has been delivering its services to publishers, advertisers, and agencies. AdGlare’s team prides itself on a lightning-fast ad serving that is guaranteed by the company’s highly developed infrastructure. This includes six data centres situated all over the globe. Easy-to-navigate interface, real-time reporting, support of different ad formats, and frequency capping - all essential ad server functions are available at a modest price starting at $199 per month. This makes AdGlare a viable option for publishers of all sizes.
Xandr - Hosted
Xandr (previously AppNexus) is one of the world’s biggest and most popular advertising platforms. Above all, Xandr is known as a large programmatic marketplace that supports different traffic types, ad formats, and both direct deals and open auctions. Xandr’s end-to-end platform also includes a built-in SSP and a hosted publisher ad server. Publishers that operate a big volume of inventory are likely to find Xandr a perfect solution. They would definitely benefit from Xandr’s top-notch tech support and connection to premium demand sources. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning that Xandr is more focused on CTV and OTT calling itself “...the innovator at the intersection of digital and TV.” That’s why web publishers might find that Xandr’s solutions are not perfectly tailored to their needs.
Revive - Self-Hosted
The first and most important thing about Revive ad server is that it is 100% free. It is also the most popular self-hosted and open-source ad serving technology. It features multiple targeting options, in-depth reporting, AdSense integration, and more.
On the downside, Revive does not offer its users any support other than the community website. Besides, just as any other self-hosted technology, its deployment, and maintenance require a certain level of technical knowledge from publishers. It also consumes a considerable volume of a publisher’s server resources. Thus, Revive would be a great choice for a tech-savvy publisher ready to allocate time and infrastructure to ad serving. At the same time, in addition to the self-hosted free version, Revive now offers a hosted solution that starts at $10/month.
What Are The Different Types of Ad Servers?
All ad servers can be categorized into two main types: first-party and third-party ad servers. In turn, these two can be either hosted (managed) or self-hosted (self-serve). Let’s take a closer look at each of these types.
What Are First-Party Ad Servers?
A first-party (or publisher) ad server is a tool designed for publishers to help them manage all of their ad inventory in a single space. It provides a unified working environment that makes it easy for publishers to sell their ad slots directly to advertisers. Essentially, ad sellers use first-party ad servers to make instant decisions as to:
- What type or ad format to serve
- Which advertisers to work with
- Which ads should be shown to specific users
Apart from that, first-party ad servers provide detailed performance reports. These help publishers achieve higher CPMs by optimizing towards the best-performing formats and creatives. They are used to swiftly resolve technical issues and forecast what inventory will be available in the future.
What Are Third-Party Ad Servers?
Third-party (or advertiser) ad servers are created for and used by the advertisers and agencies. In contrast to first-party ad servers which are used to manage publishers’ inventory, third-party ad servers are used to manage advertisers’ campaigns. Thus campaigns can be managed across different publishers they run on.
Advertiser ad servers function in conjunction with publisher ad servers. They stand on the opposite side of the ecosystem. They allow advertisers to double-check the data received from the publisher side, providing their own reporting on such metrics as clicks, impressions, conversions, etc. Based on the collected data, third-party ad servers can automatically optimize ad campaign performance. Advertisers use third-party ad servers to manage creatives within their campaigns, for instance, to run A/B tests. At the same time, targeting and other audience-related activities are carried out on the publisher's side.
What Are Hosted And Self-Hosted Ad Servers?
Hosted ad servers are deployed and run by ad serving companies. In contrast, self-hosted platforms are installed and supported by the publisher. Let’s take a quick look at the main differences between these two types:
Installation and maintenance: since hosted ad servers are maintained by a third-party provider, publishers do not need to invest any additional effort. There is also no installation at all. Self-hosted ad servers, on the contrary, require a certain level of tech expertise and effort from publishers’ ad ops teams.
- Price: ad serving companies usually have a lot of different pricing plans that are designed to be suitable for customers of any size. However, entry-level publishers can still find the prices prohibitive. Self-hosted ad servers can be a great solution here because they are either free to use or are very modestly priced.
- Updates and Improvements: when a publisher uses a managed ad server, there is no need to worry about updates and improvements. These are taken care of by the provider’s team. However, self-serve ad servers do require publishers to keep an eye on the latest updates and install them.
- Support and tech issues: hosted ad servers provide their clients with expert technical support that is often available 24/7. Self-hosted ad servers do not come with any support and the best publishers can expect is to get help from the user community.
Conclusion - Finding The Best Ad Servers
Choosing the right ad serving solution might often be a difficult task for a publisher. There are plenty of variables to be taken into account: cost of ad server deployment and ongoing maintenance fees, supported channels and formats, available features, and others. These considerations also need to be juxtaposed against a set of requirements unique to each publisher. Things like the publisher’s technical competence, available financial and hardware resources, customization requirements, etc. all have to be estimated carefully.
Snigel’s adtech and adops experts deliver powerful revenue growth to publishers. We provide a fully optimized ad stack including header bidding, and access to Google AdX, Open Bidding, and Ad Manager. If you’re a publisher looking to save time and improve your ad setup, revenue, and ad quality don’t hesitate to contact us here.