« Back to Glossary Index

The ad server’s primary role and purpose is to facilitate creating, optimizing, and serving digital ads to viewers on any website, app, or digital property, making it a critical online advertising technology.

While ad servers can also serve other purposes, such as displaying relevant ads and ad campaign analytics, their role in ad serving makes them critical to today’s digital advertising. CodeFuel’s ad server glossary enables you to become familiar with ad servers, understand their concepts and terminology, and discover how they can help you boost your revenue and improve brand visibility. 

What is an Ad Server?

An ad server is a piece of advertising technology (adtech) designed to assist advertisers, publishers, ad networks, ad agencies, and other participants in the online advertising ecosystem. Ad servers are designed to assist an individual with their ad campaigns by facilitating many aspects of the ad campaign management and optimization process, such as providing tools to target specific audiences and display the most relevant ads to viewers.

Ad servers also perform critical data collection and analytics tasks for google ad manager, creating reports regarding the performance of each ad or ad space in a given campaign and providing insights on how to improve and optimize the ad campaign.

For comparison, an ad server is the digital advertising equivalent of a web content management platform (e.g., blog software, collaborative platforms, wiki sites, etc.). Just as these platforms are designed to help individuals manage and serve web content, ad servers are designed to help advertisers and publishers manage and serve ads. 

How Does an Ad Server Work?

An ad server works according to many of the same principles as a standard web server. When a user visits a website with ad spaces, the user’s web browser sends a request to the web or first party ad server, to load the page content. The web server then receives the request and serves the web page and its content to the browser, letting the viewer see it.

An ad server uses pieces of code within these web pages called ad tags, which control the functionality of ad slot in a digital property’s ad spaces. When a web page with ad tags is loaded, the browser reads them and issues an ad call. Ad servers corresponding to these ad tags respond to the request and serves ads onto the page.

Ad Server Architecture Components

Although each ad server is different, most popular ad servers comprise six elements: an ad-serving engine, an analytics tracker, a management component, data reporting tools, an API, and a cost and payment control element.

1. Ad-serving engine

The ad-serving engine is at the core of an ad server’s functionality. It is a complex software engine that uses many algorithms to organize, select, and display ads to users. Ad-serving engines take in all data at their disposal, from available ad creatives, ad space context, user information, advertiser requirements, and publisher parameters, to display the most relevant ads to the viewer. Ad-serving engines select ads in real time and serve them within milliseconds of loading a web page, an app’s screen, or another digital property.

2. Analytics tracker 

The analytics tracker, also called analytics system or results tracker, refers to the technologies used to monitor an ad campaign’s performance. The primary purpose of an analytics tracker is to count and report a campaign’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), such as views, impressions, downloads, and clicks. The data is then used to calculate essential performance indicators, such as click-through rates (CTRs), conversion rates, and average revenue earned per viewer.

3. Management component

Most ad servers provide advertisers with management tools that vary depending on the server and technologies used. Although the exact tools differ from server to server, they generally serve similar purposes: providing advertisers with tools to control and manage how their ads are served and displayed on a publisher’s property. Management components may also include brand safety and control tools, letting advertisers prevent their ads from being displayed on inappropriate sites and apps.

4. Data reporting

An ad server’s data reporting system records and compiles the data seen by the analytics tracker, presenting the information in easy-to-understand formats such as charts, tables, graphs, and text-based reports. A data reporting system can provide advertisers with curated, organized data on the ad campaign’s performance on demand. It can also automatically generate reports at set intervals (e.g., monthly reports).

5. API

An Application Programming Interface (API) is a piece of software containing sets of definitions and functions allowing a system to communicate with another and offer its services to other programs. Ad servers feature APIs that advertisers with technical expertise can use to build their own ad platforms.

6. Cost and payment controls

Modern ad servers provide tools and functionality to let advertisers finely control how much they spend on any ad campaign with cost and payment controls. These tools allow advertisers to manage their ad budgets, create and manage spending caps (e.g., daily, monthly, campaign-wide), and automatically pause or stop the campaign if the funding runs out.

Ad Serving Process

The ad-serving process can be described as a cycle starting when a user loads a digital property with ad spaces and ending with advertisers and publishers receiving data and feedback. This process can be broken down into eight essential steps:

1. User visits a website, app, or digital property 

The process starts when a user loads a web page, an application, or another digital property with an ad space. The user’s browser or device sends a request to the servers hosting the content they came for, including the ad server and corresponding ad spaces.

2. The ad server analyzes the request 

The user’s request contains self-identifying information the ad server can use to tailor the ad-serving process. Essential information includes device type, browser type and version, IP address, and country of origin.
If the user’s request is associated with an account or another source of demographic data, the ad server may receive supplemental information to improve the ad-serving process. Examples include the user’s age, gender, and income.

3. The ad server selects an ad

Once the ad server has analyzed the user’s request and gathered relevant data, it compares the information with available ad creatives in the inventory. The ad server checks each ad’s characteristics to ensure the ad served is as relevant to the viewer as possible: If the ad server has been configured to meet specific targeting options or ad campaign settings, it will include this data in its selection process. Lastly, the ad selection process will prioritize the highest-value and highest-performing ads, ensuring maximum efficiency.

4. The selected ad is rendered 

After choosing a relevant ad creative, the ad server will send it alongside essential pieces of code to ensure it can be correctly displayed on the viewer’s device. During this stage, most ad servers will also send the tracking pixel or another data tracking method (e.g., tracking scripts), allowing the server to collect data and track interactions with the ad.

5. Viewer sees the ad

Once the ad has been rendered, it is ready for display in its corresponding ad space. This is the point where the viewer can see and start interacting with the ad.

6. Viewer interacts with the ad 

The user is expected to begin interacting with the ad at this stage. The nature of the interaction depends on the ad type. Most ads will track clicks, but only specific types may track impressions, views, plays, or completions. For example, a video ad will track the number of views but may only count a view when a user has fully seen the video creative.

7. The ad reports the data back

Whether the user chooses to interact with an ad or not, the ad’s tracking pixel, script, or data collection method will collect and process all relevant KPIs and send them back to the ad server: The ad server’s data reporting engine will then create analytics information and generate reports, updating its information in real-time to help advertisers evaluate their campaign’s performance.

8. The advertiser optimizes the ad campaign

Once the advertiser has received data regarding the ad’s performance, they can adjust the campaign’s details and parameters, such as targeting options, placements, or the content of the campaign’s ad creatives.

Ad Server Participants in The Process

Multiple entities surround the ad-serving process, meaning many participants are involved with ad servers. The three primary entities are the user, the advertiser, and the publisher.

1. User

The user, also called the viewer, is the person who visits the website, mobile application, or other digital property. The user’s web browser is typically responsible for providing essential data about the user to the ad server. However, user accounts on or connected to the publisher’s property can supplement it with extra information.

2. Advertiser

The advertiser promotes a brand, products, and services. They create ads, generate ad creatives for digital advertising, upload these creatives to an ad server, and manage their advertising campaign. Through ad servers and ad networks, advertisers pay publishers to host their ads and display them to users.

3. Publisher

The publisher operates and manages the website, mobile app, or digital property that serves ads to users. They receive payment from the advertiser to host their ad creatives and display them in suitable ad spaces.

Monetize Your Website

Features of Ad Servers

Although each ad server is different and each ad request comes with its own unique benefits and value propositions, most ad servers today offer advertisers and publishers these essential features:

  • Creative upload and storage: A quality ad server should support ad creatives in all standard IAB formats, sizes, and file types: text, display, video, audio, interactive, rich media, and more.
  • Ad campaign scheduling: An essential feature found in most ad servers, ad campaign scheduling lets advertisers determine a campaign’s start and end dates.
  • Automatic optimization: Ad servers with this feature will automatically analyze your ads’ performance and prioritize serving the best-performing ones.
  • Time-based audience targeting: Also known as dayparting, servers with this feature allow you to build ad campaigns designed to run only during specific times of day, such as the morning or the evening.
  • Location-based audience targeting: Also known as geo-targeting, servers with this feature let you configure ad campaigns for users in specific countries, states, regions, cities, and other political subdivisions. This feature is ideal for promoting local or regional products.
  • Retargeting features: Ad servers with retargeting options track and detect whether users have visited a specific publisher’s website, displaying ads related to products or services they’ve browsed in the past.
  • Flexible ad delivery: Quality ad servers should feature flexible ad unit management, letting you deliver ads in non-standard or unique configurations.
  • Ad inventory management: Another essential feature, most ad servers should offer a range of functions and parameters to simplify the management of your ad inventory, such as automation for repetitive tasks, ad zone configuration, and header bidding.
  • Brand safety and ad fraud prevention: Quality ad servers should provide advertisers with brand safety and fraud prevention features, preventing low-quality sites from displaying your ads and ensuring your brands, products, and services are not associated with bad actors or inappropriate digital properties.

Ad Server Integrations

Ad servers can integrate with other essential adtech platforms, such publisher ad servers such as demand-side platforms (DSPs), supply-side platforms (SSPs), and data management platforms (DMPs).

Integrations with DSPs and SSPs

Although many DSPs and SSPs each come bundled with their own ad servers and appear to perform similar functions, it is essential to understand the differences between these platforms.

  • DSPs and SSPs cannot independently store creative files or serve ads to a site, app, or digital property. However, DSPs and SSPs can access these features if they are integrated into an ad server.
  • Ad servers can only access the programmatic ecosystem or benefit from features such as real-time bidding when integrated with a DSP or an SSP.
  • Although DSPs, SSPs, and ad servers may provide tracking and performance reports, they often provide different data points, helping advertisers gain more insights into their ad campaigns.

Integrations with Data Management Platforms (DMPs)

The primary purpose of Data Management Platforms (DMPs) is to serve as data repositories. They can help publishers and advertisers accumulate and organize first-, second-, and third-party customer data, depending on the DMP type. Most DMPs are designed to help users manage third-party data.

Integrating an ad server with a DMP lets the ad server access any customer data stored on the DMP, improving the efficiency of its audience targeting tools.

Most Popular Types Of Ad Servers

Publishers and advertisers can choose from best types of ad servers for publishers to serve ads and accomplish their business objectives. The two primary third party ad server types are first-party and third-party ad servers.

  • First-party ad servers are intended for publishers. They include features designed to facilitate selling and managing a publisher’s ad spaces.
  • Third-party ad servers are intended for advertisers and ad agencies. They include features helping advertisers manage their ad creatives as efficiently as possible.

How Does First-Party Ad Servers Work?

Most first-party ad servers offer unique tools and options to analyze user traffic and optimize ad spaces.

  • Detailed ad space configuration: All first-party ad servers allow publishers to configure and fine-tune their ad spaces according to their needs.
  • Publisher-focused analytics: First-party ad servers feature analytics and data reporting systems specifically tailored to meet publisher needs, helping them assess the performance of their ad spaces.
  • Contextual targeting: Many first-party ad servers let publishers categorize their ad spaces based on the web page’s context, helping advertisers display more relevant ads and boosting revenue for publishers.

How Does Third-Party Ad Servers Work?

Like a first-party ad server, the third-party ad server offers unique features, helping advertisers manage and optimize their campaigns more efficiently. Functions of the third-party ad server include:

  • Frequency capping: Advertisers can configure specific ad creatives with frequency capping to limit the number of times a user sees the same ad. When the frequency cap is reached, the ad is no longer shown to that user.
  • Advertiser-focused analytics: Analytics and data reporting tools on third-party ad servers primarily focus on ad campaign performance and KPIs.
  • Campaign optimization features: Most third-party ad servers offer multiple campaign optimization solutions to boost click-through rates (CTRs) and conversion rates, such as automatic optimization or performance metrics.

How to Choose The Right Ad Server for Your Campaign

Choosing the right ad server for your campaign is a crucial decision that can significantly impact the success and efficiency of your digital advertising efforts. Determine which features and options you need from an ad server and narrow the options based on your priorities.

Contact Us

You must know what to look for to choose the right ad server. Common qualities people look for when browsing ad servers include:

  • Objectives and campaign goals: Are you focused on maximizing reach, optimizing conversions, increasing brand awareness, or achieving a specific ROI? Different ad servers may excel in certain areas, so align your goals with the capabilities of the ad server you choose.
  • Features and functionality: Consider factors such as ad-serving capabilities, targeting options, reporting and analytics capabilities, campaign management tools, optimization capabilities, and integration with other platforms or technologies. 
  • Scalability and performance: Can it handle your expected traffic and ad impressions? Look for ad servers that have a proven track record of handling large-scale campaigns efficiently, as well as those that offer fast ad delivery and minimal downtime.
  • Targeting and segmentation options: Look for options such as demographic targeting, behavioral targeting, geographic targeting, device targeting, and retargeting capabilities. The ability to precisely reach your target audience is essential for campaign success.
  • Integration with Other Platforms: Consider the ad server’s compatibility and integration capabilities with other platforms or technologies you use. For example, if you work with a specific demand-side platform (DSP), ensure the ad server can integrate with the DSP smoothly.
  • Pricing and cost structure: Understand the pricing model, whether it’s based on impressions, clicks, or a subscription fee. Consider the costs associated with additional features, support, or technical assistance.
  • Support and customer service: Ensure they offer reliable technical assistance, training resources, and responsive customer support. Timely assistance can be crucial in resolving technical issues or addressing campaign optimization needs.

Benefits of using Ad Servers

Ad servers provide numerous benefits to advertisers looking to optimize their advertising campaigns and obtain the best results.

  • Centralized management of ad campaigns: An ad server allows you to centralize ad campaigns for each product, service, and brand in one place without managing different standalone campaigns. This benefit offers convenience and streamlines your workflows. With an ad server, you can monitor each campaign’s performance from one interface, letting you manage and optimize them more efficiently.
  • Targeted advertising to specific audiences: Users do not dislike ads; they simply do not want to see ads irrelevant to their needs and interests. An ad server provides numerous campaign management features to improve audience targeting, ensuring viewers see highly relevant ads.
  • Accurate tracking and reporting of ad performance: Access to accurate, real-time data regarding your ad campaign’s performance is essential to evaluate, adjust, and optimize it accordingly. Ad servers come with data tracking, analytics, and reporting features providing you with the information you need to analyze your ads’ performance and implement the best changes and optimization.
  • Improved ad delivery speed and reliability: Choosing the right ad server for your needs can help ensure highly relevant ads are served quickly and efficiently to your intended audience.
  • Increased revenue: Ad servers are essential for maximizing revenue, boosting conversion rates, and achieving your business objectives. Ad servers accomplish this by combining high-quality ad creatives with audience targeting and optimization features.
  • Better user experience: If you have a large inventory of ad creatives, an ad server’s audience targeting and ad selection systems are ideal for maximizing user experience (UX). Ad servers will ensure the ads served are of the highest quality and relevancy possible, minimizing annoyance.
  • Improved control and flexibility: Selecting a fully-featured ad server solution ensures you can access an extensive suite of options, features, and parameters to configure your ad campaigns. The more options you have to fine-tune your ad campaigns, the more flexible and adaptable it becomes, as it lets you maximize your ads’ reach.

Get Efficient Monetization of Your Digital Properties with CodeFuel

CodeFuel offers a comprehensive ad placement and monetization solution suite that enables advertisers and publishers to maximize their revenue while maintaining a positive user experience. With CodeFuel’s intelligent ad-serving technology, publishers can deliver targeted and non-intrusive ads to their audience, ensuring relevancy and engagement.

CodeFuel’s platform provides access to a vast network of advertisers, optimizing ad placements and generating higher yields ad revenue for publishers. Integrating CodeFuel’s solutions with a publisher’s ad server allows for seamless management of ad campaigns, accurate tracking of performance metrics, and detailed reporting. Get started on efficient monetization by contacting CodeFuel today.

« Back to Glossary Index