Let’s Talk Ad-Servers

My time at UC Berkeley’s J-school poses many challenges and opportunities. I hope to try many small experiments and a few big ones. At the foundation for one of the larger potential experiments we need to find a flexible ad-server.

What’s an ad-server? It’s a technology and service that displays ads on websites. Think of it as a YouTube for advertising. Why does everyone upload video to YouTube or Vimeo? Because hosting video on your own server is complicated. So is hosting your own ads, especially if you need to manage those ads in a dynamic way, swapping ads in and out, creating competing bids for spots, remnant campaigns and more.

It’s a problem that every local publisher has to tackle at some point if they want to mature into a small business. The details of the potential larger experiment are a bit further off right now, so rather than get all three hyperlocal sites on the same ad-server we wanted to take some time to try two very popular ad-servers and compare the experience. Currently RichmondConfidential.com has ads hosted by Double Click for Publishers while Mission Loc@l and Oakland North are serving ads from Open X.

 Meet The Hosts

Double Click for Publishers (DFP) was created in 1995 and survived the dot com bubble to become a subsidiary of Google. As you might imagine with Google ownership comes high usage rates. As a result DFP has become an industry standard for organizations large and small. We are currently using the free version of DFP for small businesses. As organizations become larger and need more flexibility in their ad-serving a premium version is available.

Open X is an independent company which is often looked at as a strong alternative to DFP. It includes a free version (Open X Onramp) and a paid version (Open X Enterprise) for those organizations who need a more robust solution. In addition to this Open X has an open source version of its platform which is actually how the project originally started. It is now called OpenX Source. Anyone can download the software and create their own fully integrated ad-hosting solution if they have the technical know-how.

For most hyperlocal sites doing under 5-million pageviews a month the free version of both Open X and DFP suffice and that’s what we’ll be comparing in this post.

The Plus of Open X

While not a “small” company by any stretch Open X responds to queries and trouble-shooting requests both by staff and in their community support section. One of the initial appeals to try Open X as an alternative to DFP was the OpenX Market. By checking this option you agree to let Open X bid for an ad spot if it can beat the CPM of your choosing. If you have a campaign selling for $8 CPM you can tell the OpenX Market to sell any ad for that spot at a $9 CPM. If they can’t find a bidder, you fall back on your base ad. But if they can find a bidder (and it’s automatic once you opt in) you’ve just started making more money by letting advertisers dynamically compete for your space. In short through Open X a publisher can sell direct ads, sales to ad networks and option space for the Open X market all at the same time. Options are awesome.

The Plus of DFP

The biggest benefit to using Double Click for Publishers is its ease of use. If you have a Google Account you can be up and running in no time. It instantly syncs with your Google Adsense account and ensures that if you haven’t sold a custom ad then adsense will kick in as a permanent remnant campaign. The user interface and overall process of setting up campaigns on DFP is smoother than Open X which does require a little trial and error. If that’s a priority then using DFP can save a lot of headaches. In fact the Knight Digital Media Center has an excellent step-by-step tutorial on how you can set up Double Click for Publishers on your website. In terms of ease of user DFP is a hands down winner.

In the end – there is no clear winner between OpenX and DFP. If you are prepared to put in a little extra time to understand their system OpenX might be able to garner you some extra money here and there. But if time is more valuable, then the ease of DFP might be the way to go.

And in truth, our un-scientific A/B testing of these two ad-servers is only just getting started. Soon we hope to integrate ads from other networks like Local Yokel, NowSpots and more to see how they can be injected and hosted by each system.

As we push forward with larger experiments I hope to share insight into what we are trying and how it all fairs so that other hyperlocal projects can learn from our mistakes and success.

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