Advanced Ad-Serving Features, Part 1: Site-Side Servers

(Originally published in ClickZ, November 2001) by Eric Picard

A few things have happened since my last article:

  • DoubleClick did not buy Real Media, as was widely speculated.
  • 24/7 Media did buy Real Media.

With all the turmoil in the ad tech market, it might be time to review your tech partners’ stability. You can read my comprehensive (if a little dry) recommendations from way back in June. Boy, it sucks being right sometimes.

Last time, we talked about the basics of ad serving. I got a few emails from ad-serving companies arguing that I didn’t cover enough in that article. That was the point, actually, to write a quick overview. I doubt I’ll hear that complaint again — this two-part series goes into plenty of detail.

I will say up front that this is still a generalized overview. There are individual features of various ad-serving products that I won’t be covering. You still need to do a comprehensive review of various offerings before making a final technology decision.

I did get emails from individuals who couldn’t see much specific differentiation between a site-side and a third-party server. One wrote: After reading your article, I still do not see the advantage of having a third-party, other than the same reports in the same format… What more do third-party servers provide other than the number of impressions delivered and the number of clicks? Is there some other type of analysis of the campaign that the third-party provides?

First, I am not advocating the use of third-party servers over site-side servers. The two types of ad servers are designed with different purposes in mind. Site-side and third-party servers are not competitive. Site-side servers are aligned to publishers, while third-party servers are aligned to advertisers and agencies.

This analogy won’t earn me any points from the site-side server companies, but we could put it like this: A site-side server is to a third-party server as a freight train is to a passenger train. Both must be able to travel on the same tracks. Both must travel at the same speed. Both must deliver their content accurately and on time. But the passenger train needs to be a bit more refined in its amenities. The freight train needs to be able to handle a heavier load and deal with different delivery protocols (after all, passengers walk off their trains while cargo needs to be unloaded).

Second, unified reporting and trafficking procedures may not seem like a big benefit if you’re an advertiser that doesn’t do lots of trafficking and reporting for large media buys. But if you have to integrate 20 or more unique site reports into one single report for a client, it isn’t a simple process. It can take days or even weeks.

Otherwise, the reader is on the right track (pardon the railroad reference). The real strength of a good third-party server comes from its advanced features. There are plenty of advanced features to discuss on the site-side as well.

So let’s go deeper. This time, we’ll look at site-side servers, and we’ll go into depth about third-party servers in my next article.

Site-Side Ad Servers: Advanced Features

Just to reiterate: Publishers use site-side servers (sometimes called local- or sell-side servers) as part of their business infrastructure to accurately deliver and report on ad delivery. This includes trafficking controls, workflow, inventory management, and many other parity-level features. Many (but not all) site-side servers include the following features.


  • Geographic targeting. This feature works best when applied on the site side. The ad will be sent to only those users who are where you would like the ad to be seen. The main issue in geotargeting is accuracy. There is wide disparity in the accuracy of methods used to target based on user location. Not all solutions are created equal. Some subitems include targeting based on IP address, Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes, and ZIP Codes. 
  • Profile-based targeting. A few of the bigger players spent millions trying to build accurate databases of user activity so that ads could be targeted based on Web-surfing habits. You can, for example, send an ad for a motorcycle to people who visit sites for motorcycle enthusiasts. This is sound in theory. In practice, it’s difficult to implement and very expensive to maintain — a critical consideration, given current market conditions. Ask how frequently a vendor’s database is refreshed and what the average age of its profiles is. Some experts question the validity and value of profile-based targeting, while others claim success. 
  • Content-based targeting. This is a feature generally offered by portals, networks, and search engines. Subcategories might include keyword search results and content categories. 
  • Session-specific targeting. This includes domain, browser-type, and operating system.

There are other types of targeting that you may come across, but the above are the primary methods.

Creative Rotation Controls

  • Frequency capping of creative. This allows you to specify how many times you want an individual user to see creative before you “shut it off.” Experts recommend frequency capping be used to limit the number of exposures an individual user will have to your campaign. Being able to cap frequency is the culmination of the desires of brand advertisers from offline media, which they cannot do offline. Direct marketers should take note, because it is possible today to review the effect of frequency on conversion. 
  • Sequential serving of creative. This feature lets you specify a sequence of creative elements shown as the users travels across Web pages. For example: A car drives along a highway with a tantalizing opening message. Next, the same car appears with the second part of the message. Finally, the last message appears with a hook or call to action to draw users in. 
  • Accounting interfaces. Some site-side servers include interfaces for popular business accounting packages, such as Microsoft Solomon.

You’re on your way to becoming an expert. Next time, we’ll examine the even-more-advanced advanced features of third-party servers.


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