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Watch This: A visual guide to how automated ad serving works

What happens in the 200 milliseconds it takes to serve an ad?

Many still believe that when you visit a web page, the decision about what ads to show you are pretty simple. All the website has to do is figure out who you are, and decide which ad best targets you. That’s pretty straightforward, right?

Wrong. Check out this video from New York-based trading desk MediaCrossing for a comprehensive rundown of everything that happens in the fractions of a second it takes for your browser to load a web page and display programmatic ads.

If you get confused, don’t worry – we did too. So here’s a rundown of the steps involved.

1. Ad request A user opens a page, and it begins to load publisher content.

2. Publisher data The publisher finds any data it has on that user, and sends it to an ad server along with a request to fill the spot.

3. Premium sales The ad server checks if there are any direct-bought campaigns waiting to fill the spot. If not, the request is passed to preferred trading partners, premium ad networks and supply-side platforms.

4. Private exchange If no one responds to the request, it’s passed to a private exchange, where it can be bid on by a select group of advertisers who have been invited. (In some cases, this step happens before or instead of the ad network step.)

5. Open exchange If there are no bids on the private exchange, it’s determined to be “remnant” and passed to one or several open exchanges for anyone to bid on. (Publishers generally won’t take this step with their best quality ad spaces, like homepage banners or non-linear TV pre-roll, because they don’t want to devalue their inventory. In most cases they will run house ads or PSAs instead.)

6. Buyer data At either the private or open exchange stage, each bidder adds their own data from CRM and third-party providers to get a better idea of who is loading the page. Each bidder’s algorithm checks the user against a set of desirable criteria, and bids according to how many of those criteria the user meets. The URL where the creative is hosted is attached to the bid.

7. Ad is selected The URL for the selected ad from the exchange or network is sent to the publisher’s ad server. If no bids were submitted, the publisher will usually select a house ad to run.

8. Ad is served The ad server passes the URL to the user’s browser, and the browser loads the creative in the designated ad frame. (Some ad verification providers also use this step to check the ad’s context for brand safety, and block the ad from being shown if the context is unsafe.)

9. Tag data collection After the ad is shown, the buyer receives additional data from any tags they have placed on the ad to watch for clickthroughs and other signs of engagement. Tags also return data on the ad’s viewability, the context it’s displayed in, and what other ads are around it.

This is just a rough picture – depending on the advertiser, publisher and technology in between, some of these steps may be skipped, some may be added, or things may happen in a different order. But it’s a great overview of all that’s going on behind the scenes in programmatic ad delivery.

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