header tag

Header Bidding Implementations in the Wild

My original header bidding articles have been read by over 10,000 people since I posted them in late June of this year, and one of the most common questions I got in the comments and on other channels was where to see a header bidding integration live on a real publisher.  At the time, there wasn’t much press on the topic, but in the past months AdExchanger, Digiday, BusinessInsider, and many other sites have posted articles, and publishers have come out to talk about their experience with the technology.  So now, there are lots of examples to look at to get a better understanding of what a header bidding call actually looks like, what information it returns, and how the header bid gets into the publisher ad server.

Fortunately, using the built in developer tools in either Chrome or Firefox, we can easily see if a given publisher is using header bidding technology by searching for ad tech domains and explore the details from each call.  All we need to do is check the header bidding response and the ad server request code to see what variables are passed as custom key-values (the custom_params variable specifically in DFP), which will tell us what partners are in place. You can even see how much marketers are willing to pay for your ad space. I was able to find an example integration for every header bidding integration available on the market today by looking at the sites who were quoted in press articles (specific sources are listed at the end of this post), and screenshot both the response code from the header bidder as well as the matching parameter in the call to the ad server.  Hopefully this helps everyone understand more tactically how header bidding actually works, and what to expect if you implement this technology for your own site.

Amazon A9

Example Publisher: HotAir.com

Domain: http://aax.amazon-adsystem.com/

Keyvalue: amznslots

From what I can tell, Amazon is by far the most common header bidding implementation.  It’s often the first one publishers seem to do, and it makes sense given Amazon offers a large amount of high value retargeting demand and is very picky where they buy, preferring private exchanges.

Amazon also has some interesting nuances to their implementation – for one, they pass a variable that combines a number of pieces of information in a single value.  The structure of the variable essentially describes either a display or mobile bid, a shorthand for the size being bid on, and an encoded price value.  So, ‘a3x2p9’ can be broken down into three sections: ‘a’ is the code for an display bid; in some cases you’ll see an ‘m’ instead.  ‘3×2’ is the shorthand for the 300×250 ad size, which in some cases is not abbreviated but written out long form.  Naturally you can expect to see ‘7×9’, ‘3×6’, ‘1×6’, and other common IAB standard values here.

Additionally, ‘p9’ means ‘price tier 9’, which refers to a rate that Amazon and the publisher have agreed upon in advance and isn’t necessarily the same value from publisher to publisher.  In other words, you can’t say that a p9 value on publisher A is worth the same as a p9 value on publisher B. In this way Amazon is the one header bidder that entirely obfuscates how they value a given impression.  Other header bidders integrate to the ad server using an arbitrary value like Amazon, but the exact price they are willing to pay is typically accessible in the raw JSON response.  Finally, Amazon tries to be very standardized in their implementation in that they always return the same number of bids on every page, even if the specific template doesn’t have an ad for every bid.

Amazon Header Bidding (more…)

Header Bidding Explained Step-by-Step

I’ve gone over what header bidding is in an earlier post and some of the key differences versus traditional tag based setups, but I’ve always strived to technical bluntness on this site as well, hence the diagram and step-by-step path below.  As a point of comparison, it could be a good idea to re-familiarize yourself with how ad serving works and the standard exchange redirect path at this time as well.  Note that header bidding is also sometimes referred to as ‘advance bidding’, ‘tagless’, or ‘pre-bid’ integrations.


How Header Bidding Works

How Header Bidding Works:

  1. User requests a website
  2. Header tag script redirects user to one or many SSPs (or DSPs, or Exchanges)
  3. User calls one or many SSPs in parallel
  4. SSPs conduct auction with DSPs and internal network demand*
  5. DSPs respond with bids*
  6. SSP determines winning bid value and returns to User
  7. User passes bid value into ad request and calls Publisher Ad Server
  8. Ad server determines final line item to serve and redirects User to Marketer Ad Server (let’s assume the ad server determines a pre-bid SSP line item for this example)
  9. User calls Marketer Ad Server
  10. Marketer Ad Server returns final creative (via CDN)
  11. User calls trackback to SSP

* It’s hard to tell if everyone or no one actually runs an auction with their header tags because everything happens quite fast relative to your standard exchange process.  My sense is that there is either some kind of estimation process vs. a real auction, or some fancy stuff happening with the SSP’s CDN, but without the product people or engineers from these companies actually telling me what happens it’s impossible for me to know.  Here’s hoping a few visit the comments section on this article.  The important point is that the SSP determines a value for the impression that the publisher can use in their ad serving decision process. How precisely that happens and if it’s better / worse than the standard auction process is an open question. (more…)

Header Bidding: Holistic Ad Serving Is Here

It’s been nearly three years since I first wrote about the concept of holistic ad serving – the idea of seamless yield management across sales channels, namely direct sold and programmatic – but in the last six months or so this idea has quietly gone from the drawing board to reality via a mechanism known in the industry as ‘header bidding’, ‘tagless’, ‘advance bidding’ or ‘pre-bid’ integrations because they rely on a piece of JavaScript in the publisher’s header to work. Header bidding is a revolutionary enhancement to the way publishers have historically integrated with their SSP partners, and has wide ranging implications for nearly every part of the RTB ecosystem. The future is now!

Header bidding integrations, or something very close to it have been common for years with retargeting networks like Criteo seeking ‘first-look’ relationships with publishers, but it’s only recently that the major sell side platforms started to integrate this way. The major difference between the retargeters and SSPs is that retargeters have all the demand within their own platform, while the SSPs and Ad Exchanges rely on an auction with external parties to fill impressions. (more…)