How to choose the right ad server?

As a website owner, a blogger, or an online publisher, with advertising as one of the main revenue sources, you want to display and manage ads from your advertisers and ads from different ad networks. There are many ad servers available on the market making it hard to choose which one is best for you. Below are some factors to consider while searching for a suitable ad server:

Self Evaluation

Before starting your search, you should identify your advertising needs, both short-term and long-term. Switching ad server is not an enjoyable project for any company so finding the right partner is essential. The right ad server can help you perform daily ad operations efficiently, sell more advertising, and bring in more revenue. Prepare a check list of features and quality criteria for your requirements and budget. Prioritize and separate between must-have items and nice-to-have items. You should also take into consideration your own strengths and limitations. Factors include your level of technical expertise, availability of human resources, growth projection, and of course a budget.

Run-Your-Own Ad Server vs. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

Before you can use the ad server, you might need to set it up. Installing a downloadable software often involves many different components: server configuration, database setup, and application tuning. This process can be complex for a large/busy website with multiple ad server clusters. Software often comes with strict copyright and licensing policies so make sure that you read and understand them ahead of time. For self-hosted software, there is always a platform and other technical requirements that you must consider. For example, one solution might require a certain version of the operating system, or a certain server-side language. This solution can be suitable for companies with their own in-house IT team that can handle the daily back-end operations and technical issues that come with running an ad server system.

A hosted solution is often a better choice if you do not have the expertise or do not want to spend time operating such system. Both software and back-end ad servers are run and managed by a team of experts. You can access the application anywhere anytime with an Internet connection and a standard browser. A good solution is one with a proven track record in ad serving. Factors include business history, number of years with experience in ad serving, past outages, upgrade frequency, client testimonials, and a history of innovations with new features and improvements.

It is easy to start an online company these days with limited capital. However, building and sustaining a long-term and reliable business takes time and experience. Inquire about the number and frequency of outages, backup plans, claims against the company, and other contingencies. A good solution should have multiple servers and backup plans to ensure no single point of failure.

Demo and Trial

Self-service or guided live demonstrations are one of the most effective ways to test the ad service first hand. Run through one full cycle from creating a new ad to reporting ad performance and see if you are comfortable with the work flow. Self-service demos can be useful because you can experiment with it at your own pace and avoid any pressure from sales representatives.

Ad Management

Setting up ads on your website and making modifications should be simple and intuitive. Choose an ad solution that helps you set up your advertiser's ads quickly and without much technical knowledge. This can be an intuitive work flow, a user-friendly interface and on-page help instructions. The ideal ad server packs complex functionality into a streamlined, simple and intuitive interface. It should support as many ad formats, ad types, and ad templates as possible. It should allow you to maintain and deliver ads using a single system with little technical knowledge. Using the built-in ad serving capability will also save time, save money and cut down unnecessary complexities. Here are some questions to consider:
  • How easy and intuitive is the work flow to create a new ad?
  • What are the supported ad formats? Some ad formats are text link ads, standard and custom banner dimensions, rich-media ads, video ads, ads in email messages
  • How customized can ads be? Can I use my own ad template?
  • Does ad management require any programming experience or just click, copy and paste?
  • Can you manage, deliver and track ads within a single system?
  • Is the user interface intuitive and easy to use? Are features and administrative sections presented clearly and organized logically?
  • Is there an available API for advanced integration and customization with your own internal systems or your own tools?


There is a wide range of cost involved with ad servers, from free open-source ad servers to very expensive ad solutions. Your goal here is to pay the lowest fee and get all the features and support that you need to run an effective advertising program. Good quality ad servers usually come with a price tag because the company can only develop and perfect its infrastructure when there is a sustainable flow of revenue. Fees are based on impressions, traffic, income, or the size of your business, so shop around for the plan that meets your budget and requirements.

The pricing structure can be different from one vendor to another. On-demand pricing is convenient if your usage fluctuates but such plans might not enjoy the same bulk/volume discount as a monthly package. Some vendors take a commission of your income, which can be significant if you are growing quickly. Ask the vendor about any hidden fees and unseen expenses. If a vendor also operates as its own ad network, there is a conflict of interests as it often tries to cross-sell and push its own ad inventory that might pay lower than other ad networks. In this case, the company takes money from both sides, from publishers and from advertisers. This is perfectly fine as long as there is a full transparency on any financial compensation and incentives for the arrangement.

Free vs. Paid
Free solutions often do not come with technical support or customer service. It often relies on community support via user-participation forums, which can be slow and unreliable in getting issues resolved. It often has a limited number of features that are designed as a starting point for a future upgrade. A free ad server is more suitable for resourceful and technical individuals or companies that can take full advantage of the offer. For other companies, you might need to work with an external technology consultant or another support company to integrate, operate, and maintain the same product. The result is a complex supply chain with several companies for only one product.

Ad Serving

Advertisers want their ads to reach the right people at the right time. You want to satisfy both the advertisers and your visitors with interesting, relevant ads. You need an ad server that can serve the needs of all parties involved.
  • Can I serve ads from third party ad networks? Is there any limitation on the number or types of third party ads? Is there a delay in setting up ads?
  • Is there any kind of ad optimization where more popular or better ads will be shown more often? Ads that generate more clicks, more conversions, more revenue should be displayed more often.
  • How fast do ads load? Is there an edge/local ad server near my visitors?

Ad Targeting

Your advertisers can be very specific about who and how they want to show their ads. The right ad server should be able to accommodate all standard requirements and even more advanced or customized requests from your website's setup and your advertiser's requirements. You want to maximize ad revenue from your website while delivering the best ROI for your advertisers so that they will want to continue advertising on your website. Some examples targeting requests:
  • Can I target people from only a specific country/state/city (eg: Los Angeles, California, USA)?
  • Can the advertiser set a local ad to show only on Sundays from 7AM to 11AM?
  • Can I set a quota for the maximum number of impressions/ clicks in an hour, a day, or a month to accommodate my advertiser's budget?
  • Can I limit each visitor to 5 same-ad view per hour to increase ad effectiveness?
  • Can I show a specific ad to a specific customer or IP address (eg: only once per hour?

Ad Tracking

Ad metrics (impressions, clicks, leads, purchases, conversions) should be accurately recorded and presented in an easy-to-understand report. Customized tracking should be available to track interaction events for more complex ads. Industry-wide standards and protocols (like clickTAG for Flash ads) should be followed instead of using proprietary methods.

Ad Reporting

The ad server should be able to provide a big picture on activities on your ads. It should present metrics on both ads and visitors so that you and your advertiser can know how to improve existing ads and create new ads or products that cater to visitor's demands.
  • What types of reports are available?
  • Can custom reports be created?
  • Is reporting in real-time? How often does data get updated? What is the delay for impressions, clicks and other ad metrics?
  • Are there reports on your visitors (referral, geographical, browser, search keywords)?
  • Are these reports accessible to your advertisers? Do they have their own advertiser account to view the reports online?


No one can learn and use all the ad serving and ad management features in a few days. There is a learning curve so it is essential for the ad serving company to have strong customer support. To help customers, a combination of multiple help channels should be available to you. This includes an online help center, FAQs (questions and answers), support help desk with a tracking ticket number, live chat, email, and phone. Responses should be timely and relevant to your issues/questions. Support staff should be polite, genuinely customer-driven, and appreciative of your business. Online help center with articles, instructions, video tutorials can be very useful to learn the features at your own pace and at your most convenient time. On the other hand, you may also want to get a hold of your account manager or a support person via email, phone, live chat to describe a specific objective/task and get specific instructions, and they need to be readily available.


If you need additional features, the ad server should be able to offer them through add-ons or customizations that tailor to your specific needs. Some useful add-ons include private label (white label or private branding), media file management, and an ad network module. A technical extension tool, like API, can be useful for your own IT team, either in-house or outsourced, to integrate between your internal business systems and the ad server.
July 23, 2014 (first published December 2010)


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