A Publishers Guide to Header Bidding and Ad Quality

Updated on: December 30, 2023
'Ad quality' has become one of the primary concerns for publishers. With multiple points of entry, it's getting difficult to track and cut down the bad ads. So, in today's post, we'll hear it from Alisha Rosen (writer at GeoEdge) on how publishers can tackle the problem.

Since header bidding broke into the mainstream of the digital publishing business in 2015, it has redrawn the map of the programmatic landscape. Aside from empowering publishers by giving them a clearer understanding of the true value of their ad inventory — and the revenue to match — it’s dramatically altered the relationships between publishers and their demand partners. 

Of course, it’s altered the way advertisers and buy-side vendors work with the sell-side, as well. In a word, it’s made all of these relationships along the supply chain more complicated. On the publisher side alone, there are now paths to inventory in the waterfall and in the header, in header wrappers, through server-side and client-side connections, in the app, even in the footer. Often, a publisher will plug one demand partner into multiple places to maximize their bids. 

Inventory Headaches and Quality Trends Explained

While businesses all along the supply chain are working to clear the path so their preferred partners can have better access to inventory, malvertisers and scammers are taking advantage of these myriad points of entry. Header bidding may have given publishers a historic revenue boost but we can’t think of it as a VIP room, bad actors of the programmatic ecosystem can and often do get in. 

The header is a consistent source of ad quality headaches — and the dramatic dip in CPMs brought about by the effects of the COVID pandemic have only made those headaches worse. The GeoEdge/AdMonsters survey found nearly half of publishers — 48% — consider low-quality or malicious ads to be one of their greatest difficulties in header bidding. The only two header factors more publishers count as top challenges are page latency and auction time-outs — both evergreen header downsides publishers have been citing for years. 

It’s a big deal to see ad quality concerns rounding out this Big Three — especially since ad quality can be managed properly and mitigated. Automated monitoring and blocking of bad ads, before they reach the page, is an option on hand for publishers. And working with their demand partners and ad quality vendors, publishers can develop customized strategies to keep harmful, misleading, inappropriate, and otherwise low-quality ads off the page — without denting header revenue.

Header Set-Ups: What the Numbers Tell Us

Looking at the story the numbers tell about header bidding in 2020 — if the plot seems convoluted, the cast of characters might have something to do with that. It features starring and supporting turns from Google’s Open Bidding, Amazon’s The Ad Marketplace, the Prebid.js wrapper, and managed header integrations and/or managed header wrappers from a variety of leading SSPs and exchanges. Incidentally, this is just the header and server-side connections. The programmatic waterfall is another story for another time — although we can’t underplay how many wrenches the waterfall throws into the ad quality works on its own. Cumulatively, publishers need to oversee a head-spinning number of demand sources.

The 2020 GeoEdge/AdMonsters survey shows 39% of publishers have 8-10 header bidding partners plugged in. That 8-10 range is the most common range, although 30% of publishers do have 10 or more header partners and 18% have more than 12. Only 9% have four or fewer partners in the header.

Google’s server-to-server Open Bidding has been adopted by over 75% of publishers, and they’ve clearly taken advantage of the bandwidth potential of S2S — 38% have 7-10 Open Bidding partners, and 30% have 10 or more.

Among publishers who don’t use Open Bidding, the top reason for their choice is one of control. To 36%, the header simply gives them more control.

Top Ad Quality Challenges Publishers are Facing

Over the last few years, auto-redirects have been the scourge of publishers’ ad ops teams. But in the header, bad ad creative is a more common ad quality problem than redirects. While 23% of publishers’ site redirects as their biggest ad quality concern in the header, a whopping 52% cite poor or off-spec creative. Among publishers who chose to write about their own biggest problem, inappropriate creativity has a prominent showing. 

Bad ads are coming from multiple entry points, but the idea that the header is a safer and cleaner source of demand, versus other sources, is very wishful thinking. Among publishers, 50% say they’re getting the same volume of ad quality issues through Open Bidding and the header — and on top of that, 37% say they see more problems from the header than Open Bidding. So between those two areas, the header is overall a more egregious culprit of ad quality snafus. 

Through these numbers, we’re getting an increasingly clear idea of how many points of entry malvertisers and scammers have for quality publisher inventory. But here’s another important twist: In many cases, the same demand sources are integrated into any combination of the header, the waterfall, and S2S — and publishers consider that a strategic necessity. Publishers want their preferred demand partners to be able to access their inventory under multiple bidding scenarios. They also want quality advertisers to be able to access their demand through multiple demand partners. As a result, we see 45% of publishers utilizing more than one header wrapper. And most publishers surveyed say they’ve put the same SSP or exchange in both the header wrapper and an S2S connection. One obvious downside of all of these paths to inventory is that it’s more complicated for publishers to guard the gates against the bad actors of the programmatic ecosystem. 

And yet, publishers find it’s extremely important for their business to keep these gates as open as possible for safe, quality demand. To 18% of publishers, header bidding accounts for more than 75% of their programmatic revenue, and 84% of publishers say more than 25% of their programmatic revenue comes through the header. While 67% of publishers say they plan to simplify their programmatic setups in the coming six months by removing demand partners, almost as many — 64% say they plan to add more demand partners within the same time frame. “The industry moves so quickly,” one publisher commented, “that relying on a third party can handcuff us to how well the third-party reacts to changes.” In this light, diversifying demand is a matter of remaining nimble and adaptable to unexpected changes in demand and publishers’ ability to access it.

“Changes” have characterized the business of digital media this year in deeply meaningful ways. Under normal circumstances, high CPMs in the header would be a natural barrier against low-quality ad creative and suspicious advertisers in need of heavy vetting. But publishers say that after COVID hit US shores and quality advertisers began pulling ad spend until they could understand the new lay of the land, the appearance of low-quality ads increased by 39%. And they found many of their demand partners simply didn’t have the ad quality mechanisms in place to detect and block bad ads before they reached the page.

With that in mind, it’s surprising that so many publishers are still choosing to combat these ad quality issues manually, and even to deal with them after the bad ads have loaded. 36% cite manual inspection of ad creative as a top QA strategy, 18% say they lean toward removing bad ads after they appear on the page, and 36% say they plan to ramp up their manual inspection efforts. While manual efforts may be cost-effective in the short run, they’re not sustainable, and they pull skilled ad ops professionals away from the task of developing long-range strategies for increasing revenue. 

How Can Publishers Leverage Technology

In this current environment, every advertising dollar counts for publishers. Many have taken risks that allow low-quality ads — including deceptive ads that take a page from the old clickbait model by using salacious or misleading creative — to come through the header. These deceptive or off-brand ads confuse users, lead them to believe the publisher is a willing participant in deception, and deter them from returning to the site.

These ads make the site look cheap, and send users a message that the publisher doesn’t value their engagement. Publishers are risking and even losing lifetime users who would continue visiting and monetizing the site well into the future. They’re also risking advertisers who have no interest in their ads appearing adjacent to bad ads — those advertisers want to protect their brands by appearing in trustworthy, well-vetted environments.

The header is a profitable space for publishers, but it needs ad quality assurance to remain profitable. This is simply not the time to bet the farm on new and unfamiliar advertisers without assurances — before the ad hits the page — that those advertisers will deliver ad creatives that align with the publisher’s brand, send users a consistent message about what the publisher stands for, and attracts more high-quality advertisers to boost revenue. Some of those high-quality advertisers could easily become trusted partners with whom publishers can build lasting relationships and deliver increased revenue along with ad creative that enforces the good user experience publishers work so hard to maintain.

How to Transform Ad Revenue Ahead of 2021

It is imperative at this moment that publishers turn to automated solutions for detecting and blocking opportunistic fraudulent advertisers, malvertisers, and otherwise low-quality ads from their site in advance. Real-time solutions are the answer, to stop bad ads along the supply chain before they can reach the site and negatively impact audience engagement, lifetime audience value, and the publisher’s ability to attract good advertisers that care about sending the right message to the right audience. 

The alternative — after-the-fact cleanup, time wasted on the part of teams that should be focused on future strategy, loss of valuable users, loss of trustworthy and high-paying advertisers, and reputational damage control — is simply too much to live with, and not enough to thrive with.


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