Unified Auction Brings High Anxiety to GAM City

Before the news of Google’s ad department reorganization broke, publishers had already been getting quite itchy over the machinations of Google Ad Manager.

Now outgoing Director of Product Development Jason Bigler officially announced in a blog a few weeks ago what publishers had been hearing from their GAM account managers: the rollout of the first-price auction within GAM would jump from 15% to 97% in September. The remaining 3% of second-price auctions is expected to be phased out by the end of 2019.

However—under the ominous subheader, “Increasing Auction Transparency”—was the introduction of the Bid Transfer File (BDT), which will provide a wide array of data from all submitted bids within GAM. “[Y]ou’ll be able to create a full bid landscape that shows the range and number of bids you received, across dimensions like ad unit and buyer,” Bigler wrote.

The catch? “In order to prevent bid data from being tied to individual users, you will not be able to join the Bid Data Transfer file with other Ad Manager Data Transfer files.”

Several publishers immediately brought their concerns to Google (as well as the AdMonsters community) that without the ability to match up Keypart (unique identifier) data, this would inhibit their ability to analyze header bidding data against Unified Auction reporting. For many publishers, this would impair yield optimization strategies; some argued the lack of comparability would make the BDT file essentially useless.

Google stands by the privacy justification for disabling merging BDT with other data transfer files, saying breaking joinability between is essential for preventing bids to be tied back to individual users. The company also says that winning bids that become impressions will still be available in the Impressions file.

Publishers suggest there is a middle ground that will protect user privacy while still offering access to session-level data than can be analyzed in aggregate.

According to Google, the BDT program is in beta and the company is garnering publisher feedback during the testing period, which it will take into consideration as the functionality is evaluated.

Unified Auction Jitters

The key publisher fear is that this a sideways attempt to kill header bidding and force demand through the Open Bidding S2S product. Not all publisher demand partners are integrated with Open Bidding, which takes a fee for its services, and S2S channels still have issues with ID-matching compared to header connections.

There are also overall concerns about how Google is leveraging all the bid data that flows through its platform. Previously, Open Bidding (when it was known as Exchange Bidding) featured a “last-look” auction in which Google could submit a final bid after receiving partner bids. While that feature is gone, the fear remains it was a forbearer for something that could further undercut publisher demand partners, and publisher revenue management.

Anxiety over Google’s dramatic ad server changes have been growing all summer. While the Unified Auction has granted publishers some useful tools, it has greatly limited publisher control over flooring and introduced the confusing Unified Pricing Rules. The latter are still being modified based on publisher feedback.

But numerous publishers have also reported that the Unified Auction disrupted pacing on their direct-sold campaigns. On the condition of anonymity, several publishers told me that GAM was favoring bids from AdX and the Unified Auction with lower CPMs than direct-sold campaigns, regardless of whether enhanced allocation was on.

The typical response from Google was, “That should not be happening.”

Furthermore, rumors that key values will be stripped from log-level data are making the rounds… which brings us to the sudden re-organization.

A Privacy Affair

Bigler, who had just stepped into the role of GAM chief and called rumors of the third-party cookie’s demise exaggerated at AdMonsters’ Ops NYC in June 2019, is out. He’s replaced by Sissie Hsiao, formerly head of the AdMob mobile app business and true believer of competition in ad tech.

Google appears to be tying together the GAM, AdMob, and AdSense businesses, which is a far less worrisome step than the DFP-AdX merger of 2018, but product consolidation does make the ad ops sense tingle.

Also interesting is the creation of two major new roles: Head of Measurement and Head of Privacy. Will the ascension of the privacy focus in Google’s ad business be used as further justification in limiting data sharing with publishers?

This is unfortunately an important question to ask, especially when a recent report from privacy-focused browser Brave illustrated abuses in an ID-matching program Google was offering to demand partners.

And it’s only one highly pertinent question that publisher revenue types will be deliberating on at the Publisher Forum in Scottsdale, Nov. 3-5. Related Monday small-group sessions are on first-price auction experimentation and strategies led by CafeMedia’s Patrick McCann; and “Hacking the Unified Auction” with News Corp.’s Stephanie Layser and NYPost’s Amanda Gomez. You can bet we’ll follow up with some tasty Wednesday workshops. Oh, Google representatives will be there as well.

It’s more important than ever to band together with your publisher peers to determine how to keep control with ongoing disruptions to publishers’ key monetization tool: the ad server.