#OPSPOV: The Tagless Option (Note – Requires Tags)

The Tagless Option (Note – Requires Tags)

Editor’s Note: Emry DowningHall, Director of StudyBreak Media, will be leading a larger discussion on “tagless” solutions at AdMonsters Publisher Forum in Sonoma from March 1-4. He kindly allowed us to reprint this insightful blog post as a preview to his talk. Got questions? Ask Emry in person at the PubForum – space is running out!

If you’re familiar with the posts on the StudyBreak Media blog, you know Google’s AdX and dynamic allocation are a major part of our yield solution. Even with an agnostic approach to yield management, I’ve yet to see a competitor that can consistently deliver the CPM rates Google offers with the fill levels they provide. For StudyBreak Media and many other publishers, AdX dynamic allocation has been a game changer.

Of course, it’s fair to equate at least a portion of Google’s dominance to the fact that they have a distinct advantage for publishers who also use DFP, Google’s ad server product. Google’s competitors are quick to point out they too could perform at accelerated levels if given the opportunity to say yes/no before each impression is served at an assigned value.

While this topic is certainly worthy of debate, it’s not what I want to touch on in this post. It is however important to understand that regardless of your stance on the matter, the Google Display Network is often given “first look” on non-guaranteed impressions served via DFP and as a result, has the right of first refusal on the most valuable impressions served by a publisher.

This is understandably problematic for Google’s competitors. How can they offer consistent value to publishers if they cannot be awarded the same advantage as their largest competitor? The short answer is it’s difficult, but possible if you’re OK surviving on thin margins and working in creative ways with willing publishers. 

For years supply side companies have approached us requesting to be removed from Google competition when their ads are served. They argued we were hurting their performance upside and not allowing a clear picture of what they were capable of in a scenario where Google wasn’t cherry-picking impressions they could have monetized at higher rates. It’s an argument I completely understand and mostly agree with, but rarely succumb to without some sort of fixed CPM/fill guarantee from the competitor. 

This left everyone (but Google) with a problem: How could they jump outside of the ad server and at least have a chance at competing for that first-look impression at a rate they could control? The answer to this seems to be a variety of ad tech solutions with hip titles under the umbrella branding of “tagless solutions.”

To keep this post as informative and pointed as possible, I’m going to attempt the question/answer style of Digiday’s brilliant WTF explainer series. 

What is a “tagless solution”?

Ad tech that requires changes to a publisher’s source code/invocation code that trigger established KVPs (key-value pairs) in DFP. This gives an ad partner a chance to compete against Google/AdX for ad impressions they deem most valuable by passing the amount (CPM rate) they value the impression at directly into the ad server (DFP).

Whoa, changes to the source code? What exactly do they do?

The changes you’re making enable a direct call to the tagless partner you’re adding before invoking your ad server code. In return, the partner being called returns targeting and pricing criteria for the specific impression (which enables first look) when they are pinged.

Doesn’t that bypass DFP entirely?

No, because you’ve also added partner specific key-value pairs (KVP) to your DFP calls that are triggered based on how your tagless partner responded to the incoming impression. This response can be in the form of an actual bid, a price-tier flag, or a simple yes/no as to whether or not they want to buy the impressions.

Why is that beneficial to the publisher?

In theory, it increases programmatic competition for non-directly sold ad inventory and allows a publisher to sell more impressions at higher rates. Even if AdX ultimately wins the impression, this technology increases the price of the winning bid by passing a higher-priced/direct value into DFP. This begins the second price auction that AdX runs at a higher bid level so even if AdX wins, the CPM has increased.

Why is that beneficial to the advertiser?

For example, if you’re OpenX or Casale (both offer tagless solutions), you weren’t able to compete for first-look publisher programmatic inventory previously unless you cut a specific first-look deal with that publisher. Tagless solutions allow other technologies and/or exchanges to compete dynamically at multiple price points by passing dynamic bids to the ad server. If a partner isn’t winning bids in a tagless scenario, they have the opportunity to see that data and increase the tiers they are bidding/serving at.

OK, so what’s the downside for a publisher?

Assuming you’re setting these providers up as price priority (or non-guaranteed) line items, there isn’t any competition downside. If you were setting line items up as sponsorship (or standard) that could limit AdX’s effectiveness which may not be wise depending on your yield strategy. There are also concerns that adding partners ahead of your invocation code increases page latency and I strongly suggest publishers monitor this closely if they choose to experiment with tagless tech.

Also, depending on how sensitive you are to protecting your third-party audience data, one could argue that having a variety of tagless solutions looking at every impression that flows through your property is problematic. For the SBM sites this isn’t an issue as we sell less than 5% of our inventory directly so a majority of what we offer is already available on the open exchange but it’s something to consider and decide for yourself what’s best.

How much of your inventory do these tagless partners take?

Just like with an exchange, this will totally depend on your site, your content, the value of your audience and the tagless partner(s) you select to work with. That said, if you tend to perform well with your current programmatic partners that would indicate your audience is valued highly in an exchange environment and this should be a solid boost.

Why do you keep calling these solutions tagless if they require so many tags?

Fair point and I’m honestly not sure. I’ve heard people suggest “heavy iron” as an alternative title (referencing the fixed amendments to the source code), but that doesn’t really work either. I’m certainly open to better naming suggestions if you have them.

Any theories on what the tagless moniker might refer to?

Not personally but my friend (and excellent developer) Peter Bernheim of Slader.com suggests the following: maybe they are “tag-second” in that the decision on how and whether to fill an ad slot is more or less decided before the ad tag is invoked on the page.

The script that is added to allow for the first look at impressions allows the tagless partner to evaluate the impression but not return creative. The eventual call to the partner, should their tagless tag win, does return a creative but perhaps does less logic (?) on the partner’s side before returning a creative.

What are some other theoretical benefits of this technology?

Assuming proper setup, this will allow a publisher to set more accurate price floors for top level bidding against AdX. By selling a higher percentage of inventory at first-look levels before a passback waterfall you’re increasing revenue and avoiding the latency/discrepancy associated with passbacks. As mentioned previously, you’re also passing a direct value into AdX which starts the bidding process at a rate higher than it would have otherwise which should result in incremental revenue.

Have you measured the discrepancy percentage between these technologies and your ad server? 

Yes, thus far partner vs. DFP impression data ranged from 0% to 4% difference. An improvement versus most third-party JavaScript setups and a vast improvement vs. passback setups.

What in god’s name is a DFP KVP and should I be afraid of them?

A KVP (key-value pair) is just a way to pass a specific value into an ad unit you’ve already setup (in DFP) to allow for custom partner targeting. In this case, that custom targeting would be an identified fixed bid from one of your tagless partners for an incoming impression. The KVP is how you let DFP know which of your tagless partners has signaled yes (and at what CPM) for an incoming impression. The partners you decide to test with will provide the KVPs you’ll need and should offer plenty of support around creating them (or do it for you).

You mentioned changes to the invocation code. That scares me. What does it mean?

Each of these solutions have a few required changes to the head tag as well as the invocation code you use to run DFP. I don’t handle the changes or the deploys of the changes personally but I can say after a few initial bumps the first time we tried it, it’s been smooth since then.

What helped us break through on the first attempt was to ask for an example of how the source code should look on the page (with our type of ad tag), and we worked from there. That was actually much easier to follow than the supplied documentation.

This seems obvious but it’s very important to lean on the technical contact provided to you for questions, concerns and QA. We also make sure to test in a staging environment before taking anything live.

Do these solutions work with both sync and async GPT tags?

So far all but one of the technologies we’ve looked at support both sync and async tags.

What companies offer tagless solutions?

I’m positive this isn’t a complete list (feel free to leave your companies name and solution in the comments) and we do not personally work with all of these providers but I’m aware of tagless solutions from: Amazon (A9), Casale, Criteo, YieldBot, Sonobi, OpenX, Rubicon Project, and Pubmatic.

How many tagless partners should you work with? 

I’m honestly not sure what the correct answer to this question is. On the one hand, the more partners you work with the better chance you have of one of those partners placing a high bid for an impression (in theory). The flip side of that is stacking partner after partner could add latency to page load and/or result in lost impressions. This is precisely what I’m attempting to figure out at the moment so I will update this as I have a much better sense of what works when I present on tagless ad tech at the 2015 Publisher Forum in Sonoma this March.

Reprinted from the StudyBreak Media blog with permission.