Google Ad Manager’s publisher ad server (previously Doubleclick for Publishers) towers over the ad server market, with an 80%+ market share according to our Kevel Tracker research.
This isn’t surprising: GAM provides unique access to AdX inventory; it’s a reliable, robust solution; and nobody ever got fired for buying Google.
But industry and user changes are unraveling this monopoly, and more and more publishers are realizing that relying on Google and programmatic advertising is not a path to competitive differentiation in the coming years.
This article highlights why that is, and what publishers can do to get ahead of the curve.
Relying on GAM — or any client-side ad server — means these issues are ever-present, and ignoring them leaves you susceptible to a competitor offering a faster, cleaner, more secure user experience.
Unfortunately, Google Ad Manager is not built for such seamless native use cases. Ad tags are great for inserting rectangular banners into pre-defined spaces, but not feasible for native ads that mirror the look and feel of your organic content.
Breaking into non-traditional ad units may not be of interest, but if you’re ever thinking of native ad units like those offered by Amazon, Facebook, Yelp, The New York Times, and so on, GAM won’t be the right long-term solution.
Either way, you can expect roughly 30% of your potential impressions to never get filled, leading to no revenue from those visitors (unless you are bombarding them with a non-user-friendly anti-ad-blocker prompt).
It’s important to respect users’ preferences to block programmatic ads and the data risks those pose, but what about promotions that are more user-friendly? Examples include internal promotions / in-house ads, or direct-sold native ads that fit into the user experience.
Using Google Ad Manager to serve such promotions means they’ll get blocked nonetheless. This is because the blockers can’t differentiate between an in-house promotion and a third-party ad.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with focusing on programmatic ad revenue given that it is predictable and can be high-revenue. However, problems arise when your ad monetization strategy is predominantly reliant on it. This leaves your revenue (and, thus, your business) to the whims of the major ad tech players.
Indeed, there are a few current and upcoming industry changes that threaten the sustainability of programmatic advertising. As a result, publishers who aren’t able to adapt will see their ad revenues decline in the coming years.
Third-party cookies enable ad tech. They are the reason ad networks can retarget you around the web and show you highly personalized ads. Such targeting is valuable to advertisers (who pay premiums for it), translating into more revenue for publishers.
With Google’s announcement, it will block these cookies in Chrome by 2022. Unless the ad tech industry can find an alternative (and there’s no guarantee it will), publishers should expect programmatic revenue to decrease, potentially dramatically. The businesses most affected will be those who chose not to invest in alternative ad monetization approaches, such as direct-sold, native ad placements incorporating first-party data targeting.
As explained here and here, a 2021 search ranking update involving Core Web Vitals will penalize sites where page content shifts during the loading process. Slow-to-load banner ads are the main culprits for such behavior. In fact, our research shows that programmatic ads increase jumpiness by as much as 10x).
When this change happens, your revenue and marketing teams may butt heads. What’s more important: that leaderboard banner’s ad revenue or maintaining the first search result for key terms?
Ultimately, this debate could push more companies toward faster, server-side ad serving.
With Apple’s iOS 14.5, app developers now need consent to track a user’s IDFA (identifier for advertisers), the predominant tool the mobile programmatic space uses for ad targeting.
This change is effectively the death of third-party cookies applied to iOS app monetization.
Flurry’s daily 14.5 tracker is already showing opt-in rates are likely to be low, with worldwide rates at 13% (and 5% in the US. Without access to this highly valuable IDFA, many mobile ad networks will be running blind, leading to lower CPMs and less revenue for iOS app publishers.
GDPR’s enforcement in 2018 didn’t lead to a revenue apocalypse (in fact, after a sizeable drop in CPMs in 2018, they returned to normal by 2020), but many in the industry still see the programmatic supply chain inherently in violation of privacy laws and it’s only a matter of time until regulators go after it (you can read more here and here). If regulators do, then the supply chain may start further limiting what data is shared, impacting your revenues.
Google has over 100 different software product lines (not even including Android apps). For many GAM publishers, these product lines not only somewhat overlap, but often directly compete.
Travel search engines are a great example of this. Even with Google prioritizing its own Google Flights within travel search results, most of the major travel engines still use GAM to power their ad platforms, thereby enabling a competitor via revenue and data sharing.
And while Google has made less of a push into traditional content, it’s feasible that one day they branch into additional markets, like Google Recipes, Google Definitions, its own news division, and so on.
With display ad revenue accounting for just 16% of Google’s total advertising revenue (as of 2019), your publisher business will never be their focus.
Not only that, but your native, direct-sold ad platform will certainly never be their focus: nearly all of their display ad revenue comes from the cut they take from their Adsense and Adx exchanges. With direct-sold ads, they take no cut. They have no reason to foster the growth of your direct-sold ad program.
GAM is a reliable, robust solution — but it’s a means to an end (ad revenue), versus a true partner working with you to scale your business long-term.
In October 2021, a court ordered Google to unredact a flurry of documents related to antitrust ad serving practices. These revelations highlighted how Google went out of its way to stop header bidding, including sharing user data with Facebook in exchange for them not launching a bidder.
This is important because header bidding has been a boon to publishers, helping them maximize their inventory's value. Google's attempt to squash it indicates they care about just their revenue — not yours.
Even worse, though, the documents revealed that Google purposefully slowed down mobile ads not served through Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). As reported by Search Engine Land:
"Newly unredacted complaints against Google allege that the search giant’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which the company claimed would “dramatically improve” mobile web performance when it launched in 2015, was in fact a scheme to coerce publishers into using the format in order to limit advertising dollars not spent on its own ad exchanges."
In light of their monopolistic practices, do you want to stick with Google's tech...or build a platform outside of their manipulation?
The phrase “Walled Garden Ad Platform” has a negative connotation thanks to Facebook and Google, but publishers with them consistently outpace competitors, as seen in some sample headlines below:
By “walled garden”, we’re simply referring to ad platforms built in-house by the publisher, usually employing server-side ad placements, first-party data, intent/contextual targeting, native ad units, and self-serve buying.
The idea is the whole tech stack — from data to ad serving to reporting — is overseen by the publisher, instead of handing that to Google and other third-parties.
This approach gives you more control over your revenue, your user experience, and your data, while making you much less reliant on the whims of Google, Apple, and other major ad tech platforms.
Indeed, by owning your ad platform top to bottom, you are freed from stressing over industry changes around third-party cookies, unified IDs, ad blockers, mobile identifiers, cookies, malware, and so on. Your ad revenue is yours and dependent only on the scope of your ad vision.
Switching from GAM to your own solution won’t happen overnight. Moving off of GAM is fraught with risk, and building this platform from scratch is risky and time-intensive.
This is where using a server-side ads API partner like Kevel can give you the best of both worlds. Kevel's infrastructure tools make it easy to launch your own ad platform in just weeks, and our solution architects will work hand-in-hand to make sure you see success.
Generally, we recommend a crawl, walk, run approach, where you first use Kevel to power direct-sold placements and internal promotions.
At the very least, since these won’t be ad blocked, you are immediately opening up about 30% of your inventory. You can continue, meanwhile, to have GAM power your programmatic revenue as you build out these offerings.
Interested in learning more? Please let us know – we can offer a free consultation and see what the timeline would look like.
Chris has worked in ad tech for over fourteen years in a variety of roles - giving him customer support, PM, and marketing perspectives from both the advertiser and publisher sides. He's the VP of Marketing at Kevel.