How Does Header Bidding Work? Everything Publishers Need to Know

Ben Morrisroe
January 27, 2021
August 5, 2022

Digital publishers dream of an efficient advertising ecosystem, one where ad space on their website generates maximum ad revenue. Realizing that dream, however, requires header bidding.

Header bidding allows publishers to showcase ad inventory to multiple demand partners, with competition helping to boost their ad revenue.

The process, which involves using JavaScript to build a header bidding wrapper, means advertisers can engage in better ad targeting by dispensing with inefficiencies, such as Google AdX’s (Google Ad Exchange) preferential bid position when a publisher uses Google's ad server.

Get ready for a deep dive into header bidding. It has become the buzzword in the ad tech world, and for good reason. So read on to become a header bidding pro, ready to boost your ad revenue.

What Is Header Bidding?

Acting as an alternative to the waterfall method, header bidding is an advanced programmatic advertising technique that allows publishers to offer their ad inventory to multiple ad exchanges and ad networks simultaneously. 

Essentially header bidding is a programmatic auction whereby bid requests are sent to multiple demand partners in real time, maximizing the value of ad inventory. 

Sometimes referred to as advance bidding or pre-bidding, 84% of the US’ top 10,000 sites implemented header bidding, while more than half of US publishers agree they obtained higher CPMs with header bidding.

By implementing a JavaScript (JS) code snippet in the <head> section of their website, publishers are able to generate bid requests via browser resources. These bids are filtered via certain criteria in the publisher's ad server, with the highest bidder’s ad then appearing on the user’s screen. 

With the entire process taking a fraction of a second, publishers should be looking to implement header bidding to maximize the ad revenue for their web pages. 

What Came Before Header Bidding?

Before programmatic header bidding, ad space was auctioned off and delivered only once the ad placements began to load on a webpage.

When a person visited a website, the publisher’s direct orders would be served first because they sat at the highest priority in the ad server. Once the frequency cap on the direct order was exhausted, the ad server would pass the impression down to the programmatic line items in a sequential “waterfall system”, a real-time auction environment.

The main issue with the waterfall or daisy-chain system is the price the impression sells for doesn’t necessarily reflect its real value. The top-ranked ad exchange offers unsold inventory, usually determined by size rather than the highest bidder. If no one in this group goes for it, it is passed down to the second tier until someone bids for it.

Someone in the next tier down may be ready to pay a higher price, but they never got the chance to bid for the inventory they wanted, leaving revenue on the table for the publisher.

How Does Header Bidding Work?

Header bidding begins as soon as the page loads within the user’s browser. The header bidding code in the page header executes and calls all demand partners simultaneously to bid on this impression before calling the ad servers. All this takes place within a specific time frame picked by the publisher, often within a second.

Many of these demand partners hold their auctions during this split-second window to determine the top bid they send. The highest bid values from each partner are then passed from the visitor’s browser to the publisher’s ad server before its direct inventory is called.

Header bidding means that all the demand sources simultaneously participate in the auction, and publishers can control which sources participate in the process. 

Most importantly, publishers can increase the prices they are charging for their premium inventory.

Publift, for example. has seen publishers increase their revenue by 70% when implementing header bidding within our Fuse Platform.

With less reliance on a single supply-side platform (SSP), overall yield increases, with an increased ad fill rate and a smarter allocation of impressions sold to the highest bidder.

Reporting discrepancies are also reduced as it is a single auction with no sequential chaining.

Why Header Bidding Is Better for Publishers

The most significant benefit header bidding offers publishers is greater yield. Since header bidding allows publishers to have a simultaneous auction from all the bidders, publishers can sell inventory per-impression basis.

As a result, less reliance on a single SSP allows for a smarter allocation of impressions and increased fill rate.

But that’s not the only reason header bidding is best for publishers.

5 Benefits of Header Bidding for Publishers

  1. Increased control
  • Publishers can control which sources can participate in the bidding process. 
  • In addition to retaining control over their sites, publishers can prioritize certain advertisers, encouraging marketers to continue working with their favorite publishers.
  1. More Can Bid
  • Publishers can expand and diversify the advertisers interested in buying impressions on their sites. 
  • Not relying on a small set of advertisers increases business resilience and adaptability.
  1. Increased Revenue
  1. Increased Ad Quality
  • Advertisers with an affinity for a certain publisher’s audience will bid higher to get their ads before those users. The increased competition results in higher quality and more relevant ads.
  1. Faster Loading Times
  • Faster loading times. Header bidding decreases the time needed to sell an impression and render an ad on the page, which improves user experience and SEO results.

How Does Header Bidding Help Advertisers?

Advertisers also benefit from the implementation of header bidding. In addition to the opportunity to win bids on premium inventory, header bidding provides advertisers with an increased reach to find their target audience.

3 Benefits of Header Bidding for Advertisers 

  1. Disintermediation
  • All advertisers have equal access to the best inventory regardless of whether they use Google Ad Exchange.
  1. Transparency
  • With a header bidding setup, programmatic ad buyers now get a real look at all of a publisher’s impressions, not just those that went unsold in the waterfall setup.
  • Advertisers get publisher data directly from the source and can make more informed decisions about their ad strategy.
  1. Better Inventory
  • With the use of header bidding technology, advertisers can access all of the publisher’s inventory, including premium inventory that was previously only available through direct deals with publishers.

How to Setup Header Bidding

With header bidding relying so heavily on the user’s technical expertise, we’re here to brief you on how to proceed with the header bidding setup. Header bidding requires a continuous connection between the ad manager, header bidding wrapper, and SSP adapters.

To take advantage of header bidding, publishers have to use JavaScript to build the header bidding wrapper. Its code must be incorporated in a publisher's website's <head> and, once that’s done, the wrapper will receive the SSP bids and then pick a winner.

To implement header bidding, follow these steps:

Step 1: Search the Relevant Demand Partners

The first step is to design a website that will have multiple demand partners battling to secure ad inventory. Once that’s done, you’ll want to find demand partners that match your website’s niche. Demand partner popularity is not the best metric on which to base a decision and publishers should instead look for features that will enhance their own websites’ theme.

Step 2: Install and Assemble a Header Bidding Wrapper

A wrapper organizes all buyers and sets the rules for the programmatic auction. It means publishers can maximize the number of demand sources competing for an impression in an auction, without the further complexity of adding code for each new bidding partner.

Wrappers function like a repository, wherein code from various demand partners is contained and an auction's protocols are determined.

Even if you’re a publisher with little or no technical expertise, there are numerous reliable header bidding partners on the internet that can assist in maximizing ad revenue.

Step 3: Configure the Format

Selling ad space efficiently via header bidding requires the publisher to set auction time limits as well as floor prices for different ad segments to avoid website errors.

What Are Header Bidding Wrappers?

A header bidding wrapper, also known as container or framework, organizes all buyers and sets the rules for the programmatic auction.

It means publishers can maximize the number of demand sources competing for an impression in an auction without the added complexity of added code with each new bidding partner.

All partners using header bidding have their bid requests triggered simultaneously. A header bidding wrapper also has a timeout setting to manage how long the browser waits to respond before the auction closes out. 

Moreover, header bidding wrapper software comes with a suite of analytic tools to determine what methods work best and what partners might be dropped from the wrapper. If a particular demand source is not winning any impressions, it can be easily removed from the header bidding process.

What Is prebid.js?

One of the most popular header bidding wrappers is prebid.js. 

Designed by AppNexus in 2015, prebid.js is an open-source project under the Apache License embraced by the Rubicon Project in 2017.

As a header bidding wrapper, prebid.js allows publishers to set up line items and handle asynchronous, multiple ad calls with an ad server.

Pros and Cons of prebid.js

Pros:

  • Sophisticated tools for ad server communications
  • Publishers have generally noted an increase in speeds while running bidding header-style auctions compared to the waterfall model.
  • Open-source and free
  • Large, robust user community which contributes upgrades to the code and also acts as a support group

Cons:

  • Not exactly user-friendly. It is complex to set up and maintain the header bid wrapper.
  • Running the header bid wrapper itself can slow site loading speed as there is inherent overhead with its use.
  • There are several forums where anyone can get expert assistance from a large, professional group of users and developers. While support is available from the user community, it is not on-demand like paid support.

As can be seen, the pros far outweigh the cons. However, that does not change the fact that prebid.js will require an expert to set up and run. So, while it has many advantages, it won't work for every person in every situation. 

In the interim, it should be noted that this is hardly the only wrapper available. For example, Amazon supports its Transparent Ad Marketplace (TAM) software, and Google maintains its Exchange Bidding in Dynamic Allocation (EDMA) tool.

What Is Open Bidding?

Header bidding was put in place to add more competition to Google’s AdX, which was able to preview auctions and win impressions they valued by bidding $0.01 more than the winning price.

However, Google has now been given less control over the process, with all demand partners bidding on the impression simultaneously.

Google has since offered its product, Open Bidding (formerly known as Exchange Bidding or EBDA), as a possible alternative. Open Bidding relies on server-to-server connections, which are faster than the page tags header bidding relies on, which decreases page latency, thus increasing ad viewability and yield. This means the auction takes place on the ad server and not on the user’s browser.

Publift has partnered with Google to bring Open Bidding to more than 50 publishers in Australia and New Zealand, which needed a more simplified setup with less management and a unified billing system.

The results were:

  • Less time involved in management could be directed to other tasks, like analysis and optimization.
  • Increased site speed.
  • Thanks to a 40% increase in CPM rates, a boost in revenue allowed publishers to overcome seasonal drops in revenue after the Christmas season.

Why Header Bidding Is Better Than Adsense

Upgrading to header bidding from AdSense is like swimming in a small pool vs. swimming in the ocean.

While AdSense is one of the options you can integrate into your header bidding, this system allows you to dramatically expand the range of publishers and ad exchanges that can bid on your inventory.

Google’s overall market share continues to fall as other advertising partners become increasingly competitive, with as much as a 10% drop YoY. The increased usage of header bidding in publishers' sites drives this change, as it's more transparent. Another factor is more advertiser spending is prominent through private marketplaces (PMPs).

Header Bidding Vs. Open Bidding (EBDA): What’s the Difference?

Header bidding requires a more complex setup than Open Bidding, which is managed by Google and has a more simplified interface. But with header bidding, publishers can retain more control over their ad ops.

Open Bidding also reduces latency over header bidding, as the auction takes place on an ad server in the cloud rather than in the user’s browser.

Open Bidding is less transparent than header bidding, as publishers can’t determine with certainty why a specific advertiser won the auction. Instead, there is a dynamic allocation process which is sort of like a data black box.

On the other hand, header bidding can have a higher match rate for cookies than open bidding. This is because cookie syncing allows for the exchange of data and matching the user with a profile on the buyer’s database. This process allows advertisers to find and bid for ad impressions for their target audience.

Client-Side Vs. Server-Side Header Bidding: What’s the Difference?

If a lot of advertisers are connecting to the header bidder wrapper directly, it runs a lot of JavaScript on the page, increasing the latency of page and ad load times. Everyone bidding will also have different response times, so the auction can only move as fast as the slowest bidder.

Publishers can try to limit the number of demand sources that can bid in a client-side header bidding process in the first place, but this goes against the big benefit of header bidding. The whole point is having more people participating in auctions to drive up the price before calling the publisher's ad server.

Google’s AdX and server-side header bidding, in general, tackle the latency problem by hosting the auction process in the cloud on an external server. Publishers still need to add a snippet of code to their site, but rather than sending the bid requests from the user’s browser. They are sent from the ad server to all relevant SSPs.

Publift's implementation is client-side, to take advantage of higher cookie-match rates, higher CPM rates, increased transparency, better-targeted ads, and an overall higher fill rate.

So, it’s a win-win all around.

Header bidding integration has been a huge programmatic technological breakthrough in the ad ops space. It has opened up the ad buying process helping publishers to have more control, more transparency, and higher revenue from their ad inventory.

Advertisers also benefit from the header bidding solution. They now have more access and visibility of a publisher’s entire ad inventory, allowing them to bid on premium inventory that was previously only available through direct sales. 

At Publift we are ad tech specialists, providing header bidding solutions for digital publishers across the globe. Contact our team to learn more about our header bidding services today. 

FAQs:

What Is Programmatic Header Bidding?

Programmatic header bidding is a process of using coding techniques to sell ad space to multiple demand partners and generate maximum ad revenue.

What Is the Difference Between Header Bidding and Pre-Bid?

Pre-bid refers to open-source wrapper technology that is designed to improve publishers’ header bidding experiences. 

What Is the Difference Between Header Bidding and Waterfall?

Header bidding is a system that allows publishers to seek out bids from many demand partners, before picking a winner.

Waterfall, meanwhile, is a programmatic method for auctioning unsold inventory to a single ad network at a time. Publishers would arrange the auctions based on the historic performance of the ad network.

What Is the Difference Between Open Bidding and Header Bidding?

Open bidding refers to server-to-server bidding wherein third-party demand partners participate in real-time bidding (RTB) in a single auction. In this type of auction, other ad exchanges compete with Google AdX to secure ad space on a publisher's website.

Header bidding, however, eliminates the need to consider Google AdX as a partner and broadens the horizon for advertisers and publishers.

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