OpenX Ad Server is an ad server, created and published by the British-American company OpenX.org. It is a system that can be used to manage and optimize the advertising space on one or more websites. It is a tool for web site owners (called ‘publishers’ in the online advertising industry), but also for organizations running their own ad network. It can even be used by advertisers to manage and measure the ads that they display on their distribution of sites and/or ad networks.
What is an ad server used for?
When managing a website, or perhaps even multiple websites, there can be a lot of work involved in putting advertisements on the site and removing them again, especially when this is done by entering the ads directly into the site’s coding. It takes a lot of time and it reduces flexibility. An advertising server (usually shortened to ad server) like OpenX can provide a real solution in this scenario for publishers.
For ad networks, OpenX can provide the processing power to create and manage all advertising campaigns for their clients, including direct advertisers, agencies, affiliate networks and house ads. On the other side of the equation are the websites that carry the ads for the network. OpenX delivers and measures all ads, clicks and conversions.
For an advertisers, the ability to manage and optimize the various campaigns that are displayed by publishers and networks is key. It enables them to see which banners work the best in terms of click through or conversion. It even allows for rather advanced A/B testing.
How does OpenX work?
Websites and zones
In the OpenX Ad Server, one can define websites, and also one or more zones for each website. A zone represents a space on the web pages where ads are supposed to be displayed. For every zone there is a little snippet of HTML code, which must be placed in the site, at the exact spot where the zone should go. This forms the integration between the site and the OpenX Ad Server. It is a one time job, that will take little time for an experienced webmaster or developer. The word ‘zone’ is a term in OpenX, other systems refer to it as ‘location’, ‘spot’, ‘placement’ or ‘position’.
Advertisers, campaigns and ads
One can also create advertisers, campaigns and ads in the OpenX Ad Server. Those can be internal campaigns or campaigns from direct advertisers, but also ads from external ad networks like Google AdSense, from affiliate networks like Commission Junction, or from advertisers and agencies that use systems like DoubleClick.
Targeting: the right ad at the right spot
The final step is to link the right campaigns to the right zones, effectively determining which ads will appear where. This can be combined with various forms of targeting, matching the display of ads to specific situations. OpenX Ad Server can handle targeting based on date, day and time, geographic are (country or city, and more), web browser used by the visitor, and language set by the visitor, to name just a few. There are also advanced targeting options, using known information about members or customers (like their gender, education or age range), or from known details about the site’s content and structure (for instance: display the ad only in the ‘news’ section or anywhere but the ‘sports’ pages).
Statistics: to measure is to manage
The OpenX Ad Server measures how often ads are displayed and clicked, and has reports for these numbers plus ad revenue for the publisher, advertiser and webmaster. It also has functionality to measure conversions, leads or transactions on the advertiser’s website that occur as a result on a click on a banner that was displayed on the publisher’s site.
Starting to use OpenX: hosting and scalability
OpenX Ad Server is a free open source application that can be installed on a publisher’s server. It was developed in the PHP programming language and stores data using the MySQL database, both of which are also open source software. Except for time and hardware, there are no additional costs, and no license fees. Another option is to hire a specialized hosting company to handle the technical aspects.
The OpenX Ad Server can be utilized by small and large websites. The system has been designed to enable installation on a cluster of web servers, allowing it to grow alongside the growth of the sites. There are companies that display in excess of 1 billion ads per month using OpenX Ad Server. That does involve quite a bit of hardware of course.
Nowadays one can also open an account on OpenX Hosted, on offer by the OpenX.org company. This is free of charge up to a volume of 100 million ads per month. For anything above that, there are paid enterprise accounts.
OpenX Market: an advertising market place
Giving away an open source system for free obviously isn’t generating any revenue for the developers. In April of 2009 the OpenX.org company launched a new product that is going to take care of that: OpenX Market. It is effectively an extension to the ad server. With any campaign defined, the ad server can contact the OpenX Market in real time, looking for an ad that has a higher bid than a floor price that is determined by the publisher. Advertisers are bidding against each other, and the highest bidder wins the ad position. If there are no bids that exceed the floor price, the publisher’s own campaign will be displayed. For site owners, this provides a risk free way of testing the open market for higher ad revenue. The OpenX.org company makes money from the OpenX Market through a 20% markup on the floor price, as part of the bidding process.
The features mentioned above are in fact only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more advanced features and use cases.
Advanced applications and extensions
With the release of version 2.8 of the OpenX Ad Server software, another important feature was released for the first time: the plugin architecture. This enables third party developers to change or extend the functionality of the core system without having to modify that same core directly. This is an approach that has proven to be highly successful in other open source software like blogging tool WordPress or web shop system Magento.
More information about OpenX?
There is a lot of information about the system and functionality on the www.openx.org website. The software is available for free download there, but one can also open a free account on OpenX Hosted.
Consulting and Support for OpenX
OpenX Ad Server is a large system, and it will take a bit of effort and energy to get acquainted with it. One can get external help too, since there are a number of independent consultants around the world.