How latency emerged as publishers’ worst user-experience headache

It’s frustrating for publishers that despite all of the advanced technology at their fingertips, it’s still difficult to accomplish something as simple as getting your ads to load quickly.

At the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado, last week, publishing execs said that latency is still one of the biggest problems on their mind. But solving this problem isn’t a quick fix because everyone in the ad food chain — publishers, advertisers, vendors — has imperatives that contribute to slower page loads. Publishers want to load more ads, advertisers want to add pixels to ensure their KPIs are being met and vendors work to stay on-page where they’re harder to remove.

“The biggest challenge, because there are so many people who touch the page, is if any one of them is not taking it seriously, the whole thing can become problematic,” said Business Insider CRO Pete Spande. “It really requires a village, and a lot of times a shortcut is made.”

Jeremy Sadwith, vp of engineering at mobile ad tech company Kargo, said that most publishers do not have a sophisticated-enough tech stack to identify and block which ad units are causing the most latency. This leads publishers to rely more on third-party vendors who want to keep their tags on-page.

“Since many of us have third parties plugged into our ad stacks, as well as other measurement tools living on our pages, it’s really difficult for us publishers to [reduce latency] alone,” said Mike Shaughnessy, vp of revenue at Bauer Xcel Media.

Publishers are also prone to overloading their page with recommendation widgets and letting the auctions for their inventory run long since more bids come in the longer an auction runs, which drives up sales prices. The technology exists to clean these problems up, but publishers don’t always prioritize latency, even if it is a pain point.

“Publishers have been so occupied with how they can increase their revenue per user that they haven’t considered if they should be doing so,” said Adam Hecht, vp of monetization at ad tech firm SintecMedia. “All of the tech has exacerbated the problem rather than solved it.”

Spande noted that even if publishers adopt new protocols to make their sites load faster that doesn’t mean that the agencies creating the ads will do likewise. For example, BI still receives video ads that are designed for outdated Flash players. But Flash-based ads will load more slowly than HMTL5-based ads, even if the ads are the same size and format. And if the site loads faster than the ads within it, the user will have a bad experience

“You have two latency issues, which are both important to publishers,” Spande said. “If you are successful with one, it can exacerbate the problem with the other.”

Another factor that keeps latency in the forefront of publishers’ minds is that more ad spend is going toward video. Publishers want video ads on their sites since they command higher CPMs, but these ads slow down page loads, and agencies pushing these ads and their associated tags through big exchanges aren’t designing the creative for particular publishers, said Paul Bannister, co-founder of CafeMedia. Instead, large dense ads are sold to everyone on the platform, and publishers accept these ads because few are in a position to turn away money.

Advertisers have also tacked on more vendor pixels to their ads in an effort mitigate fraud and improve viewability. But this slows the system down, and if publishers have an issue with a particular ad, it can be difficult for them to find the proper contact point if the ad was sold in an open programmatic market.

Ad tech
Hecht said that exchanges and ad servers could reduce latency if they upgraded their technology more often, but they don’t have incentive to in many cases. Web development and engineering resources can’t be allocated everywhere, and clients typically ask for upgrades on things that are visible to them like tracking and reporting.

Moving from on-page bidding to server-to-server connections will also speed up page loads, but few publishers are moving their auctions completely to servers. Most publishers getting into server-side header bidding are using a hybrid model since methods of selling inventory aren’t mutually exclusive.

As long as publishers are keeping bidders on page, header bidding will still create latency problems, said Justin Festa, evp of digital at LittleThings. A major hurdle of going completely server-to-server is that tech vendors are hesitant to integrate into each other’s products.

“While everyone is talking about server-to-server, everyone is talking about their own server-to-server solution,” said Marco Samuel, programmatic manager at IBT Media.

Unless publishers sell most of their programmatic inventory through private marketplace deals, it is inevitable that they will deal with middlemen. And the interest of individual ad tech firms can conflict with the interests of the broader industry.

“Each of these individual vendors are concerned with their own performance, but they aren’t concerned with how their latency affects the rest of the ecosystem,” he said. “We forget that it is an ecosystem and that a small change from one player can have an effect on the rest.”

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