Between dealing with ad blockers, ensuring GDPR compliance and keeping up with changing ad viewability standards, digital publishing is hard work. In the pursuit of more revenue, publishers usually focus on either increasing their ad inventory or optimizing the existing ad inventory. Ad refresh manages to do both.
While advertisers were initially wary of ad refresh, recently, a lot of vendors have introduced advertiser-friendly checks and balances, which have made ad refresh lucrative for both publishers and advertisers.
What is ad refresh?
Ad refresh (also known as auto-refresh ads) is a technique that allows publishers to increase the number of impressions served per session by refreshing ads for active users based on predefined triggers. Obviously, more impressions directly translate to greater revenue generated.
So, what’s the catch? First, ad refresh is not a suitable solution for all websites. Second, it is not offered by all networks. And third, if not implemented well, using ad refresh can actually backfire. Let’s tackle these considerations step by step.
Who should use ad refresh?
Ad refresh works well on websites with higher-than-average session duration and time on page. This makes sense since the longer a user is on a webpage, the higher the chances they will pay attention to the new set of ads. As a corollary, ad refresh is practically useless for websites that have high bounce rates because most users will be gone long before the ads have changed.
In our experience, websites that run high-impact ad units that score high on viewability metrics are best suited for ad refresh. Websites with long session durations, such as sites that feature niche content, educational material, utility tools and in-browser games, are also good candidates.
Do all networks allow ad refresh?
No. Whether or not you can use ad refresh depends on the ad network(s) you work with. Google AdSense is the largest ad network in the world by market share, but it doesn’t allow ad refresh -- in fact, trying to force it on your website may lead to an account ban.
On the other hand, Google Ad Exchange (AdX) provides support for refreshing ads, as do OpenX, Rubicon and many others. Networks offer many types of triggers. The most commonly used are:
• User action trigger: Ads are refreshed based on user actions on the website (e.g., using the search function, scrolling the webpage or clicking on the screen).
• Event trigger: Ads are refreshed based on custom events defined by the publisher, such as when the ticker for a live sports event changes.
• Time trigger: Ads are refreshed based on specified time intervals, such as 30 seconds, 60 seconds and 90 seconds. The 30-second trigger is commonly implemented by publishers, but 60-second is what brands, advertisers and ad networks tend to prefer.
How do refresh ads affect CPM and revenue?
Refresh ads can lead to lower cost per mille (CPM) for publishers. Here’s why: Advertisers know when a website is refreshing its ads, and consequently, they reduce the bids because they think their ad viewability will be reduced. This leads to lower CPMs.
However, it would be a mistake to use CPM as a metric to decide whether or not to use refresh ads. Even if CPMs are lowered, the overall revenue a publisher generates may be much higher because the total number of impressions served is much greater. The success metric for refresh ads, therefore, should be anything that directly correlates users, sessions or page views with revenue. This can include page revenue per thousand impressions (RPM) or earnings per thousand visitors (EPMV).
How do refresh ads affect page load times?
Since the initial page loads the same set of ads for a website regardless of whether refresh ads are enabled, page load times are not affected in any way. When a new set of ad creatives are loaded during a refresh, the browser will make a new set of HTTP requests to the server, and additional bandwidth will be consumed.
So, while refreshing ads does consume additional data, it doesn’t slow down the initial page load, which is the most important factor. Also, some publishers implement page refresh instead of ad refresh, hence the continuous page reloads, resulting in poor user experience and high bounce rate -- so steer clear of that.
A note about ad refresh and viewability
Ad refresh is a relatively new revenue optimization technique and, as such, is not perfect. Many publishers who use ad refresh set it up using Google’s ad products. While Google offers many types of triggers, it does not take viewability into account while refreshing ads. The problem with this approach is that a website may keep refreshing ad units that are actually outside the user’s viewport, therefore negatively affecting ad viewability metrics and making the inventory less attractive to buyers.
Remember, advertisers love a good viewability score. If they end up paying for ads that aren't viewed, they will stop buying ads from you, and the overall performance of your inventory will decline. Thankfully, there are multiple ad tech vendors that offer smarter solutions that refresh ads only if the viewability criteria is met. This way, publishers can reap the benefits of using ad refresh without the system damaging their ad viewability score.