An advertising network (ad network) is an online business that specializes in matching up advertisers to websites looking to host advertisements. Advertising networks work as brokers for both suppliers (sites with content that can host ads) and buyers (the advertisers). Joining an ad network frees sites from having to set up their own ad servers and invest in tracking software.
An advertising network essentially brokers advertisement campaigns by finding sites with content inventory that matches the needs of advertisers looking to run ads. The downside of ad networks is that a site must give up some control of its advertising. This means it may be more difficult for the site to be selective of the ads shown to users, or ensure they are getting the best possible ad revenue arrangement.
A Brief History
First, a walk down memory lane. Ad networks sprouted up during the dotcom boom that started in the mid '90s. As the number of sites and digital publishers proliferated, they needed a simple way to increase inventory demand and ad revenues. Likewise, advertisers needed help scaling their digital ad buys across a growing number of websites without having to deal with each publisher directly.
In the beginning, there was DoubleClick. Launched in 1996, the digital ad services agency pioneered the concept of an ad network and attracted buyer demand with its ad performance tracking and reporting solutions. The company acted as a middleman, brokering ad buys between advertisers and a network of publishers.
DoubleClick survived the dotcom bust of 2000, and Google bought it in 2007 for $3.1 billion. By that time, Google AdSense was four years old, having launched in 2003. Today, the Google Display Network of Google AdSense publishers is the world's biggest ad network, and DoubleClick for Publishers (DFP) acts as Google's premium network of publishers.
With the growth of mobile and video, ad networks that cater specifically to these areas formed, and many have been scooped up by the likes of Google (AdMob), Yahoo (Flurry and BrightRoll), Twitter (MoPub), AOL (Millenial Media, Adap.tv) and Facebook (LiveRail). TubeMogul and Tremor Video are examples of independent video ad networks.