Ad Tech & Ad Ops

What are Auto-refresh Ads and How do They Work?

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There are a lot of techniques and hacks that web publishers use to maximise ad revenue such as A/B testing, header bidding, lazy loading ads, et al. One such commonly used technique is known as auto-refresh ads.

In this post, we’re going to explain what auto-refresh ads are, how they work, who should use them, and things to keep in mind before implementing them.

What are Auto-refresh Ads?

With standard display ads, the user requests the webpage, which triggers the ad server to load ads in the available slots. And that’s where the process ends.

In contrast, when auto-refreshing is enabled, the ad server will load a new set of ads in the same session on the webpage based on a predefined logic. This way, a website user can potentially be served multiple set of ads within a single session.

In theory, this can help publishers increase revenue-per-session. Sounds great, so what’s the catch? Well, it doesn’t work for all publishers or in all scenarios. We’ll get to that later.

How do Auto-refresh Ads Work?

Notice that I highlighted “predefined logic” in the section above, auto-refresh ads work based on different types of triggers that can be configured by the publisher.

In Google Ad Exchange (AdX), these triggers are:

  • User action-based: Ads are refreshed based on actions taken by the user, for instance, using site search, scrolling the webpage or clicking on the screen.
  • Event-based: Ads are refreshed when content is updated on the webpage based on event triggers set by the publisher, for instance, a live sports ticker.
  • Time-based: Ads are refreshed based on set time durations such as 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds, etc. It’s not advisable to set refresh time under 30 seconds.

Who Should Use Auto-Refresh Ads?

Auto-refresh ads are best suited for publishers who command above average session time. For example, a web-based game publisher may set auto-refresh ads—because it’s understood that users will likely stay on a single webpage for the entire duration of their gameplay.

To make the most out of auto-refreshing ads, you must have a legitimate need for using it. Some publishers set auto-refresh ads with a low refresh interval (less than or under 30s) in an attempt to cram as many ads as possible in a single session. This is the wrong approach and will affect ad viewability and CPMs negatively in the long run.

A lot of buyers are wary of auto-refresh ads. “When we buy an ad, we expect the ad to not change until the user refreshes the page,” says Barry Lowenthal, President of Media Kitchen. “These kinds of auto-refreshes also reduce viewability, which of course we’re all trying to avoid. I think it’s a shady way to increase revenue.” Buyers are justified in worrying about this, especially when auto-refresh implemented on a CPM model, as they may end up paying the full price for impressions that were actually interrupted by a time trigger.

Another thing to note is that not all networks and exchanges support auto-refreshing ads. Google AdSense does not allow auto-refresh ads, while Google Ad Exchange, Rubicon, OpenX, and many others do. Also, every exchange has its own policy about auto-refresh ads, not adhering to which can lead to your publisher account being suspended or banned.

Impact on Ad Revenue & Site Performance

Under the right conditions, auto-refresh can help publishers grow their overall ad revenue by increasing revenue-per-session. That being said, CPMs tend to decline with each successive instance of refresh. According to data collected by Sortable, refreshing an ad placement once reduces CPM by almost 10%, while reducing it 5 times reduces it by 25%.

Conversely, auto-refreshing will lead to higher bandwidth usage and a drop in user experience for any website. For every refresh, the webpage will make new HTTP requests to the ad server, and consume data while fetching the new set of ad creatives. Most users can tell when ads are being refreshed and it can lead to the webpage appearing jerky or flashing.

All this just goes to show that you shouldn’t enable auto-refresh ads unless you meet the precondition needed for its optimal use, i.e., high session time and time on site.

Ad Refresh Best Practices

If you’ve decided to setup auto-refresh ads, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Read the network policy: Make sure you understand your network’s policy on auto-fresh ads. Are they allowed? Is there a minimum time interval? Are you required to label your inventory to show that you use auto-refresh ads? Knowing the answers to these questions beforehand may save you from policy violations later.
  • Longer intervals are better: Advertisers value inventory with higher intervals between refreshes. And it’s better for the user experience of your website as well. Anything under 60 seconds is not enough time for users to meaningfully engage with ads. A 240 second refresh interval can offer a good balance between revenue and user experience.
  • Run an A/B test: Test the auto-refresh ads on a section of your website by experimenting with different refresh time intervals. Make sure you benchmark the test results against a control setup, that way you will know whether enabling auto-refresh ads will actually drive any improvement in revenue or not before you go site-wide.

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