Having worked at a self-serve demand side platform (DSP) for over 2 years, one of the most common questions I get when trying to explain the concept of a DSP to others is: “Isn’t that kind of like AdWords?” Even amongst experienced marketers, most only have a vague idea of how DSPs work and how they ultimately differ from a platform like Google AdWords.
Most DSPs are similar to AdWords in that they are used to create ad campaigns. But, DSPs provide advertisers access into the vendor-neutral RTB ecosystem; whereas AdWords only allows campaigns to run within the Google network. The differences go beyond that, as well, especially on the display advertising side of things.
In this article, I’m going to break down the major differences between AdWords and DSPs, with the caveat being that no two DSPs are the same and therefore certain generalizations are required. Being that I work for SiteScout, there will obviously be some bias in that regard.
Extent Of Reach
Reach is one of the major differentiators between AdWords and most DSPs. When you are dealing with audience targeting (retargeting) or contextual targeting, reach (or the number of sites and impressions available) is crucial to achieving scale.
The reach of the RTB ecosystem is unparalleled in the history of online display advertising. DSPs centralize access to inventory from well over a dozen supply-side platforms (SSPs), enabling access to a pool of over 15 billion impressions per day and rising. With the relatively recent addition of the Facebook Exchange (FBX), there is no question that DSPs have the upper hand in terms of reach.
This means that with the right targeting data, you can basically find your audience anywhere on the web (whether or desktops, tablets, or mobile devices) and show them your ads.
On the other hand, the Google Display Network (GDN), as available through AdWords, is limited only to Google/DoubleClick properties. Inventory from GDN is also available through DSPs as part of the Google/DoubleClick Ad Exchange (AdEx), among other premium publisher inventory. (Note: Non-GDN inventory on Google AdEx is not available through AdWords!)
With respect to targeting, many of the options available on AdWords are also available on DSPs: geographic targeting, day parting, frequency capping, and so on. Even more advanced targeting options like retargeting (or remarketing) are also available on both platforms. However, DSPs are unquestionably more effective at targeting audiences, given the reach of the RTB ecosystem.
Contextual targeting (i.e., targeting specific URLs based on the topic of the page) is another similarity between the two platforms, even though there are some differences in implementation. AdWords allows contextual targeting by keyword or category, while DSPs typically only allow for targeting by category.
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