Header Bidding vs Real-Time Bidding (RTB): What’s the Difference?

Last Updated: May 23, 20247.2 min readCategories: Marketing, Programmatic Advertising

In the ever-evolving landscape of programmatic advertising, understanding the nuances between different bidding strategies is crucial for maximizing ad performance. Two prominent methods are header bidding and real-time bidding (RTB).

This article will discuss the difference between header bidding and RTB, exploring their unique features, advantages, and challenges, to help you make informed decisions for your advertising strategy.

What Is Real-Time Bidding?

Real-time bidding (RTB) is an automated process that allows advertisers to bid on ad impressions in real-time as a user loads a webpage.

This process takes place in milliseconds, enabling advertisers to target specific audiences more effectively based on data. RTB is a cornerstone of programmatic advertising, offering efficiency and precision in ad placements.

How Does RTB Work?

RTB operates through a series of interconnected steps that involve various platforms and exchanges to facilitate the bidding process.

  • Step 1 – Ad Impression Availability: When a user visits a webpage, the publisher’s supply-side platform (SSP) notifies ad exchanges that an ad impression is available.
  • Step 2 – Bid Request: The ad exchange then sends a bid request to multiple demand-side platforms (DSPs), providing information about the user and the available impression.
  • Step 3 – Bid Submission: DSPs analyze the bid request, leveraging data to determine the value of the impression, and submit bids in real-time to the ad exchange.
  • Step 4 – Auction: The ad exchange conducts an auction, where bids from various DSPs and ad networks are evaluated to determine the highest bidder.
  • Step 5 – Ad Delivery: The winning bid is selected, and the corresponding ad is delivered to the user’s webpage almost instantly.
  • Step 6 – Reporting and Analysis: Post-impression, data is collected and analyzed to assess the performance of the ad, providing insights for future bidding strategies.

Related: DSP, SSP, and Ad Exchange: What’s the Difference?

Advantages of RTB

RTB offers several significant benefits that make it a powerful tool in programmatic advertising.

  • Efficiency: RTB automates the ad buying process, reducing the time and effort required for manual negotiations and placements.
  • Targeting Precision: Advertisers can target specific audiences with high accuracy using data-driven insights, ensuring ads reach the most relevant users.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: By bidding in real-time, advertisers can optimize their ad spend, ensuring they only pay for impressions that are likely to convert.
  • Scalability: RTB can handle a vast number of impressions and bids simultaneously, making it suitable for large-scale campaigns.
  • Performance Transparency: Detailed reporting and analytics allow advertisers to track performance metrics closely, enabling continuous optimization of ad strategies.

Disadvantages of RTB

While RTB has numerous benefits, it also presents several challenges that advertisers must navigate. These challenges, coincidentally, are the ones that header bidding seeks to solve.

  • Sequential Bidding: RTB only allows one bid at a time using a waterfall method, which can lead to inefficiencies and missed opportunities for higher bids.
  • Latency Issues: The process of sequential bidding often causes latency issues, resulting in delays and missed ad impressions, which can negatively impact campaign performance.
  • Lower Publisher Revenue: By not opening up bids to everyone at the same time, RTB can result in lower revenue for publishers compared to more simultaneous bidding methods.
  • Limited Competition: The waterfall approach limits competition, as only one bidder at a time gets a chance to place a bid, potentially reducing the overall quantity of bids.
  • Inconsistent Ad Quality: With fewer bidders in the sequential process, the quality and relevance of ads may vary, leading to less effective ad placements and lower user engagement.

What Is Header Bidding?

Header bidding is an advanced programmatic advertising technique that allows multiple demand sources to bid on ad inventory simultaneously before the ad server makes a call.

This method enhances competition among advertisers, often leading to higher bids and increased revenue for publishers. By enabling multiple bids at once, header bidding improves the efficiency and transparency of the ad auction process.

How Does Header Bidding Work?

Header bidding operates through a series of steps that enhance the traditional ad bidding process by enabling multiple bids simultaneously.

  • Step 1 – Page Load: When a user loads a webpage, a script in the header of the page initiates the header bidding process before the content fully renders.
  • Step 2 – Bid Request Sent: The script sends bid requests to multiple demand partners, including SSPs and DSPs, simultaneously. This occurs in real-time as the page continues to load.
  • Step 3 – Bid Response: Demand partners respond with their bids, each providing the highest amount they are willing to pay for the ad impression. This process typically happens within milliseconds.
  • Step 4 – Bid Evaluation: The browser collects all the bids and evaluates them to determine the highest bid. The winning bid is then selected, ensuring the most competitive price for the ad space.
  • Step 5 – Ad Server Call: The highest bid is sent to the publisher’s ad server, where it competes with direct-sold ads and other programmatic demand. The ad server ultimately decides which ad to display based on the highest yield.
  • Step 6 – Ad Display: The selected ad is displayed to the user, completing the header bidding process without a noticeable delay in page load time.

Advantages of Header Bidding

Header bidding offers several key benefits that address many of the limitations found in traditional RTB methods.

  • Increased Competition: By allowing multiple demand sources to bid simultaneously, header bidding increases competition, leading to higher bid prices and greater revenue for publishers.
  • Reduced Latency: Unlike traditional RTB, header bidding reduces latency by collecting bids before the ad server call, ensuring faster ad delivery and a smoother user experience.
  • Higher Publisher Revenue: With more bidders participating at once, publishers can achieve higher CPMs, maximizing their ad revenue compared to the sequential bidding process in RTB.
  • Improved Ad Quality: The increased competition among bidders generally leads to higher quality and more relevant ads being displayed to users, enhancing overall ad effectiveness.
  • Transparency and Control: Publishers gain greater transparency into the bidding process and more control over their inventory, allowing them to optimize their ad strategies more effectively.

Disadvantages of Header Bidding

Despite its advantages, header bidding also comes with several challenges that need to be considered.

  • Data Privacy Concerns: With more demand partners accessing user data, header bidding can raise privacy concerns and complicate compliance with data protection regulations.
  • Compatibility Issues: Implementing header bidding can be challenging due to browser compatibility issues, as not all browsers handle the additional scripts efficiently.
  • Risk of Duplicate Bids: The simultaneous nature of header bidding increases the risk of duplicate bids, which can complicate bid evaluation and ad placement decisions.
  • Limited Ad Requests: Some browsers and devices limit the number of simultaneous ad requests, potentially restricting the effectiveness of header bidding.
  • Potential for Ad Fraud: The increased complexity and multiple points of integration in header bidding can create opportunities for ad fraud if not properly managed and monitored.

Summary of Key Differences

That was a lot of information, so let’s create a quick summary. There are a few broad categories that we will summarize, but if all else fails, remember this:

Real-time bidding is a subset of programmatic advertising, and header bidding is a subset of RTB.

Bidding Process

  • RTB: Real-time bidding operates on a sequential basis, where each bid is evaluated one at a time in a waterfall method. This can lead to inefficiencies and missed opportunities for higher bids.
  • Header Bidding: Header bidding allows multiple bids to be submitted simultaneously before the ad server call, increasing competition and potentially leading to higher revenue for publishers.

Latency and Speed

  • RTB: The sequential nature of RTB often results in latency issues, causing delays in ad delivery and sometimes missing ad impressions altogether.
  • Header Bidding: Header bidding reduces latency by pre-collecting bids and making the ad server call only once, ensuring faster ad delivery and a smoother user experience.

Revenue Potential

  • RTB: Due to its waterfall bidding process, RTB can result in lower revenue for publishers, as not all bidders are given an equal opportunity to bid on every impression.
  • Header Bidding: Header bidding generally leads to higher CPMs and increased revenue for publishers by allowing all bidders to compete simultaneously for each impression, maximizing the value of each ad slot.

Header Bidding vs RTB: Final Thoughts

Navigating the intricacies of header bidding vs RTB is crucial for optimizing programmatic advertising efforts. Header bidding, as an improvement over traditional RTB, addresses many of the limitations of sequential bidding, offering increased competition, reduced latency, and higher revenue potential for publishers. However, it also introduces its own set of challenges, such as data privacy concerns and potential compatibility issues.

Understanding these key differences and their impact on your ad strategy can help you make more informed decisions, ultimately enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of your digital marketing campaigns.

Did you find this article helpful? Give it a share!

News Via Inbox

Get our monthly report on all the latest and greatest trends in digital marketing.