Friday, November 21, 2014

"High-Frequency Traders Turn to the Online Ad Market"

From BusinessWeek:
In a red brick building in New York’s Chinatown filled with startups, a company uses custom computer programs to scout for opportunities, making millions of trades each day that generate tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. This company is not buying and selling stocks, bonds, or commodities: Its specialty is online ads.

High-frequency traders have found a new market to exploit. A growing percentage of the billions of display ads that pop up on computer screens are sold to the highest bidder at online marketplaces such as AppNexus, Microsoft Ad Exchange (MSFT), PubMatic, Rubicon Project (RUBI), and Yahoo! Ad Exchange (YHOO). Before the ads appear, they change hands in a complex volley of electronic trades among websites, ad space aggregators, exchanges, data analysts, and ad agencies. Real-time bidding “tends to be fabulously complicated,” says Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who studies online advertising. “The number of intermediaries in a single ad placement can be just extreme.”

That web of transactions creates opportunities for arbitrageurs. Using computer algorithms, traders can scan the markets for price discrepancies, buying and reselling ads for small profits in a fraction of a second. “I see a lot of guys who buy from one exchange, and they sell to another exchange,” says Edelman. “Some buy from an exchange and sell it right back to that very same exchange.”

Here’s a simplified version of how the process works. Let’s say Ford Motor wants to advertise to consumers who had shown they were in the market for a luxury car—women age 35-60 who searched for Mercedes on Google (GOOG), “liked” a story about BMWs on Facebook (FB), or looked on’s luxury car page. In each of those cases, Ford or an ad agency it hired, such as Omnicom Group, could create profiles of the people it was looking for and connect to an online exchange where advertisers buy spots. Websites send information on available space and audiences to the exchange. When Ford sees the audience it is looking for, it can bid for the space. If it wins, the carmaker’s luxury sedan ad immediately pops up on the website spot. The whole transaction takes place in 100 milliseconds or less....MORE