Digital advertising jargon: decoded

Digital advertising jargon: decoded

Confused by cookies? Dumbfounded by data? Perplexed by programmatic? Our non-techie guide to the most commonly misunderstood terms in digital advertising is here to help.
Programmatic advertising

There are two main types of digital advertising: premium (see below) and programmatic. The latter gets all the attention because it involves the use of the much-debated tracking cookie to tell advertisers information about individual browsers, so they know if someone is more likely to respond to their ad (see more below).

Programmatic advertising is based on the real-time bidding process which allows many advertisers to submit bids for a specific ad space on a website at the same time. Essentially, advertisers compete for a publisher’s inventory (which is what advertising space is called online) via an auction. The bidder with the highest price gets their ad shown.

CAN’s Council Advertising Network uses tried and tested, bespoke advertising technology that delivers programmatic advertising in a way that optimises revenue for network partners.

We also use programmatic as the basis for the digital advertising campaigns we run on behalf of local councils through Citizen Reach™.  The websites campaign ads appear on are determined by anonymised data profiles of individuals’ browsing habits to ensure messages reach the groups of people they need to address. (Take a look at our webinar on programmatic advertising.)

Premium advertising

When an advertiser buys premium space on a website, they are getting guaranteed exposure for a defined price that’s higher than they’d pay in a real-time bidding process (see above). It’s the online equivalent of buying a physical ad space offline – like in a newspaper or magazine.

Our Council Advertising Network is a brand-safe option for advertisers. This is because it’s exclusively for the public sector and brands feel it’s guaranteed their ads will be surrounded by quality content that people need to look to regularly.

They also have the opportunity for more precise targeting of self-qualified audiences (the idea that people who are looking at certain webpages will be more likely to be in the market to buy certain goods or services).

So, someone browsing a page about planning regulations might be in the market for new furniture for their extension or double-glazing; someone looking for information on congestion charges might be thinking about buying a hybrid or electric vehicle; and someone on a benefits page might make good use of budget-conscious advertising for cut-price groceries or a better value energy tariff.

Category Approval List

There are a variety of ways in which responsible advertising networks can control the nature of advertising served on websites. It’s more important for our network of public sector websites than most as there are many types of product and service that just wouldn’t be suitable for this sort of environment.

The CAN Category Approval List (CAL) is crucial in this. When advertising companies and agencies submit an online ad, they need to choose a category for it. Our CAL automatically blocks ads that fall into a number of categories including political, alcohol, gambling, adult themes and payday loans.

Very occasionally an ad gets miscategorised, but if this occurs it is taken down quickly as the ads being served are continually monitored – and a partner can request an ad is taken down at any time.


This just refers to units of information. People use data to build sets of statistics they can then analyse to answer questions on all manner of subjects. For advertisers, it’s always been useful to create a picture through data of the sort of people who might want to buy their products and services so they can work out how best to sell to them.

It’s also useful to collect data on how ads have performed once they’ve been shown to learn lessons for the next time round about what worked and what didn’t.

Traditionally, marketers would ask people questions about their buying habits and other details about their lifestyle via market research: usually face-to-face or over the phone. Advertisers and marketers would then collate the data to build profiles of typical individuals, households and social groups and come up with suggestions on how, when and where to advertise to them based on these.

Since people moved their interactions online for a whole host of reasons, including making purchases – or at least making decisions about purchases they intend to make offline – advertisers have had access to more detailed data to use in this profiling.

Retail websites have first-hand (‘first party’) data that tells them what customers have bought in the past and can send them suggestions about what they might purchase in future based on these.

Then there is technology available online that can collect other anonymised data on browsing habits in general, and on demographical and other information that can relate to an individual (although this can’t identify an actual person) including perhaps age, sex, ethnic background and geographic location. Other ‘third party’ data, including some classed as ‘personalised’, can be obtained by deploying tracking cookies on websites (see below).

How ads have performed is measured via analytics tools, employed on almost all websites. These gauge how many devices an ad has been shown on (‘reach’), how many different times it’s appeared on devices (‘impressions’), how many ‘clicks’ there have been on an ad, the ‘click-through rate’ (the number of clicks divided by the number of times an advert is shown), and what sort of people have engaged by geo-location, age, gender and so forth.

You can see how this sort of data has also be used to support local councils with their communications campaigns with CAN’s Citizen Reach™ here.


‘Cookies’ store pieces of data on a web browser that relate to an individual’s transactions.

They remember log-in details for websites that require them, so you don’t have to. They are also used by search engines to store details of terms you’ve looked up and by retail websites to keep information on items browsed. Most websites rely on them in some way or other for a smoother user experience.

Where they only store details about interactions between an individual and a single website publisher, these cookies are known as ‘first party’.

Third party cookies

‘Third party’ cookies are placed on web browsers by an external company and not the website publisher. They collect information to deliver a specific service such as website analytics, surveys or social media.

This type of cookie is used extensively in website advertising for a range of purposes, including to cap the number of times an ad is shown to an individual user.

Advertising also uses a third party cookie known as a ‘tracking cookie’ which is distributed, shared and read across two or more unrelated websites for the purpose of presenting relevant advertising to the user.

As an example, if a user goes to a website with programmatic advertising (see above), the programmatic advertising exchange (that enables the buying and selling of online ad space from multiple networks) can place a cookie on the user’s computer. If the user then visits another, unrelated, website that also has advertising from the same exchange, it knows the user has visited both websites.

Nothing malicious has occurred in this scenario, but the exchange is able to determine (indirectly) all the websites where the user has been and it is present.

Even though the exchange cannot determine the identity of the user, there is much debate about whether tracking cookies should have a place in online transactions at all because of perceived risks to privacy. However, when used with consent controls in place and for a defined purpose only, they are useful to both individuals and brands.

CAN uses tracking cookies on the websites on its Council Advertising Network in order to collect limited information from an individual (which amounts to their ‘geo-location’ only) which – together with the webpage an individual is looking at – gives advertisers an idea of whether or not their product or service is something an individual would be interested in. It saves guesswork. And means the individual sees ads relevant to them.

These tracking cookies are considered ‘non-essential’ to the running of a website. As such, they cannot be saved onto anyone’s web browser unless they have first given their consent according to current regulations, which are particularly concerned with the collecting and sharing of ‘Personally Identifiable Information’ (PII) (see below and ‘What are the regulations that cover tracking cookies in the UK?’ on our Q&A page.

Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of 2018 set out to guard the privacy of the individual by restricting the way in which the data held by organisations is stored, used and shared.

It included in its remit data that could directly or indirectly identify a person – anything from a name or ID number, to DNA and cultural identity. Particularly relevant for website publishers and digital advertisers using the sort of tracking cookies described above, is that GDPR is concerned that ‘online identifiers’ like an IP address could be used on their own or in combination with other identifiers to infringe privacy.

The level of personal data collected by tracking cookies for the purpose of delivering ‘programmatic’ advertising (see above) amounts to an IP address only. This tells an advertiser the geo-location of their browsing – the general physical area – plus the sort of device and browser an individual is using, in order to serve ads relevant to them. The IP address doesn’t refer to a specific device, by the way, just the randomised string of numbers given to each individual browsing session.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has useful information about personal data and how it should be used here.

IAB Transparency and Consent Framework

IAB stands for the Internet Advertising Bureau. This body oversees the way in which the digital ad industry conducts itself. Its  IAB Europe Transparency and Consent Framework is the digital advertising industry’s accepted way of capturing consent to collect personal data. CAN’s Consent Management Platform – which is free for all public sector websites – incorporates the IAB standard to ensure consent choices are properly communicated to all exchanges and advertisers.

The IAB also publishes a list of approved advertising vendors to try to prevent cookies from unrecognised ad companies being dropped onto web browsers.

Digital ad units

The IAB also sets standards for the display ad units used on websites. Here are the most common ad units (which we use on the CAN network).

Leaderboard: the standard horizontal ad unit (728×90 pixels). It’s in the top portion of the screen and in view when a page loads.

MPU (‘mid-page unit’): a rectangle ad unit in two sizes (double MPU 300×600 pixels; MPU 300×250 pixels). The technology selects the size based on which delivers the higher income.

Skyscraper: a 160×600 pixels column-width vertical ad unit.

Mobile Sticky: a fixed ad unit at the bottom of a mobile screen. It measures 320×50 pixels in line with the smaller mobile screen size.

iBar: a CAN exclusive! A narrow (40 pixel) strip anchored to the bottom of the browser screen with up to nine linkable segments. Councils often make use of this to promote their own campaigns.T