Online Tracking and Publishers’ Revenues: An Empirical Analysis

Marotta, Veronica; Abhishek, Vibhanshu; Acquisti, Alessandro

While the impact of targeted advertising on advertisers’ campaign effectiveness has been vastly documented, much less is known about the value generated by online tracking and targeting technologies for publishers – the websites that sell ad spaces. In fact, the conventional wisdom that publishers benefit too from behaviorally targeted advertising has rarely been scrutinized in academic studies. We investigate how the (un)availability of users’ cookies, which affects the ability of advertisers to perform behavioral targeting, impacts publishers’ revenues. We leverage a rich dataset of millions of advertising transactions completed across multiple websites owned by a large media company. We implement an augmented version of the inverse probability weighting, a double-robust estimator that allows us to estimate effects even in the presence of potential confounding. We find that when a user’s cookie is available publisher’s revenue increases by only about 4%. This corresponds to an average increase of $0.00008 per advertisement. The results contribute to the current debate over online behavioral advertising, and how benefits accrued from tracking and targeting online consumers may be differentially allocated to various stakeholders in the advertising ecosystem.