There are usually two different measures that auction designers attempt optimizing for: efficiency (social welfare) and auctioneer revenue. A “better” auction often improves both efficiency and revenue but in other cases these are conflicting goals. It is well known that efficiency is optimized by Vickerey Auctions while revenue is optimized by Myerson optimal auctions. I often hear cynical doubts about whether anyone optimizes efficiency rather than revenue, and specifically such disbelief regarding the big companies running ad auctions (such as my current employer, Google). As far as I can tell, reality seems to be quite the opposite: companies aim to optimize their long-term or middle-term revenue rather than the revenue of a single auction. In a competitive environment the only way of optimizing long term revenue is by gaining and maintaining market share which in turn requires providing high “added-value” i.e. optimizing efficiency.
In any case, this post points out to a paper by Gagan Aggarwal, Gagan Goel and Aranyak Mehta recently posted to the arXiv. Complementing a result of Jeremy Bulow and Paul Klemperer, they show that the difference between the two different optimization goals is not very large compared to increasing the number of bidders. The setting is the classic one of selling a single indivisible good in the private value model with a commonly known distribution over bidders’ valuations (with some mild restrictions on the distribution). The BK paper shows that the revenue of an efficiency-maximizing auction with k+1 bidder is at least as high as that of the revenue-maximizing one with k bidders. The new AGM paper shows that the efficiency of a revenue-maximizing auction with k+logk bidders is at least as high as that of an efficiency-maximizing one with k bidders (and that the logk term is necessary).
[Added on 10.6: Thanks to Tim Roughgarden for pointing out to me his closely related joint paper with Mukund Sundararajan that generalizes the BK result to an ad-auction setting, as well as provides direct revenue guarentees without increasing the number of bidders.]