What Is Contextual Advertising? Why Is It Important?

Brock Munro
January 27, 2021
March 26, 2024
What Is Contextual Advertising? Why Is It Important?

Contextual advertising is an advertising strategy that makes sure displayed ads align seamlessly with a web page's content. If a user is reading a movie review blog, based on the context, ads could show them discounted movie tickets or subscriptions to a streaming service.

The primary goal of contextual advertising is to provide a better user experience by displaying ads that are more relevant to the user. 

AI-powered contextual ads can precisely target internet users with content related to the host website’s content. With third-party cookies cet to be phased out, contextual advertising is set to gain importance in the near future, such that global contextual ad spend is projected to grow by  13.8% per year between 2022 and 2030.

Table of contents:

What Is Contextual Advertising?

What Is Contextual Targeting?

Google AdSense and Contextual Advertising

5 Contextual Advertising Examples

Contextual vs Behavioral Advertising

Advantages of Contextual Advertising

Which Advertising Strategy Is Better: Contextual vs. Behavioral?

Final Words

What Is Contextual Advertising?

Contextual advertising is a type of targeted advertising that takes keywords and content of the web page into consideration when displaying ads instead of user behavior.

The ads are placed on web pages depending on the content of those pages, rather than data gleaned from the consumer's online behavior and the entire process is facilitated through contextual targeting.

For instance, if a visitor is reading an article about makeup tips, there could be ads on the web page related to cosmetics and other fashion products. They are displayed on the basis of where the user currently is instead of focusing on where the user has been.

Contextual advertising enables publishers to create a robust marketing strategy through contextual targeting, based on the relevance of the environment rather than collecting user data to curate targeted ads (i.e. behavioral targeting).

Contextual advertising is an exceptional alternative for advertisers, ad publishers, and brands who can't or choose not to deploy an advertising strategy based on behavioral targeting.

What Is Contextual Targeting?

Contextual targeting places ads on a web page based on the page's content, increasing their relevance to audience’s interest. Since the content of the ads is similar to the context of the content, the targeting strategy is called contextual.

Contextual Targeting

Contextual Targeting

How Does Contextual Targeting Work

In contextual targeting, the user's interest and intent is assessed by leveraging information about session data. This is in contrast to behavioral targeting in which cookies are used to recreate a user's browsing behavior.

How Does Contextual Targeting Work

Generally, the process works as follows:

1. Choose Keyword or Topic-Based Parameters for Contextual Targeting

An advertising system needs to know what your campaign is about in order to place your ads on relevant web pages. In keyword and topic-based contextual advertising, the ad publisher relies either on the primary keyword associated with the web page or its topic.

In short, if the keywords or topics you've chosen match the central theme of a website, your ad is eligible to show up on that site.

Relevant ads can be displayed in the form of banners, carousels, and more. Keep in mind that this requires manual judgment and execution on the part of the publisher. They need to ensure the ads they're displaying align with the interests of the target audience.

Topics generally include a broader category that fits your ad campaign.

For example, fashion, sports, vehicles, etc. You can run your ads on the basis of these categories using Google Display Network (GDN).

They also give you the option to be more precise by selecting sub-topics or sub-categories.

For example, advertisers can select women's fashion, then go on to pick from a number of sub-categories like bags, footwear, tops, and more.

2. Google Analyzes the Pages in Its Network

Once you place your order, Google will try to match your ad with the most relevant content. It takes into account text, language, page structure, link structure, and your keywords—in addition to other targeting.

When using the GDN, you can set your network settings to either broad or specific reach. With broad reach, your ad will be based on topic targeting.

With specific reach, your ads will appear only on pages that match keywords and at least one of your targeted topics.

3. Your Ad Is Placed

After the above analysis is complete, the display network finds a placement that matches your ad contextually.

What Is the Difference Between Contextual Targeting and Behavioral Targeting?

The main difference between contextual targeting and behavioral targeting is that while the former shows ads based on the web page's content, behavioral targeting serves up ads based on the user's past online behavior and browsing history.

Contextual and behavioral targeting are easy to confuse, but they are not the same.

Behavioral targeting is a marketing method that uses web user information to strengthen ad campaigns. Unlike contextual targeting, the technique involves gathering data about the potential customer's online browsing and shopping behaviors to then target consumers based on the actions they take.

In contextual targeting, automated systems display ads related to the content of a site based solely on keyword targeting.

Google AdSense and Contextual Advertising

Google AdSense, which is served ads by the GDN or a Google-certified ad network, uses bots to evaluate the page for the keywords and assess its content before displaying contextual ads.

Apart from reading the text, Google AdSense can also provide context for ad targeting based on the images and what's written on them.

When you go with automated advertising, the ad publisher delivers the contextual data including categories, tags, content, keywords, URL, and more to the ad server.

This information is then transferred to the ad networks, exchanges, or SSPs that provide it to the DSP which finally returns contextual ads.

On the other hand, when it comes to header bidding, the ad publishers send the contextual data to the wrapper that transfers it to the exchanges or SSPs through ad requests. The information is passed on in the form of bid requests to relevant DSPs.

5 Contextual Advertising Examples 

1. PayPal's Business Solutions

Forbes is known for its business-focused content, which makes PayPal's decision to advertise its business solutions on the site a logical decision. PayPal’s banner ad uses the slogan "For Your Business", highlighting its tailored approach.

Screenshot of the PayPal ad on the Forbes website.

This strategy isn't just about visibility, it works because it aligns with Forbes' traditional discourse and has a better chance of connecting with the target audience.

2. SunValley 

SunValley’s ads for ski resort amenities appeared within the Outside magazine, whose target audience consists of those interested in outdoor experiences and adventures. More specifically, however, this ad appears in Outside's Snow Sports category.

Screenshot of SunValley's contextual placement of two ads on Outside.

Precision is key, and this ad speaks directly to avid ski enthusiasts. The advertiser’s approach targets the magazine’s audience, improving user experience, and boosting conversion rates among winter sports enthusiasts.

3. 12Go 

In our next example, we see 12Go’s banner ad at the top of the TripAdvisor page. 12Go provides a variety of services, including train and bus bookings, ferry rides, transfers, and flight ticket reservations.

12Go’s ad placement aligns perfectly with TripAdvisor's audience, which is interested in comprehensive travel solutions. The approach showcases a smart strategy leveraging location targeting to connect with potential new customers.

Screenshot of the 12Go’s ad on the TripAdvisor platform.

4. Dotdash Meredith 

For our next example, let’s look at Porche’s banner ad on InStyle’s Lifestyle category. InStyle’s own media kit describes its audience as “women with high spending capabilities”.

The Porsche ad doesn’t just appear anywhere on the site, but prominently within the Lifestyle category, where audiences are interested in everything from their careers to travel and astrology. 

Screenshot of InStyle page, where the Porsche ad appears.

The placement enhances the ad's effectiveness, aligning with the interests and preferences of users exploring diverse aspects of a refined and sophisticated lifestyle.

5. Surfer

Finally, we see a Surfer ad on the Search Engine Journal website, offering SEO lessons. It’s a prime example of how Surfer has effectively applied contextual targeting to promote their services in a highly relevant environment. 

Screenshot of Surfer's prominent ad placement on the Search Engine Journal website.

Surfer is appealing to an audience already interested in reading news on search engines by offering them advanced SEO solutions. This move highlights the effectiveness of contextual advertising by Surfer, with its courses more likely to resonate with SEO professionals.

Contextual vs Behavioral Advertising

Publishers need to remember that these terms do not mean the same thing.

  • Context targeting is all about the environment in which the users or visitors explore, browse, and shop.
  • Contextual advertising focuses on the relevance of content, keywords, topics, and images.

For example, if visitors are on a power tools website and they see an ad for repair parts for the same tools, they are the subject of contextual advertising. It has very little to do with their behavior and everything to do with the environment they are in.

On the other hand, behavioral advertising works differently.

  • It tracks the actions and preferences of the visitors.
  • It's based on the past behavior of the user instead of their environment.

For example, in behavioral ads, if a visitor has read an article about affordable hosting services and now they are on a website that sells shoes, they may see ads related to hosting services.

Such ads won't have anything to do with footwear but since the advertising is based on the user's behavior and what they did earlier, they are seeing those ads.

After comparing and contrasting contextual and behavioral advertising, it might seem like the behavioral approach is an upgraded version of contextual advertising.

After all, why would advertisers match their ad with the content of a web page if they can track user behavior for deeper personalization?

Nonetheless, there are some advantages of contextual advertising that behavioral and other advertising alternatives do not have. Let's take a look at a few of the greatest.

Advantages of Contextual Advertising

Contextual advertising work is rooted in the environment in which the user is exploring or shopping, it offers a diverse variety of benefits to both the ad publishers and the users.

Some of the major benefits of contextual advertising include the following.

1. Contextual Advertising Isn't Subject to Privacy Regulations

In order to run an effective behavioral advertising campaign, ad publishers need to collect user data through different channels including the following:

  • The operating system they're using
  • The websites they are visiting
  • What they like and what they dislike
  • Which buttons and CTAs they click on

With publishers needing to accumulate as much data as possible, regulations such as the General Data Protection Act (GDPR) can become a hurdle.

Although it's a consumer-friendly initiative, privacy-oriented legislation has made it a challenge for advertising businesses to gather data regarding user behavior.

There is now one more step involved–that is to ask for permission from the user.

If they don't opt-in, data collection becomes impossible. Having said that, contextual advertising does not require any personal information related to the visitors and still serves relevant ads to the users. This makes it a more convenient option for advertisers.

2. Convenient and Economical Execution

One study suggests that contextual ads are much cheaper than the alternatives. Since data collection is the bedrock of behavioral ads, it requires quite a lot of human and financial resources for effective implementation.

Apart from that, you also need strategies, tools, and software to ensure the whole process is adequately optimized. Brands that don't have the resources to do so have a slim chance of implementing behavioral ad campaigns in an effective manner.

The most logical alternative is contextual advertising where brands can still serve relevant ads to their audience without having to spend an exceptional amount of resources and dealing with privacy regulations.

It is much easier to implement and also more affordable, especially for startups and small businesses.

3. Easier to Manage Brand Reputation

One of the major risks of depending on user behavior to display ads is exposing the website to display a wide variety of ads from any industry.

Ad publishers can exercise some control over this by excluding adult and violent categories but still a few ads can sneak in and show up on the website. It means that a brand has limited control over what types of ads show up on their website which could be damaging for their reputation.

Once again, this is not a risk factor with contextual advertising since ads are shown strictly on the basis of the keywords or topic targeting regardless of what users have been watching, reading, or interacting with.

Displaying contextual advertisements enables websites to only display relevant ads without risking their reputation.

4. At Times Context Is More Relevant Than Behavior

The entire point of behavioral advertising is to serve personalized ads to the users depending on what they've been doing, reading, or watching. However, that's not always the case. Some users only engage in certain behavior because they have particular interests but no intention to purchase anything.

Similarly, past behavior isn't necessarily an accurate predictor of current needs and requirements. This is not to disparage behavioral advertising as it has its place, but to point out that it's not always the best advertising strategy.

There are times when what's more important to the visitor of a website is what they are seeing right now instead of what they have seen a few days ago. Contextual advertising is a better alternative strategy for targeting such visitors.

5. Privacy-Oriented Advertising

There are brands where target audiences are quite aware of their privacy and don't want websites or advertisers collecting their personal data.

Moreover, there has long been a debate about the ethics of collecting user data, especially when it's done so without permission.

Technology-oriented brands such as consumer electronics blogs and cryptocurrency exchanges have target audiences that are privacy-aware and often don't allow these services to install cookies on their devices which can be used to track their internet activity.

In terms of privacy concerns, contextual advertising can be used by a brand or ad publisher, so they can still earn revenue while complying with these issues.

Which Advertising Strategy Is Better: Contextual vs. Behavioral?

To flat out pick one over the other wouldn't be fair, given that both contextual and behavioral targeting strategies have their pros and cons.

Although advertisers use behavioral targeting quite often, there are times when contextual is a better choice. It helps brands launch an advertising campaign that doesn't require a lot of resources for perfect implementation.

Contextual advertising solutions also ensure websites or advertisers don't have to scrape personal user data and worry about ensuring compliance with GDPR regulations as they can simply go for keyword targeting.

Final Words

When we talk about contextual advertising, we talk about a marketing strategy that is solely based on the environment that a user is in. From content and keywords to images and web copy, everything is taken into account for advertising contextual marketing content effectively.

Contextual advertising puts the control in the hands of advertisers or ad publishers instead of the user, allowing them to focus on the present behavior of the visitor instead of what they have done in the past. Plus, contextual advertising is far more economical and easily implemented. It can be a great alternative for new and small businesses.

If you're making more than $2,000 in monthly ad revenue, contact us today to learn more about how Publift can help increase your ad revenue and best optimize the ad space available on your website or app.

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