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The Context of Contextual Advertising

July 24, 2019

Consider what would happen if you searched Google for “athletic shoes,” but the first three results were: “dogs up for adoption,” “best universities in Texas,” and “triple A batteries”.

That wouldn’t be very helpful.

It would make much more sense if the search engine provided relevant links, like the Nike website and a map of shoe stores near your location.

Now, apply this concept of convenient relevance that search engines provide to advertising.

Understanding contextual advertising

Similar to search engines, contextual advertising works by targeting keywords that are relevant to the current webpage rather than using data about the visitor.

While it’s extremely prominent on the internet, contextual advertising existed long before. Since the dawn of time (or since advertisements were produced in these mediums), beauty magazines have had advertisements for makeup, sports network channels have had advertisements for athletic wear, and radio stations have had local advertisements. Today, we’ve integrated it into the internet.

Contextual ads seem similar to behavioral ads, but their approach is very different. One delves into your personal habits and behavior in order to implement relevant ads; the other delves into the content of the web page to implement relevant ads. Can you guess which is which?

Contextual Advertising

Behavioral advertising has become increasingly advanced to the point that people have begun to float theories that Amazon’s Alexa can hear our whispered secrets and provide suggested advertisements based off of what we say. A method that was supposed to make advertisements feel more catered to us and our interests has become downright creepy.

Because of this advance, along with some legal issues (discussed briefly below), the contextual advertising renaissance is among us; history is repeating itself.

How does contextual advertising work?

Contextual advertising looks at the content of webpages and other platforms and uses the context to determine whether the advertisement will be placed, determined by selected keywords. More simply: rather than looking at personal data, contextual advertising looks at web page data.

There are tools that can help marketers and advertisers keep track of their advertisements and manage their accuracy efficiently as content and pages change daily. Publisher ad server software can help track, automate, and distribute advertisements contextually.

See the Highest-Rated Ad Server Software, Free →

Contextual advertising and GDPR

GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation is a regulation in European law that enforces data protection and privacy for citizens in the European Union and European Economic Area. Implemented only a little over a year ago (May 2018), this regulation has frightened advertisers who typically use personal data to determine placement of their advertisements into reverting back to contextual advertising.

Additionally, the California Consumer Privacy Act was implemented in June of 2018. It may be the closest thing the United States of America currently has to GDPR.

Contextual advertising elements

Just like all types of advertising, implementing contextual advertising means taking certain elements into account; otherwise, it’s not very contextual.

For example, if your company is selling swimsuits to women between the ages of 18 and 40, considerations such as weather, platform, and location should be accounted for.

Some of the most common elements to help you with contextual targeting for your ads are:

  • Language
  • Location
  • Device
  • Weather
  • Preferred platform
  • Purchase history

In other words, think about where your viewers will be seeing your advertisement, what events will be happening at the point in time at which they see the advertisements, what they were originally looking for, and what stages of the buying process they might be in so that you can optimize your contextual advertisements as much as possible.

Benefits of contextual advertising

The benefits to contextual advertising make some question why we would ever move into behavioral advertising to begin with. Behavioral advertising is freakishly personal, which is a benefit for some, but look at what contextual advertising could be doing for you:

Minimal privacy issues

When it comes to rules and regulations, contextual advertising complies with the GDPR and California Consumer Privacy Act without a hitch. As long as the company isn’t collecting any personal data and is providing advertisements strictly based on data about the website and pages (keywords, URL, content), there is little risk in regards to privacy.


Behavioral advertisements, while personal, can sometimes appear in places that don’t make much sense. Contextual advertisements, on the other hand, have been interpreted as complementary to the web pages they appear on; they work in tandem with the content.

Less scary

No, really. The topic of unnerving behavioral advertising has been discussed above. It’s much more reassuring to see an advertisement for Gatorade on a blog about sports rather than an advertisement for that porch light you were just talking about buying. Contextual ads are therefore received in a more positive light.

User intent is taken into consideration

The logic behind contextual ads is very apparent.

If someone is reading about traveling to Asia, showing them an advertisement for goldfish makes it seem as though the advertisement is being displayed without purpose. However, someone reading about traveling to Asia who sees an advertisement about a sale on plane tickets makes much more sense and has an increased chance of being clicked because the user was already searching for something along those lines.

The future of contextual advertising

Contextual advertising has been paying off both literally and figuratively, which means it isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, it’s only going to advance.

With the rise of artificial intelligence and augmented reality comes the rise of advertisements being more precisely catered to you without having to look into your personal history. Billboards with advertisements based on the type of car you drive, smartwatches with advertisements for rain boots as storm clouds loom overhead...who knows what else?

Everything makes more sense with a little context.

Keep your eyes peeled: augmented reality is going to be applied to much more than just advertising.

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