Targeting 101: Contextual Vs. Behavioural Targeting

January 12, 2024
5 minutes

When internet users discovered their favorite websites like Facebook were tracking and selling their data, privacy laws were put into place to protect them.

As more browsers and tech companies such as Safari and Google are depreciating 3rd-party cookie tracking (Google postpones again until late 2024), we are seeing a trend where marketers are moving more away from behavioral targeting.

Marketers are quickly adapting and embracing older and newer targeting methodologies, like contextual targeting.

What is contextual targeting?

Contextual targeting is method of advertising that involves placing ads on websites based on the content of the site. If done correctly, contextual ads will appear alongside content relevant to your service or product.

With a proper supply side platform (SSP) to launch your ads, contextual targeting is fairly easy. No matter the type of ad format you choose, you'll start the targeting process by setting specific parameters.

After setting parameters, the ad platform will categorize the content on different sites based on their themes, keywords, and contextual information. When users visit a page, the ad server matches the content with relevant ads.

The DSP will choose a site that fits your ad, based on contextual choices, and as an advertiser, you can control sites that fits your ad using your keywords and topics.

To measure the performance of contextual ads, you'll use the same information you would for other types of ads, like:

  • Cost-per-click
  • Conversion rates
  • Overall return on investment

For contextual marketing to work, you have to place your ads on relevant websites. Finding websites with relevancy means choosing keywords and categories to help position your ad in the right place.

An example of a contextual ad can be seen on the New York Times "Book" section with a targeted ad for reading glasses:

Contextual targeting example

Content keywords (keyword contextual targeting)

Keyword contextual targeting is used to describe your product or service. For example, if you are a media buyer for a prominent skincare brand, you'll select keywords related to skincare.

Some related keyword examples include any of the following:

  • Vegan moisturizer
  • Skincare for women
  • Skincare routine

It's recommended to use up to 50 keywords for each campaign (more can be relevant). You should also include negative keywords or terms you want to exclude so you don't appear on unrelated sites.

If your brand is well-recognized already, you can throw in some branded keywords as well.

content keywords for contextual targeting


If you'd rather not develop a new list of keywords, you can also select appropriate topics related to your ads. Different platforms will have various categories and subcategories to choose from.

Selecting broad categories can help you quickly reach a larger audience. Popular topics and categories include fashion, entertainment, travel, and law.


Along with choosing keywords and categories that match your brand, you need to choose placements that don't.

Exclusion is the process of identifying placements you don't want to be present in. Exclusion is just as important as finding the audiences that you want to reach.

Contextual targeting vs. behavioral targeting

Many confuse contextual targeting and behavioral targeting because they have similarities. They both serve relevant ads to the most relevant audience at peak times.

The difference is that marketers target contextually to focus on matching the unique digital environment to the ad. Ads are delivered to users based on shared interests.

Behavioral targeting determines the best ad placement based on the digital behaviors of a user. For example, users might see an ad for a new pair of shoes while looking for financial advice. This is behavioral targeting.

These behaviors are tracked via cookies and can include the following:

  • Clicked links
  • Purchased products
  • Google searches
  • Browsed product pages
  • Frequently visited sites

Marketers use this information to create personalized ads for different audiences. Retargeting ads are one of the most popular examples of behavioral targeting.

In summary, the differences between contextual and behavior targeting can be shown as:

behavioral targeting vs contextual targeting table

Is behavioral targeting going away?

Lawmakers in Europe and certain states like California have begun banning  behavioral tracking, which leads marketers to turn to keyword contextual targeting.

The value of contextual targeting cannot be overstated. Here are just a few reasons why it's time to consider contextual targeting in your marketing strategy:

  • Removal of third-party cookies
  • User privacy
  • Increased consumption of content

Contextual targeting eliminates the risk of over-personalized ads and instead lets users see ads in the right place at the right time.

According to Google statistics, it doesn't appear that interest is fading for behavioral.

contextual targeting vs behavioral targeting search statistics

However, that doesn't stop us at Eskimi of being big fans of the new possibilities within contextual targeting and the many benefits for our customers.

Benefits of contextual targeting

The contextual targeting solution has many benefits. Matching the content of a website to your advertisement is helpful for reaching the right consumers without compromising privacy.

If you still aren't sold on how contextual advertising works in your favor, consider these benefits:

1. Follows rules and regulations

Contextual targeting doesn't track users directly and instead uses site content to match users to an ad. It is outside the realm of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other privacy laws.

You can use contextual advertising in almost any programmatic ad channel compared to the other cookie-less alternatives. Compared to the price of third-party audience data, it's also the more affordable marketing method.

2. Ads make sense

Aligning your ads or brand messaging with website content drives more action because the ads are relevant. Reading, watching, or listening to the advertisement feels like a natural fit for the platform.

Because users come across contextual ads in the right place, they might find them more interesting and impactful.

3. Reaches broad and niche audiences

In most cases, casting a wide net and hoping for hits is a bad marketing move. However, in the case of contextual advertising, you can cast a larger net right away and engage qualified leads.

If you set up contextual targeting parameters correctly, you can also reach niche audiences without relying on third-party cookies.

For example, if you want to target Spanish speakers through connected TV ads, you can use automatic content recognition (ACR) to identify what content people are viewing on their screens.

ACR allows you to identify audiences that watch Spanish-language content while also attracting English speakers.

4. Reduces ad fatigue

People who browse often see ads so much that they get bored of them. Eventually, they'll start to tune them out, known as ad fatigue.

Contextual advertising places your ads in front of a large audience at one time. When done well, you reach consumers that are more likely to make a purchase reducing the number of times your ads need to be viewed to convert people.

ad fatique

5. More control

Using contextual targeting gives you more control over where ads appear.

Make a list of websites where you want your ads to appear. Use keyword scraping to extract keywords from those pages. From there, you can choose the keywords that make the most sense for your products from your list.

You have total control over your keywords and can revise them as needed.

6. Combats banner noise

Banner noise or banner blindness is a common occurrence that has taught customers to subconsciously overlook advertisements. Yet, contextual targeting can help tackle this issue simply by serving relevant ads.

A film review site showing ads for a cinema ticket booking platform is more contextually relevant than displaying ads related to toys.

Infolinks carried out a survey on fighting banner blindness. It observed that contextually relevant advertisements of less-popular brands were remembered 82% more by users as compared to ads of well-known brands that were unrelated to site content.

Tips for creating contextual ads

Although users find contextual ads more attractive than those that track their data, you still need to follow some ad creation tips to get the clicks you need.

The digital environment is competitive and filled with noise that you'll need to tune out to have a chance of converting users to customers. If you expect your audience to give your ads love, keep these tips in mind:

Be relevant

Contextual ads are all about relevancy. You can cast a wide net by using a contextual platform. Your ads, however, should aim to attract the most relevant audience based on the campaign's goals.

Staying relevant is the best way to ensure your marketing dollars are allocated with the best outcome in mind.

Revamp your landing page

A great ad is one thing, but if it leads to an outdated landing page, you won't have high conversion rates. Your post-click landing page should be optimized.

Revamp your landing page if it doesn't have the user's experience in mind. Users want to visit sites that are seamless to use.

Consider the marketing funnel

Don't allow your contextual marketing ads to sit alone on an island. These ads should work hand in hand with all of your marketing efforts regarding the same campaign.

This means connecting the ads to organic social and content Your campaign should feel cohesive if you want users to convert.

The bottom line

As a marketer, you have a lot of different advertising methods to choose from. If behavioral targeting is no longer working for you, consider keyword contextual targeting.

At Eskimi, our goal is to provide brands and agencies with the best programmatic platform and services, and contextual targeting is playing a bigger and bigger part of that.

Contact us to learn about marketing secrets that can boost your performance branding efforts.

Philip is the CMO of Eskimi. When he’s not busy growing the Eskimi brand, he spends his time with family and playing ping pong.
Philip is the CMO of Eskimi. When he’s not busy growing the Eskimi brand, he spends his time with family and playing ping pong.
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