Advertising Technology

Behavioral Advertising vs. Contextual Advertising: What’s the Difference?

Digital advertising sometimes gets a bad rap for the expense involved, but there is no denying that, when done correctly, it can bring about powerful results.

The thing is digital advertising enables a far wider reach than any form of organic marketing, which is why marketers are so willing to spend on it. The success of digital ads, naturally, depends on how well they are aligned with the needs and wants of the target audience.

Marketers typically rely on two types of advertising to accomplish this — contextual advertising and behavioral advertising.

The Meaning Behind Behavioral and Contextual Advertising

Behavioral advertising involves presenting ads to users based on information about their past browsing behavior. This happens by employing data collected on parameters such as time spent on a website, the number of clicks made, when the site was visited, and so on.

This data is then used to construct several user personas with different attributes to whom relevant ads can then be targeted. For example, if you link products A and B, your target audience interested in A will most likely engage with B.

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On the other hand, contextual advertising involves placing ads on pages based on the content of those pages. It happens by utilizing a process known as contextual targeting, which consists of segmenting ads based on appropriate topics or keywords.

For instance, a web page that talks about books may feature an ad for reading glasses. Or a website that publishes free workout videos, routines, and recipes could run ads for cookware alongside its workouts — just how Fitness Blender does.

contextual advertising

How Does Contextual Advertising Work?

Contextual advertisers make use of a demand-side platform to place their ads on relevant pages.

  • Setting the parameters is the first step. While topics are general categories that an ad would fit into (such as fashion, politics, cooking, or fitness), keywords enable more precise targeting within those topics. For most ads, choosing a specific topic and about 5-50 keywords for that topic should suffice.
what is contextual advertising
  • Then, Google (or whichever search engine is being used) will analyze the pages in its network to match the ad with the most relevant content. In addition to the keywords the advertiser has selected, the search engine will take things like language, text, page structure, and link structure into account.
  • Depending on how specific the advertiser wants the reach to be, the search engine may consider only pages that match the given keywords. Once the analysis is complete, the ad will be placed on the search engine’s page deemed most relevant.

How Does Behavioral Advertising Work?

Since behavioral advertising depends on the past behavior of users, the first thing advertisers need to do is track that behavior. They do so by means of cookies, which they insert into the user’s hard drive whenever someone visits the brand website (and opts into accepting cookies).

Cookies help them see where the user is browsing, what search results they are clicking on, how often they are visiting the brand website, which products they are wishlisting or adding to the cart, and so on.

As a result, they can target users with ads relevant to whether they are on the website for the first time or repeat buyers. Advertisers also use cookies to track geolocation and IP address parameters to target users with locally relevant ads.

what is behavioral advertising

As a consequence of behavioral tracking, users may see ads for a brand they had browsed last week when reading the news online or browsing for something completely different. The remainder of their past interest or a locally relevant promotion is what spurs them to click.

Several tools are available to help businesses keep track of user behavior and target them with ads accordingly.

Which Is Better: Contextual or Behavioral?

It is easy to confuse the two types of advertising, as they both show ads based on the user’s interests. However, they are quite different. While contextual advertising works based on the environment the user is browsing — the nature of the website content, in other words — behavioral advertising depends on actions that the user has taken prior to reaching the website, such as a product page that they have visited.

Many consider behavioral advertising to be the more useful of the two, as it enables deeper personalization by targeting users based on their actual behavior rather than simply flashing content related to a website. However, there are several unique advantages of contextual advertising that are worth noting.

  1. Ease of Implementation – The chief advantage of behavioral advertising lies in the level of personalization it offers. However, this calls for extensive customer data and the right tools to analyze it, which may not be affordable for businesses with fewer resources. Contextual advertising is much easier and less expensive to get started with and offers enough relevance to be an excellent way to attract site visitors. Having said that, companies heavily rely on third-party cookies to provide a more personalized ad experience to website visitors. However, with increased regulations on the data (GDPR) that can be collected and used from the users, companies will need more advanced tools and software for managing their contextual advertising campaigns as there is one more step involved, i.e., to ask for permission from the user to collect their data. Therefore, if you want to encourage faster digital adoption and a higher level of understanding regarding the new changes in advertising in your marketing team, in such cases, interactive walkthroughs can be integrated with your ad software as a way to train them.
google contextual advertising

For instance, you can build a walkthrough to encourage reminders for your advertisers setting up an ad campaign in the EU. You can deploy a checklist or a microlearning module to give the end-user bite-sized pieces of information so that they cover all bases while setting the campaign and follow all the regulations properly. That brings us to the second point.

  1. Privacy – The penalties for misusing private user information can be enormous. Moreover, cookies are no longer automatic to a website, and users need to voluntarily opt-in for them, making retargeting more difficult. You see, users demand greater privacy, including choice, transparency, and control over how their data is used. Naturally, the web ecosystem has to match up to their increasing demands. While Safari and Firefox have already phased out the third-party cookie, Google will do so over two years. But since contextual advertising does not rely on cookies, your advertisers do not need to worry about not being compliant when they display their ads.
  2. Brand Reputation Protection – One aspect of safety is undoubtedly legal compliance. However, reputation can be a trickier thing to protect, especially since advertisers cannot always control where their ads show up. Often, brands have faced backlash because their ads were flashed on adult sites or ones with extremist views. This, however, was a consequence of user behavior. By contrast, contextual advertising puts the web page at the center of things, and the brand has control over that web page by specifying the topics, subtopics, and keywords that relate to the ad.
  3. Greater Relevance – The fundamental assumption underpinning behavioral advertising is that users want to see ads related to general trends in their browsing behavior. However, it might well happen that their present wants do not fall in with those trends. For instance, someone browsing sports equipment may not necessarily want to see ads about graphic design services, even if they have previously browsed for graphic design services. By contrast, an ad for organic protein powders may be more relevant to their current state of mind and attract more clicks.
  4. No risk of banner blindness – That is a common phenomenon where users have subconsciously learned to ignore ads. For instance, a movie ticket booking site running ads for a movie review platform makes more sense than serving ads related to cookware.

Contextually relevant ads of lesser-known brands are recalled 82% more by people compared to ads of famous brands but irrelevant to page content.


In addition, many people are uncomfortable with being flashed ads based on their past browsing activity. There is a general sense of being surveilled by big companies that can deter people from clicking on ads even if the ad itself might be relevant. On the other hand, contextual advertising fits the ad to the web page, making it appear less ‘stalker-like’ and more trustworthy to click on. When users see relevant ads, ad viewability gets a boost, and there is an increased likelihood of a high click-through rate.

According to Adpushup:

  • Contextual targeting averaged a 73% increase in performance when compared to behavioral targeting.
  • 49% of US marketers utilize contextual targeting today.
  • 31% of brands plan to increase their spend on contextual advertising next year.

It’s All About “Context”

In conclusion, both have different roles to play in a digital marketing strategy, and different brands might assign them different weightages.

But there are times when contextual advertising is a better choice. It helps brands launch a campaign that does not require many resources for perfect implementation. It also ensures they do not have to utilize personal user data or worry about complying with GDPR. They can simply go for keyword targeting instead.

Ultimately, what matters is knowing what you want your ads to accomplish, how you want to make your customers feel about your brand, and how much you are willing to spend to that effect. Then, make your choice — the results will pay off over time.

Ronald Gabriel

Ronald Gabriel is the Assistant editor at Commerce Mentors. He has over 8 years of experience in writing about eCommerce, Retail, Marketing, and Technology. He is also a numbers guy who enjoys his Crossword and Sudoku. When not editing or writing, he can be found watching reruns of Animes and sketching some characters of his own.

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