Targeting 101: Contextual vs. Behavioral Targeting

To help you decide between contexual vs. behavioral targeting, let’s dig into what each type of targeting means.
Updated on December 1, 2023

Years ago, the question of whether to put your budget against contextual targeting or behavioral targeting was a spirited debate. Some said contextual targeting should step aside for the newer, more personalized behavioral targeting. Others purported that it wasn’t a question of “either or” at all, and that both should be used as complementary tactics. More than a decade later, the question still gets asked. The answer, as is the case with most marketing issues, is “it depends”. To help you arrive at an answer, let’s dig into what each type of targeting means.

Mythbusting Contextual Advertising

Why Every Marketer Should Test It.

What is contextual targeting?

Contextual targeting refers to displaying ads based on the content of the website on which the ad appears. For example, placing an ad for cookware on a recipe site or an ad for running shoes on a running forum. It’s like the digital equivalent of placing a print ad in a niche magazine.

There is category contextual targeting, where ads are targeted to pages that fall into pre-assigned categories, and keyword contextual targeting, where ads are targeted to pages that match specific keywords. Semantic targeting is a more advanced form of contextual targeting, and it involves using machine learning to understand the meaning of each page of content, rather than just identifying matching keywords on a page.

Here’s how it works:

  • A crawler scans the web and categorizes pages based on context and semantics.
  • When a user visits a page, that page content information goes to the ad server, which then matches it with relevant ads for the keywords and content

The better your system is at understanding the true context of a page, the better your ad matching will be. Here’s an example of a contextually targeted ad for skincare products next to an article about makeup.

Contextual vs. Behavioral Targeting
Photo source:

The most recent iteration of contextual advertising can also use first-party data to add commerce signals to contextual signals and build product affinity scores for each URL, so that marketers can zero in on the pages and products that will have the most impact.

contextual targeting with commerce signals

In light of the fact that third-party cookies are being phased out in the near future, contextual targeting has gained renewed attention because it doesn’t rely on cookies. To learn more, read Contextual Targeting in 2021: Everything You Need to Know Before Cookies Disappear.

What is behavioral targeting?

Behavioral targeting (also known as audience targeting) is the practice of segmenting customers based on web browsing behavior, including things like pages visited, searches performed, links clicked, and products purchased. If you add mobile and physical store data into the mix, that can also include things like location, and in-store purchases. Visitors with similar behaviors are then grouped into defined audience segments, allowing advertisers to target them with specific, relevant ads and content based on their browsing and purchase history.

(Learn more: [EBOOK] Retargeting 201: In-App, Social, and Video)

With behavioral targeting, shopper behavior and purchase intent can be combined to deliver highly relevant, highly personalized ads just at the moment when a shopper is most likely to make a purchase. An oft cited example of behavioral targeting is retargeting ads.

Contexual vs. Behavioral targeting
How behavioral targeting works. Source:

So, which is better?

In short, they’re both worth testing as part of your digital marketing mix. You knew we’d say that, right? As AI and Big Data continue to advance, and the marketing landscape continues to change, each is evolving to offer more capabilities to advertisers. Using both contextual and behavioral targeting together can help create a more holistic approach and reach shoppers in different ways at different points in their journey.

Betty Ho

Originally from Orange County, CA, Betty moved to New York in 2013 for a two-year creative writing program and never left. When not writing for Criteo Insights she can be found at a handful of $1 Oyster Happy Hours in Manhattan. She loves dogs but doesn’t have one.

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