What is 'Contextual Advertising'?

Contextual advertising is an automated process where a promotional message is matched to relevant digital content. The algorithms underpinning contextual advertising select the advertisements based on keywords and other metadata included in the content. The resulting advertisement is relevant and targeted, which encourages users to click through the ad. This click-through activity creates revenue for the publisher of the content and more traffic for the advertiser.

BREAKING DOWN 'Contextual Advertising'

Contextual advertising represents a large portion of internet advertising. The largest player in contextual advertising is, of course, Google (now Alphabet Inc) with its AdSense platform. AdSense allows a publisher to insert code throughout a site where ads are served by AdSense. The site is crawled for keywords and context and relevant ads are placed. The site owner can customize certain features, such as where and how ads are displayed, and the types of products or services advertised.

The Advantages of Contextual Advertising

The automation of the ad serving process has been a boon to many online publishers and companies that advertise online. Automation allows publishers, from large sites to small blogs, to serve ads without having to operate an ad sales department to find buyers or an IT department to display and track ads. For advertisers, it has provided more options and the ability to deliver messages to profitable audiences without having to search them out. The technology is also evolving whereby the ads themselves may be further customized according to the demographic information and geographic location of the user not just the content on the page.    

The Disadvantages of Contextual Advertising

The disadvantages of contextual advertising are that the ads can be distracting, the ads can annoy consumers if they disrupt content, their prevalence means that they are often ignored, and ads might be placed alongside those of their competitors. In addition, consumers who are searching for content may not click on what is obviously an ad.

The Future of Contextual Advertising

The field of contextual advertising is still relatively new. Beyond web pages, contextual advertising is integrating video and video game content. The concept of a dynamic billboard has been proposed, with a camera that can identify the gender and age of the audience and change the advertisement displayed based on collected data.

However, contextual ads are far from perfect. With the increasing integration of search history and user information, there are legitimate privacy concerns. On a practical level, the application of new streams of data to the contextual ad serving machine causes high-value searches to be followed from site to site. For example, most internet users are familiar with having a flight price that they searched for linger for weeks or even months. Similarly, a search for keywords around an engagement ring could follow a user for years. 

 
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