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Two-Minute Read: Search, Contextual, and Behavioral Digital Ad Targeting Explained

Another quick one for you today, folks. This time we’re covering the ever-confusing, always-misused-in-meetings definitions of the most commonly used digital ad targeting terminology.

Prepare to be the voice of clarity in your organization.


You search for something you want to know about in your browser. Then, based on those keyed-in search terms, an advertiser tries to reach you with ads on a website because they believe your search terms indicate an interest in their product offering. Because words are often ambiguous and context often isn’t part of the equation, search targeting effectiveness can be highly unpredictable. It can work well if done right.


You know when you’re on a website reading about say … golf clubs …  and you see an ad on the right side of that same website for the newest Titleist golf ball? That’s contextual targeting. The website and the advertiser know that if you’re reading about golf or golf clubs that you’re likely interested in a related product such as the latest advancement in golf ball technology. This works well because context, sweet, context.


Similarly, behavioral targeting serves up contextually relevant ad content, but this time it’s not based on the site being browsed by the viewer in the present moment. Rather, it’s based on the viewer’s web behavior, tracked with third-party cookies. So, to use the golf example again, imagine you’re researching the Callaway 2019 Big Bertha Driver on the Callaway website and then you head off to your favorite regional events and happenings news website. You’re probably going to see ads for the Callaway Big Bertha because the company wants to keep that product in the front of your brain as often as possible in hopes that you’ll complete a purchase. It’s not about where you’re going but where you’ve been.

*BONUS* Programmatic

It’s not really targeting per se, but relevant to this topic because it’s misused so often. Programmatic is buying ads using sophisticated computer programs to ensure your content gets to the right people in the right places during the right times. So all the manual work that goes into trying to do this through real people is done by software rather than through humans. Basically, it’s efficient ad buying at scale. If programmatic results in more effective campaigns for our clients, then we, for one, welcome our job-destroying robot overlords.

If you want to learn more about how digital advertising can help your business, give us a call. Maybe we’ll grab our digital strategist and meet up at the driving range to hit bucket of balls and talk shop.

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