What Happens When Contextual Targeting Lacks Context?

Andreas Dooley, Director of Activation Partnerships at Oracle Data Cloud, explores how nuances in words and language are driving the future of contextual targeting

Contextual targeting appears to be having its watershed moment in digital marketing. 

The online news and content cycles are more volatile and unpredictable than ever before. There are increased data and privacy regulations that make legacy targeting tactics more challenging. We’re also more cautious and cognizant of our ad placements in terms of the businesses and content we’re supporting, the messages our brands are aligning with, and the risks of poor perception by consumers. 

Those factors have led to a rising interest in context-based targeting. But many of the so-called “context-based” approaches being utilised by marketers today actually lack context altogether. 

How can that be? Simple. For most marketers, contextual targeting is an outgrowth of brand safety, which generally involves the following tactics:

  • Keyword blocking — Where content is blocked based on the appearance of a specific, pre-determined keyword either in the URL string or throughout the content itself
  • URL blocking — Where websites are flagged and blocked from an advertiser’s bid due to the nature of the content it publishes

These are still the most common brand safety practices used today - a 2019 IAB Europe study found that 94% of marketers are using them. But while keyword blocking and URL blocking have represented the most popular applications of contextual tools to date, they aren’t very useful at finding suitable content. They rely on a rudimentary interpretation of words to categorize content and associated inventory as safe or unsafe, and suitable or unsuitable. 

Due to the broad-stroke effect of these approaches, they often lead to over-blocking content that is safe, or incorrectly categorising harmful content as safe—meaning you either leave money on the table and miss out on valuable inventory or increase your risk of a brand safety breach. Meanwhile there’s the downstream effect on publishers, as they struggle to monetise inventory while covering topical and newsworthy events. 

It’s a lose-lose-lose. 

Worse, these tactics, along with the underlying technology, are based solely on exclusion. They don’t have the ability to expand the pool of available brand-suitable inventory by finding ideal content for ad placements. 

If you want contextual targeting to work effectively—to offer the best protection while opening up new inventory to target—you need to ensure context is doing the heavy lifting. This means accounting for nuances in language and individual words and understanding how terms and phrases relate to each other on the page. 

Words carry different meanings depending on the context in which they appear, and broad, keyword-based blocking tactics don’t account for these nuances. To better understand this, try the following exercise: For each of the following three words, try to think of brand-safe contexts in which each word could be used. For example, “shot” could appear in a story on a basketball game (i.e. “jump shot.”). 

Shot/shoot Knife Dead

An advertiser’s first reaction is often to block any content mentioning these words due to their negative associations. However, once you complete the exercise, you’ll notice a few of the many positive contexts in which the same words can be used. (If you need help, we’ve included a few other common usages of each at the end of this article). These positive contexts have valuable inventory you can target that would have otherwise been blocked with basic blocking techniques. 

What does this mean for the future contextual targeting?

In the same way that we’re taught not to judge a book by its cover, we shouldn’t make decisions about what inventory we bid on based on the appearance of a single keyword on a page or in a URL string. If we’re committed to progress and future-proofing the digital advertising business for years to come, we need to move beyond these legacy tactics that put brands at risk, defunded reputable news sites, and limit opportunities for advertisers.

Effective contextual targeting today depends on understanding web pages, videos, audio, and other formats, in their full context. That means understanding words in context and ensuring that the broader meaning of the content is understood. 

Using that type of nuanced contextual advertising will allow you to regain control of your campaigns and ad spend, replacing caution with confidence. True context affords you a deep understanding of how the content ecosystem is evolving, allowing you to see content trends emerging that pose risks to your campaigns, and those that offer opportunities. 

It’s not about using any particular technology, but rather focusing on finding the right context for your brand. Either you have it, or you don’t. And if you’re still using keyword and URL blocklists, I can assure you, you’re “shooting” blanks. 


Shot/shoot: Photography (e.g. photo shoot), sports (e.g. basketball shot), healthcare (e.g. flu shot), lifestyle/features (e.g. “shot of adrenaline”) 

Knife: Cooking/recipes, homewares/retail, TV/Movies/Entertainment (murder mysteries) 

Dead: TV/Movies/Entertainment (E.g. Walking Dead/Deadpool), weightlifting/exercise (e.g. dead lift), health (e.g. “dead tired”), sports (e.g. dead heat)

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