Leveraging keywords in the absence of individual user tracking

It’s not often that an industry valued at over $330 billion faces an existential threat to profitability, but that’s exactly the case for digital advertising.

Scandals like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, compounded by numerous user data leaks within Big Tech, are changing how the general public and regulators think about programmatic advertising via third-party cookies. Large regulatory bodies across the United States and abroad are clamping down on this data collection process, and industry-leading companies are following suit.

Google’s announcement that their popular Chrome browser will be phasing out cookies (initially slated for 2022 but since pushed back to 2023) has caused an understandable stir in an industry that has been hyper-focused on maximizing digital monetization. These companies now face the daunting task of adopting an entirely new method of deriving ad revenue while sustaining the high profitability that third-party cookies offer.

While Google is hard at work with Privacy Sandbox, trying to develop new forms of cookieless behavioral targeting with its Federated Learning algorithm, advertisers are looking to another promising practice that respects user privacy and effectively generates revenue. One such option comes in the form of contextual advertising.

Contextual Advertising

Contextual advertising is something that Google has been applying for years through its Google Ads service. By matching ads to relevant Display Network sites using keywords and phrases, contextual targeting helps match users with the most suitable promotional content. Experts in Search Engine Optimization and AdSense are well aware of how important proper keyword selection and placement are to promotion in the tech era. Now it’s time for the digital advertising industry as a whole to hop on board.

But first, to fully understand the power of contextual targeting, advertisers need to understand differences in how to approach this practice. Two of the foundational concepts for this approach are keywords and ontology.


Keywords have exploded in popularity over the last decade with enhanced SEO practices and content marketing, but these words have been important to the online world long before pervasive digital advertising. Storing and indexing large information sets is one of the key reasons computers were developed in the first place. Since the inception of indexing, keywords have represented a necessary component of navigating search engines. Once systems like WebCrawler gave way to the commercially viable ones like Google and Bing, keywords were destined to become an essential component of online advertising.


Originally only discussed in the philosophy departments of higher education, ontology has historically referred to a subsection of philosophy that studies the concepts of existence and how entities are grouped together. This metaphysical field has since been adopted by the fields of programming and information science to describe the lexical relationship between different organizational concepts and practices.

Essentially, in the business world, ontology is the practice of finding the common properties of distinct concepts to help group them together. It’s a branch of semantic science that allows automated processing and human experience to refine language understanding within a given context. As opposed to the term-specific nature of keywords, ontology allows for multiple related concepts to be mapped together to better understand the context in which a word is used.

Contextual Targeting

Both keywords and ontology are important pieces of the puzzle that is advertising in a cookieless future. Without third-party tracking of user data, digital monetization post-2023 will require a multifaceted approach that provides critical user insights without following them around the online world for the entirety of their journey. Contextual targeting is key to success in this venture.

When a user visits a specific page, perhaps looking for information on a new fad diet, there will be a whole cluster of relevant terms present. Things like "keto," "vegan," "weight loss," "health," and "cooking" are all part of the larger ontology surrounding the central theme of diet. Contextual advertising tools can provide interest-based promotional content on this topic without requiring extensive personal information. When using contextual advertising, the promotional environment is much more important than user behavior patterns.

In addition to being more respectful of user privacy, ontologically-driven ads are more timely -- reaching potential customers at the exact moment they are showing interest in a topic.

Contextual Intelligence

The excitement surrounding the potential of contextual advertising, especially in a cookieless future, is prompting companies to invest in teams dedicated to contextual intelligence. Large tech firms commonly use the practice to maintain brand safety by ensuring that companies aren’t advertising in explicit environments. Large promotional campaigns are successful when applied across a wide variety of digital locations, but some of these involve harmful content like drugs, profanity, and even hateful rhetoric. Contextual intelligence prevents ads from winding up in these spaces.

But now, advertisers are looking to leverage this practice to expand their campaigns in the absence of individual-user tracking safely. Skilled contextual intelligence teams are constantly pushing the boundaries of how publishers can safely reach their desired audience. This change in perspective regarding contextual intelligence -- from one of brand protection to maximizing digital monetization -- is a welcome change in a time where advertisers are scrambling to prepare for a new era of online promotion.

Although keywords, ontology, and context-driven promotion may seem too old-school for success in the fast-paced digital advertising space, recent trends point to a different conclusion. Publishers simply can’t wait on Google to unroll their Privacy Sandbox innovations like FLoCs, especially not considering the recent pushback this practice is receiving. Forward-thinking companies like Adapex recognize that the cookieless era requires a multifaceted approach to advertising, and contextual targeting, revamped by machine learning and intelligent algorithms, is certainly a frontrunner in the race to innovative publishing monetization.

Photo Credit: Stuart Miles/Shutterstock

Debra Fleenor is the current President of Adapex LLC, a digital advertising company that connects advertisers to publishers and streamlines the monetization process. Ms. Fleenor has over 20 years of experience founding and consulting for several internet start-ups with the ongoing objective to drive innovation that disrupts, and grows new opportunities.

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