The Basics: Targeting Content

June 19, 2018

There are two primary ways to target your advertising. You can either choose who sees your ads and/or what content your ads serve next to. Prior to ~1995 all advertising targeted content. An advertiser could choose which magazine, newspaper, etc. to place ads in. In the early days of the internet it worked the same — you could choose which websites or even specific pages to target. Soon after advertiser gained the ability to target audiences. Instead of choosing where your ads served you could choose who they served to, regardless of what website the user was on.

Whitelists: The simplest content targeting is to use a whitelist. You create a list of specific websites you want your ad to serve on and only buy inventory on those sites. This is only ever effective if you choose websites that are extremely relevant to the brand you’re advertising. The drawback is you can’t scale this at all — you can only buy small amount of inventory that is limited to those sites which leads to higher costs. On the other hand, users vocally prefer when ads match the content of a website.

Categories: Rather than choosing specific sites, you can also target sites that fit into a category you choose. For example, if you’re advertising golf clubs you could target all sports-related websites, or even just golf-related websites. This is much more scalable, easier to set up, and cheaper. The drawback is you lose control; you’ll inevitably end up serving ads on irrelevant websites and wasting some money ( is a sports sites, but if they write a political article it is still categorized as sports). This is a good strategy to identify sites to put in your whitelist.

Contextual Categories: Contextual categories identify individual webpages rather than entire websites. So if NY Times writes an article about tennis, you could serve a sports ad on that tennis article, but not on their politics articles. Contextual categories reduce spend wasted on irrelevant articles, but will serve on a wider variety of websites (If a church’s website writes an article about the local baseball team, you might end up buying that as sports” inventory). This tactic is relatively new and I’ve found it to be very successful if paired with up to date blacklists.

Keyword Targeting: A few vendors enables advertisers to choose specific keywords and target a webpage that contains those keywords. Though I’ve never tried this it supposedly enables extremely targeted content targeting. For example, if you were advertising World Cup Soccer jerseys, you could add world cup”, soccer”, and jersey” to target pages where all of those words occurred. While the other content targeting strategies could get you close (sports content, soccer content, world cup content) nothing would get you down to jersey-specific content.