Contextual Advertising

Note: These are my own thoughts and dont represent the position of my employer.

There's a lot of talk in the advertising world that "The End of the Cookie" is coming. This refers to the blocking of third-party cookies in browsers. Some, like Safari, Firefox and Brave are already doing this. The reason for this is to ensure users privacy so that we cant be monitored across sites.

The biggest use case for tracking users across sites is for targeted advertising. By categorising the content you consume, advertising companies build a profile around your cookie. With this profile they can target you based on your interests.

Google is the biggest advertising company in the world. They also own the biggest browser in the world, Chrome with at present has a 65% hold of the worldwide market according to statcounter.

"The End of the Cookie" is in effect people waiting for Chrome to start blocking third-party cookies. Waiting for the worlds largest advertising company to take an action that would affect their entire business model. Google keep suggesting alternatives that actually undermine users privacy more, and then they push out the date for the end of the cookie, almost annually.

"That sounds like a conflict of interest". You betcha.

This conflict feels immovable.

Is there anything we can do about it?

Actually, yes, and it's full of benefits.

Creating profiles about users based on their cookies is called Behavioural Advertising. There's an alternative called Contextual Advertising.

In a nutshell Contextual Advertising looks at the content on the page and allows advertisers to target that, instead of users.

What benefits might this give us?

Technical simplicity

When your cookie is being tracked, lots of companies scripts need to run on the page to update your info on their server. Think about that. Every pageload, from every user, needs many scripts to download, and then run code on many servers and in many databases to update your info.

With contextual targeting, the publisher would run a single script whenever they create or update content. This means that only once per content change, one script runs and updates one database. Notice this is done on the publisher end, so a user never has to take this cost.

No advertising cookies needed

Because no cookies are needed to track the user, this removes a use case for needing a cookie notice. This doesnt immediately mean you can remove your cookie notice, but it takes a big chunk of the need away.

Better advertising performance

What's the effect for the advertiser then? Well, actually their story improves too.

According to the IAB: "69% of consumers would be more likely to look at an ad if it was relevant to the content they were reading".

This is more effective for the advertiser which saves them money.

Environmental benefits

I dont have data for this, but based on how much simpler the technology is, and how many fewer calls are being made, there must be a benefit here. Even if it's small, anything we can do is worth it.

That's not even the end of it. There are more benefits I havent listed here.

Ok, so why isnt this happening?

Given the benefits above, why wouldnt every advertiser be jumping on this? Here are some theories.


Advertisers love retargeting. You know when you buy something, and then you see ads for it again for the rest of the week? That's retargeting you across sites because you visited the page for that product.

This technique is effective at enough scale, but as in the example above it's really wasteful. Advertising is all about getting the message out there though, so companies are willing to take the waste, if the cost is less than their potential profit from a sale.

Purely contextual advertising wouldnt allow that.


Advertising companies are arranged to work with Behavioural Advertising. They're arranged to work with other companies that work the same way. It's really hard for one of these companies to change on their own, because no one else is doing it. It would take retraining almost all advertising related staff. There's too much inertia.


Because of anchoring Advertisers are used to the higher cost of Behavioural Advertising. When they see the relatively lower cost of Contextual Advertising, they feel like it's "cheap" and possibly less effective.

"The End of the Cookie"

There's so much talk in the advertising about "The End of the Cookie", that it's reinforcing that the cookie is still here. The good times are still here. We dont have to change yet. Keep doing what you're doing.

This is all minimising the fact that Contextual Advertising is actually superior in so many ways, and there's no reason not to do it now.


There's a huge opportunity here to help the environment, get rid of all those cookie popups, and make the decision easier for Google to block third-party cookies. If you're an advertiser, please help lead the way and start running more Contextual campaigns.