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What is Contextual Targeting in Google Ads? How to Use it + Pro Tips


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Mar 19, 2024
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Contextual targeting gets display ads in front of your target audience as they browse relevant websites and YouTube channels. We share expert tips, real-world examples, and steps to set up successful contextual ads for a cookie-less future.

Here, you’ll find:

When you use contextual targeting, Google ads lets you focus more on where to place the ad than on which users see it.

If you know where to find your target audience, this ad targeting method can be a game changer. In this article, we’ll cover how to use contextual targeting and why it’s so important right now.

What is contextual targeting in Google Ads?​

Contextual targeting is a group of settings that control placements for Google Ads. It allows you to place display ads on websites, apps, and YouTube channels that publish material on specific themes or subjects. With contextual targeting, you can match the content of your ads with the site you’re advertising on.

For example, if you want to reach:

  • Meal prep enthusiasts, then you can target recipe blogs and cooking websites
  • Beauty enthusiasts, then you can target websites with makeup and skincare keywords
  • Sales professionals, then you can target sites focused on sales tips and software

Google Ads offers two types of contextual targeting. Here’s how it works:

  • Topics let you target web pages, apps, and YouTube videos on specific subjects
  • Keywords let you target websites, apps, and videos that feature certain keywords

Google uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to understand what websites and YouTube channels are about. For example, the system considers elements like on-page text, URL, and page structure. Using this data, Google Ads algorithms can align ads with sites and channels featuring relevant topics and keywords.

Note that contextual targeting is only available for ad campaigns on the Google Display Network, which includes 2 million websites, channels, and apps. It doesn’t work with Google Discovery, Shopping, or Performance Max campaigns or with responsive search ads.

Benefits of Google Ads contextual targeting​

When done right, contextual targeting benefits both advertisers and consumers. Here are some of the biggest perks of this tactic.

Better user experience​

When ads don’t align with website or channel content, they often appear out of place — or worse, they look like spam. For advertisers, paying to place ads on sites that aren’t a good fit for your brand can be a waste of ad spend. In some cases, this practice may even harm your brand image.

In contrast, when you focus on placing ads on relevant sites, channels, and content, you can reach a more receptive audience. This approach creates a better user experience and gets your brand in front of potential customers likely to have an interest in your offer.

Increased engagement​

Google display ads are often geared more toward upper-funnel goals like brand awareness and consideration than lower-funnel goals like conversions. In fact, the average click-through rate (CTR) is 0.46% for display ads.

When you introduce contextual targeting, you reach people with higher intent, which can potentially increase clicks and conversions. Studies show consumers are 69% more likely to engage with relevant ads that fit the website’s content.

Enhanced retargeting​

When you use this targeting option, you aren’t limited to contextual signals alone. Instead, you can combine topics and keywords with other options — including your own first-party data.

For example, say you have a remarketing segment for people who have visited your product pages. You can add this segment and contextual targeting to the same ad group. That way you can retarget people who are already engaged with your business in locations that align with your brand.

Future-proofing ad targeting​

For years, many advertisers have relied on behavioral targeting to reach customers. Unlike contextual targeting, behavioral targeting segments users based on data like their purchase and browsing history.

But as web browsers and ad platforms increasingly stop supporting cookies, it’ll become more difficult or even impossible to track user behavior accurately. In a privacy-driven, cookie-less world where GDPR and other restrictions limit pay-per-click (PPC) tracking, you can’t rely on online behavior data. Instead, contextual targeting is critical for reaching the right audience with the right message.

“Losing third-party cookies has definitely pushed us to focus more on contextual targeting. We’re trying to place our ads where they make the most sense based on the content, rather than who’s looking,” explains Stefan Valentin, Ads Specialist at Irresistible Me.

Real-life examples of contextual ads​

Now you know how contextual targeting works in theory. So how do Google ads display contextual targeting in practice? Let’s look at a few real-life examples.

Finance site example​

Finance site example

The Motley Fool is a resource offering financial advice, investing tips, and stock market trends. The site features multiple contextual Google ads for Entrust, a company specializing in banking card software.

Health site example​

Health site example

Everyday Health is a site featuring health and wellness reports and advice for consumers. The site includes multiple sidebar and banner ads for pharmaceutical products like Prevnar 20, a pneumonia vaccine.

Technology site example​

Technology site example

PCMag is a popular resource for technology news, product reviews, and buying guides. The site has display ads for many tech products, including several T-Mobile ads for the Samsung Galaxy S24+.

Recipe blog example​

Recipe blog example

Iowa Girl Eats is a blog specializing in recipes and cooking product reviews. The site features display ads from the New York Times targeting “dessert people” — which fit particularly well with dessert recipes.

How to set up contextual targeting for Google Ads​

To add contextual targeting to a new campaign, open your Google Ads account and confirm it’s on expert mode. Then create a new display campaign. For this example, we’ll use the website traffic objective.

Enable contextual targeting​

Google Ads typically enable optimized targeting for display campaigns. This setting automatically targets ad placements and potential customers based on your landing page and ad group assets. To access manual targeting options instead, click the “Add targeting” button.

Note that applying any of the contextual targeting options below doesn’t disable optimized targeting automatically. By default, Google Ads keeps this feature on so your ads can reach potential customers outside of your contextual signals.


For more focused targeting, switch off the automated setting. Open the optimized targeting panel and uncheck the “Use optimized targeting” box.


Note that disabling optimized targeting may lead to fewer conversions. It’s worth testing optimized vs. focused targeting and comparing the results to see which delivers the best outcomes for your campaign.


Add keyword targeting​

To use keyword contextual targeting, create a list of words and phrases related to the products or services featured in your ads. You can reuse search keywords here if they’re relevant to your ad group. Since these keywords apply to display ads, they won’t negatively impact search campaign performance.

Add keyword targeting

You can get a list of target keywords quickly by entering either your website or your product or service. You’ll see a list of keyword ideas with relevance scores. Click the plus sign next to the keywords you want to add specific keywords. Otherwise, click “Add all ideas” to use the entire list for targeting.

Add all ideas

Note that this targeting method for display ads doesn’t support negative keywords. That means you can’t use it to prevent your ads from appearing alongside content with certain keywords.

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Set up topic targeting​

To use topic targeting, browse the list to find themes related to your products, services, or offer. Use the arrows to expand broader topics and find narrower topics that are likely to have more relevant content.

Set up topic targeting

Check the box next to topics you want to target. To find specific topics, use the search bar and scroll through the results to build a complete list.

Add contextual advertising to existing campaigns​

In many cases, you’ll likely want to add contextual settings during the initial campaign setup. But you aren’t limited to adding this type of targeting during setup. You can also add contextual signals to active campaigns.

To add these signals later, open the “Content” dashboard in Google Ads. You’ll find it by clicking “Campaigns” in the left-hand menu and then expanding the “Audiences, keywords, and content” menu.

Click “Add content” to add contextual signals for the first time or “Edit content” to update an active campaign. From the popup, select the campaign and ad group where you want to add targeting.


Then choose the topics, placements, or keywords you want to target. Double check that you’ve selected “Targeting” rather than “Observation” to narrow your targeting using these new signals. Then click “Save” to apply the changes.

Expert tips for optimizing contextual targeting​

After mastering the basics of this ad targeting method, optimize your approach. Use these expert tips to fine-tune your contextual marketing strategy.

Prioritize audience research​

The single most important step you can take when managing contextual targeting is researching your audience.

“When you know their interests, preferences, and behaviors you are much more likely to choose the most relevant targeting options,” explains Domante Gerdauské, Senior Digital Advertising Manager at Omnisend.

Go beyond the interests and preferences that relate to your brand or niche. What are some broader interests your audience shares? How relevant are they to your ad or offer?

Referencing your buyer persona is a good place to start. But if you’re coming up short, dig deeper. Other data sources to check include:

  • Top-performing affinity segments for recent Google ad campaigns, which can give you topic ideas
  • Google Analytics demographic data, which can also give you topic ideas
  • Top-performing keywords for recent Google search campaigns, which can give you keyword ideas

Avoid overdoing contextual targeting​

Because Google Ads offers so many different contextual targeting options, it can be tempting to apply all of them at once. After all, you can set up incredibly nuanced targeting with this tool.

However, avoid adding too much contextual targeting at once. Remember, contextual targeting narrows the available options for ad placements. If you include too many, the Google Ads algorithm may not deliver your ads efficiently.

As you apply contextual signals, pay close attention to the “Weekly estimates” panel in the upper right corner of your Google Ads dashboard. Make sure the number of available impressions isn’t overly restricted.


Then review the “Your estimated performance” panel to ensure it aligns with your key performance indicators (KPIs) for the campaign. If the estimated clicks and conversions are too low or if the average cost per action (CPA) is too high, consider revisiting your signals.

Run contextual and geographical targeting ads on Google​

Do you want to get ads in front of potential customers in specific locations only? Add location targeting under “Campaign settings.”

Campaign settings

Enter the countries, cities, or designated market area (DMA) regions you want to reach. Take care to exclude regions where you don’t want ads to appear.

Then double check the target settings. If you choose “Presence,” the algorithm will deliver ads to people in the specified locations. If you choose “Presence or interest,” Google Ads may also deliver ads to people who’ve shown an interest in those locations.

Combine contextual targeting with first-party data​

When you add contextual targeting to a display campaign, you aren’t limited to this option. You can also layer on your own data to fine-tune your targeting. To do so, open the “Audience Segments” panel and choose either “Your data segments” or “Custom segments.” Then select all the segments you want to add or click over to Audience Manager to configure more.


Note that this panel also lets you combine Google Ads affinity and contextual targeting. Since affinity and in-market data use behavioral data, they may harm rather than help your campaign targeting.

Use context exclusions for brand safety​

Using contextual targeting risks your ads appearing on a site that doesn’t align with your brand, mission, or values. To avoid some of the most egregious mismatches, set content exclusions at the campaign level.

brand safety

With these settings, you can opt out of showing ads on sites and channels in sensitive categories or with certain content types and labels. Check all the content types you want to exclude from your placement options.

But keep in mind, Google Ads’ content exclusion options aren’t a failsafe solution. “If your brand is sensitive to a certain type of content, contextual targeting might not provide sufficient control over that. With contextual targeting, you always face a risk that your ad will appear in a context that you try to avoid,” advises Gerdauské.

Choose placement targeting​

If you want more control over where your ads appear, consider using placement targeting in your digital advertising strategy. All you need is a list of websites, apps, YouTube channels, or videos where you want to deliver your ads. If you already have specific placements in mind, input them directly and click “Add placements.”


Otherwise, use the “Browse” tab to get ideas. Enter a URL or keyword. Then scroll through the websites, channels, videos, and apps to find relevant placements for your ads. Click “Done” to apply them all.

Switch off underperforming content​

Like almost any Google Ads element, contextual targeting isn’t something you should set and forget. Instead, monitor the results closely. Configure the columns to track the metrics that matter most to your team or campaign.


Then pause any underperforming topics, keywords, or placements. For example, consider switching off content that drives tons of impressions but below-average engagement.

Review and optimize ad strength​

As you monitor content metrics, remember they’re just one element of campaign performance. In other words, contextual targeting may not always be the reason for low engagement rates.

Review your display ads periodically to ensure they’re appealing to your target audience. Checking ad strength is a good place to start. If any of your responsive display ads have an ad strength rating below excellent, follow Google Ads’ recommendations to improve the copy or creative.

Leverage cross-channel data​

When you use contextual targeting, you get access to a lot of useful data. From Google Ads metrics alone, you can see which topics, keywords, and placements are driving the most impressions, clicks, and conversions.

While you can (and should) use this data to optimize display ad campaigns, you don’t have to stop there. Instead, apply the insights across other marketing channels, such as PPC ads and search engine optimization (SEO).

HawkSEM’s proprietary platform can help. “We use ConversionIQ (CIQ) to granularly track every step of the buyer’s journey to understand what aspects of a campaign provide a positive ROI,” explains Rambod Yadegar, President of HawkSEM.

Then the team can leverage CIQ data across marketing and advertising channels.

“Our team members are experts in contextual targeting. You want someone who understands your business, value proposition, target and competitive landscape to be in charge of contextual targeting,” continues Yadegar. “Not only will they have to audit the sites that Google ads recommends to ensure it’s a proper fit for your company, but they will need to know how to message each ad(s) to best resonate with the audience. If this is done properly, contextual targeting can be an effective way to increase overall reach and ROAS.”

The takeaway​

As the advertising and digital marketing landscape shifts toward a cookie-less world, behavioral targeting has become much less reliable. In its place, contextual targeting and first-party data can get relevant ads in front of the right audience.

We’re here to help with Google Ads management — from display ads with contextual targeting to PPC search and shopping campaigns. Reach out to book a free Google Ads consultation with our experienced team.

The post What is Contextual Targeting in Google Ads? How to Use it + Pro Tips appeared first on HawkSEM.
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