GDPR-compliant Behavioral & Contextual Targeting

What are GDPR-friendly Behavioral Targeting solutions? What is it and where can it be advantageous, and how it can help your business?

In just a few months, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) had managed to sweep over the ragged digital landscape riddled with questionable data mining hooks and make it a safer and cleaner place.

Whether it is an intimidating prospect of getting fined or natural predilection for avoiding trouble — GDPR made many companies in the advertising and ad tech industry reconsider their ways. The fact of the matter is that most ad tech operation is built around collecting personal data and using it for the benefit of an advertiser in one way or another.

However, the adoption of GDPR had turned attention to different retargeting approaches that partially or wholly avoid personal data — Behavioral Targeting and Contextual Targeting.

Let’s look at both of them.

What is Behavioral Targeting? — GDPR-friendly solution

Basic Retargeting Operation consists of gathering specific user data and using it to deliver relevant ad content. The difference between regular retargeting and behavioral retargeting boils down to the use of personal data.

Behavioral targeting concentrates more on the users’ web-browsing behavior (the stuff that happens on the website) instead of holding onto their personal data as a basis for selecting relevant content.

From the technical standpoint — both types of retargeting operate similarly. There is user information, and it is matched with ad content to cause a reaction. But where one attempts to get as much information as possible, the other focuses on the part of user data that is the most relevant for the retargeting cause with no excess. You go from detailed demographic data to implicit impersonal attributive kind of data.

Coincidentally, it is a safer and more effective way of enabling Retargeting operation under GDPR.

It should be noted that Behavioral Targeting still involves cookies. This aspect means you need to add a disclaimer describing goals of data use and consent agreement. However, due to the limited extent of data use and reliance on non-personally identifiable information — it is less problematic and based strictly on what occurs on your website, which makes gaining consent more of a question of UX writing than anything else.

Here’s why. In behavioral targeting, the nature of the collected information is not directly linked to a particular user. Sure, it is gathered from a user’s demonstrated behavior, but it is not directly identified with him.

Instead, it is an abstract set of patterns that, if recognized, trigger ad behavioral targeting operation. It is built around content users reacted upon. As such, it may or may not resemble the behavior of a particular user. This information forms the basis for further developments.

Overall, web-browsing behavior data includes:

  • Pages visited by the user;
  • Overall Session History;
  • Content preferences;
  • Referral sites;
  • Search requests, other types of input;
  • If involves registered users — user login information (needs consent)
  • On-site actions (clicks, scrolls, etc.)
  • interactions with the specific elements of the site (ads, subscription, contact forms, etc.)
  • Time of visit

After being collected, web-browsing behavior data is then analyzed and compiled into user profiles that enable further ad content delivery.

In addition to that, analyzed information can be segmented according to set requirements. Based on content-related user information, an algorithm can assume approximate age and gender group and some other user preference and sort them into specific categories that advertisers can later target.

Here’s how behavioral targeting works:

Content customization and ad targeting are based on the user’s expressed preferences, i.e., demonstrated web-behavior. Just as regular retargeting, the information is aggregated with the assistance of the Data Management Platform.

The information is gathered from the pages of the advertiser’s or publisher’s website. This information allows constructing detailed profiles that enable precise and relevant content delivery.

For ad delivery, it provides a solid foundation for defining the initial ad placements.

On the other hand, this approach is very effective in eCommerce. Such things as purchase intent, product search requests, interests in particular categories, comments, and ratings can form a distinct user profile without involving much personal data.

Contextual Targeting — GDPR-free Targeting

The fact of the matter is — behavioral targeting is borderline GDPR compliant practice. It doesn’t involve the use of personal data at the same scope as regular retargeting. However, it still uses several types of personal information, such as IP addresses, to enable its operation. This aspect means there is a need to include a detailed description of the data use and user consent form.

However, there is a way to avoid GDPR and retain effective ad tech operation completely — I’m talking about contextual targeting.

What is Contextual targeting? It is a type of targeting that takes an opposite approach to behavioral targeting. Instead of focusing on the user, his available information, and demonstrated behavior — CT bases its content delivery on the particular page’s context.

In essence, this is pretty much the same way ads were presented back in the print era.

How does it work? Instead of monitoring user activity, the website pages are scanned and categorized so that there will be a direct connection between the page’s contents and an ad’s content. When a user visits a particular page, there is a request to the ad server that matches data accordingly.

As a result, we get relevant ad content delivered to a target audience, but with an even lesser reliance on personal data and user monitoring.

This technique is currently widely practiced by question-and-answer or review or recommendation sites like Quora, whose targeting is based on specific topics and relevant questions.

Contextual / Behavioral Retargeting Benefits

Questionable or undisclosed personal data use had been an issue within the advertising industry for a long time.

Now, with the legislation getting stricter and public concern at its all-time high — wild west-styled ways of doing digital advertising are gone.

There is a need to figure out cleaner, more transparent, and more effective ways of delivering advertisements without walking on eggshells and breaking the rules.

Implementation of either Behavioral or Contextual Targeting can be one of the solutions that can be instrumental in keeping an ad tech as effective as it was while staying within the legal field.

While there are specific challenges in the case of Behavioral Targeting regarding gaining user consent for storing cookies and gathering selected types of personal data (such as IP address) — it is still less problematic than full-on old-school retargeting.

On the other hand, Contextual Targeting completely avoids GDPR and does its job the other way around — by concentrating on the page’s content instead of the user.

Despite being the most apparent benefit, GDPR compliance is not the most significant benefit of implementing Behavioral Targeting & Contextual Targeting.

The real most significant benefit is streamlining of the ad tech operation to its essentials.

Despite being a backbone of ad tech, the fact of the matter is that personal data was holding the technology back due to a lack of need to evolve.

  • With the adoption of GDPR and growing public backlash against digital advertising playing dirty with personal data — winds of changes are blowing harder than ever. Both Behavioral Targeting and Contextual Targeting are reasonable alternatives that can do the same job only better.

While behavioral targeting involves user monitoring to a certain degree, it avoids involving user data for advertising purposes. Instead, it gathers information on user’s behavior on-site and based on its specific elements that deliver relevant ad content.


It is interesting to observe how GDPR forces changes in the Ad Tech landscape. Its adoption presents an exquisite challenge for the industry — how to study the target audiences effectively overstepping and bluntly watching them and grasping as much data as possible?

  • Overall, GDPR is pushing digital advertisement into a more matter-of-fact direction when its operation is based strictly on actual actions and not unsolicited surveillance.

Behavioral & Contextual targeting are two viable solutions to the challenges presented by the new GDPR-induced Status Quo.

  • Both offer less is more approach — they show that it is possible to study and segment the audience and subsequently deliver relevant ad content without blatantly profiling users.

Writer, translator.

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