Digital Breadcrumbs – How keyword data is collected

Posted by David McBee — Director of Training

Ever wonder why you see those ads for products that are strangely relevant to products and services you’ve been searching for or reading about online? By now you’ve probably heard about targeted display, and you’ve come to understand that it has something to do with your online behavior.

In this article, we’re going to discuss the four ways that you create those digital breadcrumbs that paint a pretty good picture about you, as you surf the web.

And don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the technical lingo like cookies and pixels and algorithms. We’re going to cut through the internet gobbledygook and keep it simple.

Website publishers capture the keywords that you search.

Most websites have some kind of search query tool these days. Whether it’s a site like eBay that helps you search for products they sell, or a review site, or even a news site or a blog, publishers collect and sell your search data. When we use these search boxes, it is one way that we leave digital breadcrumbs that identify us as relevant prospects.

What do we know about this user based on the keyword data captured here on Travelocity?

It’s probably fair to say that this user resides in Kansas City and is planning a long weekend to Key West in March. It appears this user is bringing another adult and two children.

Who would be interested in targeting this user? Hotels, bed & breakfasts, restaurants, rental car providers and Key West resorts would, of course, like to target this user. Restaurants, grocers, and other retailers in Kansas City might also like to show this user their ads. And that is just one search that has identified one of his/her interests.

The domains you visit become a part of your breadcrumb trail.

Associated with every user is a list of websites that he or she has visited. Whether we’ve searched Google and ended up on the sites, clicked on links in our social media feeds, or we went directly to them, the sites we visit also tell a story about our interests.

What kinds of businesses might be interested in targeting a user who had visited these domains?

It’s probably safe to say that the person visiting these websites is interested in buying a car. Clearly, car dealerships would like to show their ads to this user, but so would auto insurance providers, tire dealers, auto parts and mechanics, and even providers of car stereos, GPS systems and other auto accessories.

Website publishers capture the pages you visit on their websites.

A domain tells us a lot about a user, but the specific web pages of that domain can provide even more details that paint a picture about your interests. Just by clicking on a menu, we add to our breadcrumbs.

What do we know about this user? What kinds of businesses might like to show her ads?

Based on the specific pages she’s visiting on, babycenter and even WebMD, it appears that she’s pregnant. Retailers who sell baby and children’s clothing and toys will want to show her ads; also anyone who sells strollers, car seats, diapers, formula and all things associated with having a baby. How about gynecologists and pediatricians?

The content you read tells a very robust story about your interests.

Another way we find content online is when our family and friends share content with us. Based on the pictures and updates I post on Facebook, my friends know that I really like roller coasters and theme parks. Because of that, my friends are always sending me links to articles every time there is news about a roller coaster.

So I don’t really do a lot of searching for coasters, but I do read a lot of content related to coaster. And in fact, sometimes the content appears on web sites/pages that aren’t obviously about coasters and theme parks.

That’s why it’s so valuable that targeted display providers use the context of the pages we visit as another breadcrumb.

In this example, I didn’t search for the site. Also, the domain (a newspaper) and even the specific page of the site (business news) are so generic that they don’t paint a picture of my interests.
I’m certainly not an ideal candidate for the “business news audience” based on my visit to this page.

It isn’t until you look at the keywords on the page that my true interests are revealed.

So just showing up on a page and reading the content of that page (no matter how you arrived there) adds another layer to your user profile.

Note: The advertiser must be using Keyword Contextual Targeting as part of their strategy in order to target you in this manner.

To those who still find targeted display ads annoying or uncomfortable, let me just say this. The internet is free because website publishers monetize their sites through product sales, advertising, and selling your data. Try to imagine a web without these revenue sources. We would have to pay a subscription fee for every website we visit, and that would mean most of us wouldn’t have full access to this valuable resource that we call the world wide web.

The way I see it, if I have to view ads on the web (like I do everywhere in the real world) I’d kinda like them to be about the things that interest me.

Thanks for reading.
David McBee


“But Google is the king of search, and if no one has access to Google data, they’re missing out on most of my digital breadcrumbs.”

Well, not exactly. Take a look at this web search on Google:

You’re right. Google doesn’t sell that search information. But look what populates in the URL of the page that I visit when I leave Google:

And I can’t speak for, but it’s possible, even likely they are one of the very publishers who monetize their sites by selling their data… just like most of those we visit after we search Google. As an advertiser targeting my behavior, do you need my Google searches to understand my interests? And by the way, the keyword phrase “weight loss” appears on that page seven times.

Bottom line, the world wide web – and all the sites I visit – know about my interests, with or without Google’s search data.