Contextual advertising is advertising that relates directly to the content of the webpage on which it is served -- it is advertising that is in context with its environment.
For example, a search on Google for digital cameras results in a page with sponsored links to websites that offer information about digital cameras or sell digital cameras. The advertisements are contextually related to your search.
Websites that have high traffic can also make money from leasing space to marketers who place banners or pop-ups on the site. In this case the party placing the ads chooses advertisements that relate to the content of the pages they will appear on.
The roots of online contextual advertising were first based on personal profiling, which exploded in 1995 with the advent of permanent cookie technology. However, contextual advertising based on surreptitiously profiling the surfing habits of individuals was considered invasive and, according to countless polls over the years, highly objectionable by the majority of the surfing public; most internet users do not want to be profiled in order to be served contextual advertising.
Actual sales based on contextual advertising done through surreptitious profiling were greatly disappointing. Marketers underestimated the resistance people would have to privacy invasion. When major profilers like DoubleClick announced proposed mergers with offline marketers that could result in triangulated databases matching surfing habits to real life names and addresses, the public was outraged. The pressure was on to transition to a less invasive model that still delivered relevant marketing power.
Modern contextual advertising models that rely, not on cookie profiling, but on website content, are seeing great success. Google has made noninvasive, contextual advertising easy with AdSense. Overture, Kanoodle, and Quigo are other contextual advertising brokers. Here you can sign up to have contextual sponsored links placed in a location on your website. Every time a viewer at your site clicks on a sponsored link, you earn a small commission.
Contextual advertising like that offered by services such as AdSense is a great boon for the advertiser and public alike, making it easy for people to find what they want in a timely manner without relying on invasive and unpopular profiling.