Google has quietly rolled out an update to how it communicates violations of its landing page policies. The official update was posted recently on the Inside AdWords blog.
The key point is that there is now a more explicit distinction between quality issues and policy violations. In the past, Google’s terminology was unclear, so the two seemed like they were lumped together. All quality issues were violations, or were all violations quality issues? And they were also conflated in the execution of the reporting. The penalties meted out for violations/issues were harsh: if Quality Score was reported as low as a 1, it was unlikely that your ads would be showing up more than a handful of times, if ever. And that would have held Google back from continuing to gradually incentivize (legitimate) advertisers to improve on the user experience on softer issues, like load times and relevancy.
So now, policy violations lead to site suspension for the offending advertiser, with a clear notification that this has happened; in contrast with less visible information in past iterations. And rather than explicit notices of suspension, low quality scores in the past required the advertiser to infer that something very serious had happened. They simply were not told as much.
Though Google does not say so in so many words, this now opens the door for Google to include (non policy violation related) “landing page quality” factors in the mix for keyword quality score. So in the future, we’d expect the definition of the core Quality Score algorithm to evolve, though the current definition does include Landing Page Quality without saying precisely how important it is.
On the surface this seems confusing, because advertisers are treated to a page of Landing Page and Website Quality “guidelines,” with some portions (such as those on navigation) including the words “Here are a few suggestions.” Suggestions? A “few”?
Still, flouting these “suggestions” is patently not as serious as violating the “policy guidelines,” of which Google maintains an entire laundry list. From get rich quick, to hacking, to misleading and inaccurate claims, it’s all there.
For some reason, in this latest blog post Google maintains that “landing page quality is determined by automated systems”. While we have no doubt that bots are used to sniff out potential violators of scores of Google policies, there is no way that the call is made (“determined”) by bots alone. And policy specialists are hardly playing the mere role of messenger, passing on the bots’ “determinations”. Many of the issues require judgment calls and some investigation by a policy specialist. They are editorial decisions. That automation rules the day is a theme Google has bent over backwards to maintain, perhaps to downplay any sense of an umpire’s subjectivity or partiality in decisions; perhaps to discourage appeals and excessive interaction with tedious bad-apple advertisers.
But again, now that policy violations are separate, we can all agree (can’t we?) that policy specialists do get involved in suspending the violating advertisers. And this new split in the communications method makes it more plausible to suggest that “over here,” in the realm of what Google calls “quality,” the appropriate treatment of “quality issues” can be nearly entirely be determined by an algorithm, much the same as organic search. (This will no doubt be music to the ears of SEO-trained snake-oil-salesmen. Real world advertisers should beware of excessive claims for relentless website tweaking based on limited knowledge of the proportional weight of this (unspecified) type of “quality garnish” as opposed to the main dish in keyword quality score: “historical CTR on the keyword and the matched ad.”)
In any case, this change made us even more curious, so Traffick asked Google for some clarification on this clarification. The following replies were provided by a Google spokesperson.
Q: Has Google realized that a low quality score, and a notation indicating that landing page & website quality was low, wasn’t clear enough?
A: “We’ve heard from advertisers that they wanted more information about this particular issue, and so we wanted to listen to them and provide greater clarity on our quality and policy guidelines.”
Q: It does seem that by packaging up “editorially suspended” sites with lesser violations, there was confusion and ambiguity that caused some advertisers to overreact, others to misunderstand, and still others (the true violators), to keep pecking away with false hope that there might be a way to optimize their way out of an editorial decision.
A. “The purpose of this change was to emphasize the distinction between policy and quality more clearly by making it easier for advertisers to know when they’re affected by landing page and site policy issues, and to take appropriate corrective action.”
Q: Does this mean Google has increased its editorial and policy resources to deal with website quality (now: “policy violation”) issues among advertisers, or has this policy team been there all along, but not communicated as such?
A: “We want to emphasize that we’ve always had resources – both automated systems and human review – focused on the review of landing pages. In response to advertiser feedback, we’ve decided to improve the clarity of our communication in the AdWords interface, but there have not been any changes to back-end systems or operational processes.”
Finally, Google wanted to explain the difference between “policy” and “quality”: “Policy violations, which include guidelines for the content and format of ads and sites (more here), prevent ads from showing and from entering the auction. Quality issues impact quality score, which in turn affect whether or not an ad would show, ad rank, pricing and other aspects of the advertising system.”
So, if you violate certain content policies — such as those related to drugs and drug paraphenalia, your account would not show ads (would be suspended). “Quality” issues (non violations) affect quality score, which (as always) can affect not only ad rank, but also the likelihood of showing at all to any given searcher.
Perhaps the best way of explaining this is that policy violation suspensions are dealt with by “hard” enforcement such that no Quality Score need be shown. All other website and landing page quality issues are affected by a “soft” scoring system, of indeterminate impact on your position, costs, eligibility, etc. Although it may seem like it’s been this way all along, it’s safe to say that Google itself muddied the waters when it decided on its own to conflate policy with quality several years ago. By unpacking the two, Google now admits that landing page, content, and website policy violations are “hard enforced” and website quality issues are “soft scored”.
Moreover, it’s highly likely that Google has shifted some “policies” into the realm of “suggestions,” and will continue to evolve its treatment of some policies and some suggestions. There is no hard and fast rule that says Google should suspend or severely cripple your account for showing pop-ups on the landing page, for example. Nor is there any objective reason that Google would suspend an advertiser for certain types of “gruesome imagery”. Try as it might, Google won’t be able to dissuade outside observers from the obvious conclusion that there is considerable subjectivity inherent in some of these policies and suggestions, despite the company’s deft touch with definitions, scoring systems, bot-themed interfaces, and cagey word play.