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Quality Score Isn’t Actionable. Here’s What You Can Do About It

Posted March 3rd, 2014 by Andrew Goodman

Everyone in PPC (and related display advertising) today knows that ad rank is determined in part by your bid, and in part by a multifaceted relevancy measure called Quality Score.

What many still don’t realize is that Quality Score doesn’t merely determine rank on the page (of the ad listings), but also impression share or the frequency of delivery (Google currently refers to this as “ad auction eligibility”). With lower Quality Scores, ads may simply be shown less often, rather than just dropping down in position. Not only does that enforce relevancy standards, it provides a handy lever that Google can use to tweak its profitability. Change the algorithm a little bit, and some advertisers are forced to ramp up bids if they want fuller delivery of their ads. Google’s auction regime includes handy little “framing” features, like the estimated “first page bid” notation that implies you won’t even make it onto the first page of ads if you don’t up your bid.

There continue to be many other nuances of Quality Score that are really only taken into account by a tiny minority of advertisers:

  • Quality Score is calculated on the fly for every query, for all eligible advertisers in a given keyword auction. What we see in our accounts next to the keywords (if you Customize Columns to view this) are reported averages.
  • Quality Score is predictive until a keyword builds up a significant amount of history. Perfectly good keywords might come in at 3 or 4, and eventually go up.
  • Some kinds of keywords (inherently ambiguous ones) may always attract consumer-oriented information seekers, etc., not people looking for your highly specialized software. That’s why you might never crack 4 or 5 on your phrase match for “prevent phishing,” despite your perception that the keyword is relevant. But your longer phrases that include “software” in the phrase (etc.), might clock in with a 7, 8, or 10. In B2B, it’s not all about the Quality Score. It’s about doing your best to find customers at the best possible CPA. Sometimes you’ll get cues from Quality Score, but that’s about it.
  • Quality Score history is important, but we don’t know how far back that goes, how much of it is needed for optimal results, or how or when it degrades.
  • Reported Quality Score might be drifting farther away from actual Quality Score.
  • There is an available “three-factor” breakdown of “components” of Quality Score by keyword, but it is not terribly informative, since it is not clearly actionable. The factors are Expected CTR, Ad Relevance, and Landing Page Experience.
  • We don’t really know what the “ad relevance” component of Quality Score is, though Google refers to the keywords in an ad group not being “specific enough” to the ads. This factor may be unnecessary, given data is already collected on CTR and user behavior, but trust Google to meddle further in relevancy matters: they’re a search engine, after all!
  • Landing page experiences are important, but this component isn’t very actionable — it certainly isn’t typical that an advertiser runs an A/B landing page test and somehow gets usable information back about how that affected Quality Score. Indeed, the only case studies I’ve seen have cited just the opposite — a lengthy test period with inconclusive or confounding results. I do believe that a big step up in the user experience via a site redesign, testing the appropriate level of granularity for landing pages, etc., will score you a win on this Quality Score component, which might give you a slight boost in AdRank, but we’re talking about a full redesign or upgrade in UX, not to be taken lightly, and something you should probably do for all the right reasons anyway. (Regardless, there are some guidelines all advertisers should be aware of. Especially, avoid certain practices that decrease trust with users or annoy users.)
  • There are Quality Scores for Display Network ads, PLA’s, Dynamic Remarketing, Dynamic Search Ads, etc. None are reported, so none are actionable.
  • Edit an ad, lose the old ad’s Quality Score history (i.e. something resets). How harmful this is to the score for your “keyword and matched ad” isn’t known, but it’s important to understand that all testing in AdWords comes at a cost, as does a blanket change in display and/or destination URL.
  • AdWords normalizes Quality Score for match type and ad position. Don’t get your hopes up that you’ll discover loopholes around these.
  • Negative keywords are always a good idea, if they make their case on their own merit. Google won’t confirm how important they are as an aid to keyword Quality Score, though. As with many other factors, the story from Google is subject to change.
  • In case you missed the point I was trying to make, regular keyword Quality Score is nearly as mysterious as the ones that aren’t even reported, so it isn’t very actionable.

There are some obvious best practices that will probably get you better Quality Scores:

  • A well-organized campaign — because ads & landing pages will be more relevant to queries that the related keywords in your ad groups trigger ads on.
  • Avoiding self-indulgent theories that simply mean something different to the consumer than what you’re trying to put in front of them — “weight loss ideas” as a keyword, when you’re selling jump ropes. Hey, it could work, but if it persists with a Quality Score of 2, pause it. It’s doing more harm than good.
  • The Quality Score history component at the “URL level” is an interesting and murky way Google can reward brands, but it might also be good for you if you aren’t a big brand. It might be a way of ensuring that established, trusted advertisers get a slight boost over upstarts and tinkerers.
  • Try out anything that boosts Quality Score (CTR) with no obviously deleterious effect on ROI. (hint: ad extensions).
  • Ad testing: go with ROI or conversion rate related metrics when you can. But in the case of a tie, consider letting the higher CTR ad win. Some advertisers might want to go all in for CTR, if volume is much more important than profit.
  • Here’s a big one for me. Google explicitly states that Quality Score history at the account-wide level is a factor. We don’t know how big a factor, but it affects every auction for every keyword in the account to some degree. That makes a strong case for professional campaign management. Sloppy, messy, irresponsible, lazy, irrelevant, etc. campaigns pay some penalty. Best practices (campaign organization, meticulous testing) pay off over time. You can’t prove it with an A/B test, but the benefit it there. Google says so!

Some “advanced tactics pushers” will try to convince you that there are certain more esoteric Quality Score voodoo tactics that can give you a magical lift. They have rarely if ever proven any of these claims.

Quality Score is super-important? Yes. It’s very important to understand how it works. It is not actionable or testable in the way that many advocates claim, however.



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