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Five Quality Score Myths Busted

  |  January 29, 2010   |  Comments

You know that Quality Score is important. But here's a look at exactly what it is and what it can or cannot do.

In search marketing, it's easy to get people obsessed with a particular metric: you express it on a scale of zero to 10. (Remember Toolbar PageRank?)

It's only been a few months now that a significant number of search advertisers have even figured out how to look up Quality Scores on their Google AdWords keywords. (You have to "customize columns" and "show Quality Score"; it's not shown by default.)

What Toolbar PageRank was to dabblers in SEO (define), Quality Score is to practitioners of paid search. In this running-of-the-bulls-like environment, the main casualty amidst the din of the hooves in this virtual Pamplona appears to be the truth.

Quality Score multiplied by your bid still determines where you rank on the page against competitors in the advertising auction, so it's indeed important. High Quality Score and awesome ROI (define) are key, all else being equal.

But let's dial it down a notch and check out exactly what Quality Score is, and what it can or cannot do. Here are five common myths about Quality Score, with some suggested alternatives closer to reality:

Myth: AdWords used to be all about rewarding higher CTRs (define), but now, the formula is incredibly complex.

Reality: Keyword Quality Score is based on keyword "relevance," which is primarily about CTR. Prominent Googlers have stated that other elements of the formula are mostly "just other cuts at CTR." Keywords develop a history, so good performance can raise your Quality Score over time as statistical confidence grows. You can also be rewarded or punished by the overall (mostly CTR) performance of various account elements: the whole account, a campaign, ad group, or ad. No one outside Google knows the precise formula. "Other relevancy factors" might include semantic analysis that assesses commercial intent or intent related to better-performing keywords on your campaign or similar competitors' campaigns. These various other factors will generally be trumped by a very strong CTR relative to other advertisers on the same keyword.

Myth: Quality Score is like old-fashioned SEO. You should make a list of keyword elements to "optimize," and your score will likely improve.

Reality: This myth is circulated so SEOs and other clever vendors can sell you traditional keyword optimization, including tweaking various page elements of your landing page. It bears little resemblance to the marketing strategies that have always made sense in paid search. There was virtually no change in behavior or performance when Google shifted from a less complex version of quality scoring to the new one called Quality-Based Bidding in 2005.

Myth: You should be doing multivariate landing page testing to improve your landing page and Web site Quality Score.

Reality: The purpose of landing page and Web site quality (rolled out as a second kind of Quality Score in December 2005, following initial keyword Quality Score in August 2005) is mainly to punish particularly poor customer experiences or shady business models. Landing page and Web site Quality Score is not discretely broken out from overall Quality Score and is only updated every few weeks (unlike keyword Quality Score). So, you can't use multivariate testing on landing pages to gauge Quality Score response, period. Google has noted that landing page and Web site quality effects tend to be "binary" (either you're in the 98 percent of advertisers who are "greenlighted," or you're not).

Improving your Web site's load speed, customer engagement, and information scent may translate back into a small boost in this Quality Score. Going forward, these factors could have a bigger impact on overall Quality Score. These are the kinds of things you should be doing anyway.

Myth: Make heavy use of exact match on your keywords to boost CTRs, and thus Quality Scores.

Reality: Google states that Quality Scores are normalized by match type, and regardless of match type, the system tries to predict how it would do if all comparable keywords in the auction were of the same match type (probably exact match). You should continue to pay close attention to matching options for various other reasons. Exact match is not a ticket to Quality Score bliss, and will sharply narrow your reach. You should, however, make use of negative keywords (exclusions) where it makes sense. Consumers and Google both love this, and it can translate into higher CTRs and higher Quality Scores.

Myth: The Content Network is killing my CTRs. I'm paranoid that this is killing my Quality Scores, so I disabled the Content Network.

Reality: Quality Scores are calculated separately for search and for the Content Network. You're safe to place a much lower emphasis on CTRs in network placements than you do for search.

Those are the basics. Down the road, I'll cover some more advanced debates about quality-based bidding.

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Andrew Goodman

Goodman is founder and President of Toronto-based Page Zero Media, a full-service marketing agency founded in 2000. Page Zero focuses on paid search campaigns as well as a variety of custom digital marketing programs. Clients include Direct Energy, Canon, MIT, BLR, and a host of others. He is also co-founder of Traffick.com, an award-winning industry commentary site; author of Winning Results with Google AdWords (McGraw-Hill, 2nd ed., 2008); and frequently quoted in the business press. In recent years he has acted as program chair for the SES Toronto conference and all told, has spoken or moderated at countless SES events since 2002. His spare time eccentricities include rollerblading without kneepads and naming his Japanese maples. Also in his spare time, he co-founded HomeStars, a consumer review site with aspirations to become "the TripAdvisor for home improvement." He lives in Toronto with his wife Carolyn.

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