Google Gets Tougher With AdWords Landing Pages

The company has announced on its Inside AdWords blog that it will be updating its “landing page quality” scoring algorithm to weed out more low-quality sites that are linked to by AdWords ads.

“From time-to-time, we improve our algorithms for evaluating landing page quality (often based on feedback from our end-users), and [this] week we’re launching another such improvement,” according to Inside AdWords. “Thus, over the coming days a small number of advertisers who are providing a low-quality user experience on their landing pages will see increases in their minimum bids. It is important to note, however, that the vast majority of advertisers will not be affected at all by this change, as they link to quality landing pages.”

Penalizing irrelevant sites helps advertisers that link to quality content, site publishers, and consumers by increasing the relevance of Google’s ads, according to Al Scillitani, search marketing manager at Fortune Interactive. “The changes Google has implemented so far, and continues to implement, are things that advertisers should be doing anyway: use targeted keywords, [run] relevant ads with a good call to action, and link to a well written, relevant landing page,” Scillitani told ClickZ. “The quality score measurement makes the advertiser increase relevancy. To me, it makes sense that a relevant ad/landing page with the keyword in it will rank higher than an ad that is not relevant, assuming they have the same cost per click.”

Scillitani voiced concerns over how Google determines what is relevant, worrying that sites with quality content would not be penalized for using synonyms, for example. “Is the ads bot going to go through the landing page and report back to AdWords some type of relevancy score? If so, that is scary to me,” he said. “If the bot does not recognize a synonym of your word or if it is taken out of context, will this affect your quality index score?”

Google began evaluating landing page quality in December. What’s new this week is an improvement to the algorithm, which is expected to include more restrictions on so-called “made for AdSense” (MFA) sites.

Landing page quality has long been an issue with MFA sites, which generally buy keywords in AdWords for the minimum bid, then link that ad to a page of links from AdSense or other contextual ad programs which pay them a higher cost per click than they paid to drive traffic to the page.

Google maintains that this “click arbitrage” tactic often results in a poor user experience, since users are directed from a search page to a page of text ads, often without much else on the page of value. By raising the costs of the AdWords ads that lead to such a page, Google is hoping to make it less profitable to engage in the practice.

“We realize that some minimum bids may be too high to be cost-effective — indeed, these high minimum bids are our way of motivating advertisers to either improve their landing pages or to simply stop using AdWords for those pages, while still giving some control over which keywords to advertise on,” according to Inside AdWords. “Although it is counter-intuitive to some who hear it, we’d rather show one less ad than to show an ad which leads to a poor user experience — since long-term user trust in AdWords is of overarching importance.”

Google has never specifically banned such sites, but it has put in place measures to penalize them. Google provides some guidance to advertisers about what it considers to be a quality landing page in its help center. The suggestions fall under three overall tips: provide relevant and substantial content; treat a user’s personal information responsibly; and develop an easily navigable site.

The mostly common-sense guidelines suggest linking to the page that provides the most useful and accurate information about the product or service in the ad. Google also suggests clear demarcation between site content and sponsored links; offering unique content; and linking to a page that offers more than just a page of links. Those guidelines directly address the issue of “made for AdSense” sites without specifically banning them.

Most publishers, at least the ones not involved in click arbitrage, will benefit from the move, according to contextual advertising expert Jennifer Slegg. “If you tend to see an abundance of ‘Made for AdSense’ sites appearing in your ad units, you just might start earning more money for those clicks,” Slegg writes in her JenSense blog.

But for publishers who are building MFA sites, Slegg predicts less stellar results, especially since they’ve already had to make adjustments to Google’s “smart pricing.” With increased costs for each clickthrough, these publishers may find it becomes unprofitable to continue.

“As these minimum bids start to rise, it will be interesting to learn just how much they will be rising for those with lower quality landing pages. And depending on where you sit on the issue, this decision could be the best thing AdWords could have done, or the worst thing they could have done to your profits,” Slegg writes.

Besides MFA sites, another group of advertisers that might be affected are those looking to build a campaign-specific landing page, such as a Flash-based rich media page. Previously, these pages did not need to consider search engine optimization (SEO) in their design, since they were intended to be found only by users who click on a paid search ad, but Kevin Lee, executive chairman and co-founder of Did-it Media Management, believes implementing tried-and-true SEO techniques is the best way to convince Google of your page’s relevance.

“Marketers looking to build high-converting landing pages just for PPC search without having to think about SEO will now need to take SEO best practices into account, even when building PPC-specific landing pages,” Lee told ClickZ.

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