Google continues to make changes to the way the AdWords system calculates your Quality Score, with mixed results for marketers and advertisers. One never hears about those advertisers positively affected by the most recent wave of changes, but there’s quite a bit of buzz about the negative.
Google continues to insist that all the changes are being made to improve the user experience and reward relevant advertisers. However it isn’t unusual for there to be a trickle-up effect on CPCs (define) required to maintain a position, even for highly relevant marketers who saw no immediate change.
Many in the SEM (define) community are hatching conspiracy theories about Google implementing Quality Score changes and applying them arbitrarily to marketers’ campaigns. Others think Google simply cranks up the hidden metric thresholds used to calculate the Quality Score any time it needs to squeeze out a bit more revenue from advertisers. It’s easy to see why these conspiracy theories have proliferated, but we all must remember Google has often taken actions that sacrifice immediate revenue for improved user experiences and relevance.
There’s no reason to believe Google is singling out individual marketers based on arbitrary methods. However, it may not have the modified algorithms perfectly tuned. If your site and accounts have been affected by the recent Quality Score updates, instead of simply griping, let Google know through a rep (if you’re a large spender) or via the “contact us” link within the AdWords interface. There’s no guarantee you’ll get a positive outcome simply by complaining, but if you feel you are highly relevant, have your campaigns well structured, and have relevant landing pages, you may have mistakenly been disadvantaged by its algorithm.
The best solution, however, is to optimize your campaigns and understand the key drivers to keeping Quality Score high. No one knows how large a factor the landing page is, so even if your landing pages are used exclusively for PPC (define) (due to higher conversion or more control), make sure all landing pages are at least somewhat search-engine-friendly. This means your relevant content needs to be readable. Here are some additional actions you can take:
- Restructure and optimize your ad groups. Ad groups should contain only as many words as can share a common ad creative. This often means a small set of phrases and keywords. Don’t succumb to the temptation to use the Google DKI (Dynamic Keyword Insertion) feature and load up the ad group with tons of keywords and phrases.
- Use Exact Match when possible, capture leftovers with Broad or Phrase Match. Broad Match is Google’s default, but one can achieve better targeting (and therefore a higher Quality Score) with Exact Match used to the point of diminishing returns. This means you should invest the time and energy to explore all the keyword combinations that will (and won’t) work for you. Broad Match is to clean up the leftovers you weren’t able to capture with your keyword research. Sometimes it’s worth bidding a bit lower on the Broad Match listing, but usually Google will select Exact Match anyway, due to its higher Quality Score.
- Use negative keywords. When using Broad Match to capture the tail, also use negative keywords within the ad group. These prevent the ad being shown in poorly targeted SERPs (define), which lowers your CTR (define) and, therefore, your AdRank/Quality Score.
- Bid on keywords individually. Better bid control lets you control the keywords more effectively. It’s more work than using a bid for the ad group, but you should already be doing this because click values are different by keyword.
- Try bidding aggressively. I don’t know if Google has specifically recommended this, but sometimes bidding aggressively, particularly at your campaign’s launch, seems to create a halo effect on your listings by creating a positive history that generates superior Quality Scores.
- Turn on the Quality Score column. It’s not perfect, but having a Quality Score indicator in the AdWords interface helps you spot problems early. It also helps you determine if changes you make have an impact (positively or negatively). Keep in mind that Quality Score changes manifest themselves more quickly on a high-volume/high-traffic term than on a term out in the tail. One of the problems with the way Google displays the Quality Score now is that changes to ad creative may help, but if you have multiple creative elements you can’t definitively tell which one is helping. A good rule of thumb is the higher the CTR on the ad, the better your Quality Score.
- Pause campaigns. I haven’t had a chance to test this yet, but if you believe your CTR is higher by daypart or by day of week, and your conversion rate changes mirror CTR (lower CTR correlates with lower conversion rates), you may want to do without the poor clicks and pause campaigns during off-peak hours or days. This is particularly the case when you have a budget much smaller than the number of clicks you could buy.
There will always be some areas of Google’s Quality Score that will remain opaque, but knowing how to optimize a campaign structure and maintaining good landing-page quality can help you outsmart your competition.
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