The New, New Quality Score: 1 Incredible Secret Revealed

OMG. It’s been over two years since I wrote a full column here about Quality Score.

It’s important to refocus on this issue from time to time – as I will in this two-part series – and I’m not shy about saying why: the blizzard of “helpful advice” online is at worst flat-out wrong, typically misleading, and at best, merely poorly tailored to whatever problems you may be experiencing in your account.

Perceived low Quality Scores are near the top of the list of reasons for hard-working campaign managers to “throw in the towel” and seek professional help. (Help with PPC, I mean…although the search engines should probably establish a generous mental health fund, too, lest their Frankensteinian Quality Score creations wreak any more havoc on our tormented psyches.)

That’s good: it means that the general idea behind Quality Score has percolated out into the marketplace.

Sheila (her real name, for all you know) wants to achieve volume targets on core keywords (like “baked beans”) relevant to her business. With low Quality Scores, she’ll be hard-pressed to do so.

Hypothetically, the difference between Quality Scores of seven and four might translate into 100 percent higher CPAs and 70 percent lower conversion volume on these keywords. It’s frustrating – like trying to start a campfire with no kindling and wet wood. You get a lot of smoke.

That’s the thrust of what Quality Score does to your business performance.

And the purpose behind it? Primarily – in keeping with the ethos of a search engine – to ensure that ads are relevant to the users typing in searches that may trigger ads. It’s like a machine-learning-driven, highly automated version of a thinking human editorial filter that reaches out and slaps ads down or off the page when they simply aren’t “quite right” or “right at all” for a given user’s query.

In challenging, competitive industries, or in fields where searchers just don’t like to see ads of any type, it’s not that easy to go from a poor Quality Score to a great one. Indeed, it’s still difficult to understand what the scores mean, and what to do about them. That varies from account to account.

Google’s Definitions

It also varies from month to month. Google’s actual formula, Google’s means of reporting to you elements of your performance, and Google’s definitions that explain how Quality Score is calculated, are in constant flux.

Lately, Google’s information refers to a list of possible elements of the formula. The notion of the “historical CTR of the keyword and matched ad” has been dropped in favor of “your keyword’s past CTR” and “your display URL’s past CTR.” But all of the bullet points are prefaced with: “we look at a number of different things related to your account, like the following…”

All of the points are open to interpretation. And while it’s not deliberate, some are probably huge red herrings.

One black hole is in the “keyword/ad relevance” factor, currently defined by Google as “how relevant your keyword is to your ads.” It could simply mean that you should make sure the keywords are in the ads, and one great way of doing that would be to force matching through dynamic keyword insertion (DKI). (But wouldn’t that generally be captured by the fact that such matching leads to increases in CTR? If Google won’t actually say what it means by keywords being relevant to ads, then how can we be sure of the best way to respond?)

Too many advertisers fixating on Quality Score are seeing these bullet points and connecting dots that don’t exist. Marketing takes a back seat to Quality Score hocus-pocus. The tail wags a dog, who in turn can’t see the forest for the trees.

The Importance of CTR: Simple, Right?

Despite the cagey technical writing, it’s plain that Quality Score is still dominated by a single statistic, reported at the level of keywords and also vital when broken down by ad creative: CTR. Most of that is the historical CTR of that keyword in the search network on Google.

As part of a recent release, Google now explicitly mentions expected CTR in its reporting breakdowns at the keyword level. No contradiction there. At first, on a new keyword with no data, keyword Quality Score is predictive; it’s based on Google’s vast understanding of other advertiser behavior and presumably on how your account has performed. As time passes, “expected CTR” is weighted more in favor of your real historical CTR performance.

Typically, people hear this lecture, assume they’ve got CTR solved, and then go looking for something else to help them fix perceived flaws in their account. That’s generally a mistake. If we stay with it, we can achieve a lot just by deeply appreciating what this CTR conversation has to offer.

Let’s say you have a high CTR on certain keywords (in your mind), but you still aren’t getting the Quality Score you feel you deserve. Well, consider:

  • What’s a high CTR? Maybe others bidding on this keyword have established a higher bar, due to better ads, more relevant product offerings, an exciting brand, etc. CTR is relative.
  • You’re bidding high enough that you’re in high ad positions. Relative to ad position, your CTR is actually not too exciting. Google normalizes for ad position in calculating CTR for Quality Score purposes.
  • Or what if you’re wallowing in obscurity, on low volumes in low ad positions? Tests are harder to complete. You don’t know how you’re performing. You need to run aggressive tests in “real” ad positions. You think Google’s standing in your way, but in reality, it’s other advertisers. It’s an auction and you haven’t established your position yet.
  • You’re contaminating your best efforts with very broad targeting and weak planning in other areas of the account – maybe even in the same ad group as your prime keywords. The factors for “display URL CTR” and “account-wide performance” are collecting horrible signals. You’ll need to put a stop to that, and dig your way out.

This still doesn’t exhaust the possibilities. There could be annoying reasons for low scores.

  • Quality Score will eventually reset based on your historically strong (or improving) performance, but you haven’t laid down enough of it yet. And you can’t know when it will reset. You get to keep staring at the lower scores until it does.
  • There are many pockets of irrationality within Google’s formulations. The short explanation calls it an “engineering problem.” I find that this is rarely the case, but sometimes the system is truly dealing you an unjust hand. Google does want to hear about such anomalies, though chances are it can’t respond to you directly with specifics and immediate fixes if you draw a specific example to its attention.

And there are yet further avenues for investigation and improvement. Likely, though, you should pursue them for their own sake rather than expecting any gold stars from a Quality Score standpoint. On the conference circuit, Google spokespeople have said things like “they normalize Quality Score for match type,” and that “negative keywords won’t improve Quality Score.” While such cryptic statements may be momentarily demotivating, you should still focus vigorously on match type and negative matching strategies…for their own sake. These tactics aren’t completely unrelated to Quality Score, so when Googlers make subtle points about such matters, it may be best not to read too much into them.

So what’s the “really advanced” secret? Tighter ad groups? Better-themed ad groups? Local targeting? Other campaign-level settings? DKI? Landing page testing? The cleverest of negative matching tactics? None are Quality Score unlockers on their own. Using tactics to address Quality Score just because they’re on a checklist will lead to unsatisfactory results. But certainly you’ll be better off if you understand the PPC platforms’ capabilities in depth. It wouldn’t hurt to understand the intent behind Google’s Landing Page and Site Quality guidelines, but don’t expect Quality Score to move a hair even if you cut page load times by 40 percent.

Not so Secret: Write Winning Ads

One area that still gets ignored is the importance of creativity and structured testing to achieve high CTR on ads while holding conversion rates or CPAs equal or better.

A high CTR on ads will directly impact two of the top factors in Quality Score: the historical CTR on the keywords that trigger the ads and the recorded historical CTR on the “display URL.”

Case Study in Progress: Ad Testing Works

Recently, I was asked to try to rescue Quality Score for a popular website that could not even get a decent Quality Score on its own brand. After listening to the list of kitchen sink tactics the company had tried to improve Quality Scores, I had to mention that they hadn’t done very much ad testing.

Armed with a “fix-it” budget, we’re going to find a true winning ad for a key ad group. We’re attempting to generate high volumes for testing purposes to accelerate our exit from the Quality Score doghouse.

My initial attempts couldn’t have illustrated my key point any better. Within 24 hours, it was plain that ad copy wasn’t trivial and copping out via the “DKI will equal relevance” route was nowhere near good enough.

I thought all eight of the ads I wrote were pretty good. But only a few performed acceptably. I wrote four additional ad variations while clinging tightly to the tiny slivers of winning themes, to bring the total number of ads being tested to 12.

What an amazing lesson! At the 48-hour mark, the CTR on ads in this pivotal group ranged from 1.60 percent to 4.79 percent! Instant takeaway: users respond very differently depending on how you speak to them…even on the broadest of commodity keywords going to a home page.

The previous build of that ad group? While ad positions and irrelevant keywords complicate comparisons, the CTRs on the old ads had ranged from an anemic 1.03 percent all the way down to a comatose 0.15 percent.

High Quality Scores, and high ad positions on terms you want or like, won’t just be handed to you. If your testing goes well, you should outdo the expectations of whoever tried and failed before (and those who didn’t try). The reason you don’t shoot into top ad ranks immediately, alas, is because the competition has done years of testing and has enough Quality Score history to make it tough for you to break through.

Write much better ads than you had before. It’s potentially as simple as this.

I’ll be back in Part 2 to reveal the big secret to Quality Score!

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