Search: Google's Guesswork
Google AdWords is an auction, but it doesn't work the way you might expect. In an AdWords auction, the highest bidder doesn't always win, and the amount you pay is based on a number of factors in addition to your bid.
These and other potentially unexpected results occur because the winners and fees in an AdWords auction are based upon a combination of bid and quality score, rather than just the bid itself. In fact, quality score may be the single most influential factor of your success or failure with that keyword.
What Is Quality Score?
Google describes quality score as "an objective measurement of quality" that reflects how suitable and satisfying a keyword and its associated text ad are to people whose searches are matched to that keyword. The more likely Google thinks it is that an ad will get clicked, the higher the resulting quality score.
A quality score is assigned to each keyword in your account to reflect Google's assessment of how well that keyword is expected to perform. It's used to assist and encourage bids on keywords that are expected to perform well for you, and to hinder and discourage bids on keywords that are expected to perform poorly.
The "performance" Google's focusing on is the likelihood that a given text ad associated with a specific keyword will satisfy searchers and earn their clicks. Perhaps not coincidentally, keywords that perform well based on this definition also maximize Google's earnings by generating more paid clicks from more happy users who then search on Google more frequently.
Quality score is a prediction about the future based on the past. It's determined by a mathematical calculation including a wide range of information on the structure and performance of your account as a whole, and of your keywords, text ads and landing pages. There is no human subjectivity involved. Like any prediction, it's really just a best guess, but because it's a computer-generated guess, it's constantly recalculated as more history and better data become available.
How Does Quality Score Help?
It's easy to be cynical about Google's motives with quality score by viewing it as a way to control and confuse advertisers and raise paid search prices. But the fact is, quality score is so important because it benefits each of the participants in the AdWords ecosystem.
• Searchers Win: If Google can predict which ads will satisfy users and show those ads more frequently, searchers are more likely to find what they want, have a good experience, return to Google frequently and run lots of searches over time.
• Advertisers Win: If Google can show your ads more frequently in situations where they satisfy searchers, you'll gain traffic, buyers and profits.
• Google Wins: If Google can show searchers satisfying ads that drive more searches, while helping advertisers reach targeted prospects affordably enough to keep spending on AdWords, then Google makes more money.
What Impact Does Quality Score Have?
Quality score has a huge impact on the results achieved in paid search accounts because quality score affects four important decisions that occur every time someone executes a search that may be related to any of your keywords:
1. Whether or not your ad will be shown. If the quality score of a particular keyword is too low, it can be disqualified as ineligible before an auction even begins.
2. The "first page bid estimate" for that keyword. The lower the quality score of any particular keyword, the higher the minimum bid estimate you'll be given to suggest how much you'll need to bid to win placement on the first page of the search results.
3. The position in which your ad will appear in the search results. Each keyword competes against those of other advertisers for space on the search results page, and quality score is one half of the formula used to determine the position in which the ads assigned to those keywords will appear. A higher quality score has just as much weight as a higher bid in helping your ads rank above the competition.
4. How much you'll be charged when your ads are clicked. The quality score of your keywords works directly to raise or lower your cost per click (CPC). High quality scores save you money on every click, while low quality scores cost you on every click.
In other words, quality score is important. If you don't earn good or great quality scores, your ads will appear less frequently and in lower positions on the search engine results page, and you will pay more for every resulting click.
Improving Your Quality Scores
Because quality score is a quantified prediction for success, the best way to raise it is to do things that are likely to make the keyword successful. There are a huge number of things you can do, the most important being narrowly focusing the keywords you choose to bid on, tightly aligning ad copy to both keywords and search queries, and making sure to avoid the "penalties" that Google can assess when you violate policies or best practices.
You should only bid on keywords where you can write a text ad and deliver an offer that is compelling to the majority of people who would search on that keyword. There are more than 100,000 search queries that could reasonably be matched to the broad match keyword "notebook computer," for example. This huge funnel of search intent makes it very difficult to write ad copy that most of those searchers will find relevant. Therefore, it's hard to get good clickthrough rates for this type of keyword.
You must break keywords down into small ad groups so the text ad copy is directly responsive and relevant to every different search query the included keywords may attract. Don't be afraid to split large ad groups into two or more smaller ones to enable a better match between keywords and text ads.
The quality score algorithms operate under the assumption that you're an honest advertiser with pure intentions ... or at least reasonably pure intentions. The system penalizes advertisers who show signs of intentionally or unintentionally disrespecting the people who search and click. These penalties can negatively impact the quality scores you'll receive for specific keywords or for all keywords in your account. Google is fairly clear about their policies; you must understand and respect them.
Quality Score, Your Advantage
Most advertisers should think of quality score as a message from Google telling them how well they're doing in the organization and administration of their AdWords accounts. Scores below six should be rare and generally not tolerated. Allowing your account to continue on for months or years full of low quality scores means you're missing out on a huge number of potential impressions and clicks and consistently paying excessively high per-click prices. Why would you want to do that?
Craig Danuloff is vice president and chief product officer at Celebration, Fla.-based marketing product and service provider Channel Intelligence. He authored "Quality Score in High-Resolution," which was written with technical support from Google. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.