Asking a search marketer for his opinion on Google’s Quality Score (QS) is pretty much a rhetorical question — we all dislike it. One might go so far as to say that we all hate it. We hate it for its lack of transparency, the often random nature of its penalties, and the utter helplessness we feel when QS prevents a perfectly good keyword/ad group/campaign from showing up on AdWords.
I personally was negatively impacted by QS while managing a $750,000 monthly spend on AdWords, which netted me six Google account reps and a team of 20 “creative optimizers.” One day someone at Google decided our sites were of low quality. Our $750,000 monthly spend dwindled to $50,000, our six account reps turned into one, and eventually we were transferred to a phone rep. Once declared “low quality,” you seem to be guilty until proven innocent.
You would think that given my past run-in with QS, I would be one of its biggest critics, right? Well, you would be wrong. Some might say I’m a victim of Stockholm syndrome and beginning to identify with my “captors,” but I do think it is time that we — as search marketers — accept partial responsibility for Quality Score. Let’s face it, before QS, SEM was the Wild West. Many advertisers had little regard for the user experience consumers encountered after clicking on an ad. Remember those “free iPod” ads that collected tons of personal information, forced users to buy unwanted products, delivered spam, while making it impossible to collect the promised freebie? How about the eBay and Amazon ads on every possible keyword? I even have an ad screen capture that reads, “Looking for Nuclear Bombs? Find it on eBay!”
The ads were deceptive, annoying, and irrelevant. Sometimes the FTC stepped in, fining advertisers millions of dollars for fraud, but Google mostly just said “no more.” Google’s status depends on consumers believing they get the best search experience from them. If they allow untargeted or outright fraudulent ads, eventually searchers will stop clicking on ads and perhaps even switch search engines. Witness the latest AdWords scam — fake blogs (“flogs”) written by “a mother of two” who happens to live near your IP and who has found a miracle wrinkle cure, a guaranteed weight-loss product, and Britney’s teeth-whitening regime. Google will eventually kill these advertisers, but they will likely destroy some legitimate advertisers caught in the purge.
Why aren’t we, as an advertising community, doing more self-policing? Should Google and SEMPO partner to establish fair standards, along with an effort by the advertising community to certify and enforce them? SEMPO could create a Quality Advertiser Certification, promising to enforce strict quality rules in exchange for Google giving “certified” advertisers the benefit of the doubt with respect to QS (innocent until proven guilty). Advertisers violating QS would be reported to SEMPO and have their certification revoked, as well as an immediate QS penalty.
I know many objections can be raised against this particular idea, but I also think it’s difficult to disagree with my point — the advertising community has done nothing to prevent advertisers from flagrantly violating Google’s rules and, for that matter, state and federal laws. Until we attempt to clean up our own mess, can we really be justified in complaining when someone else does it for us in a way that we may not entirely like or agree with?