Frenemy At The Gates: Influencing Quality Score

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Synopsis — Quality Score is one of the most important indicators of how Google perceives the advertisements you are using in their AdWords program. Ranging in number from 0 to 10, the Quality Score given to your advertisement will greatly influence its placement in the Google network, making it imperative that you pay attention to what influences this score and work hard to address any issues that your ads may have in relation to it. In this very detailed article, David Rodnitzky updates and expands upon his earlier (Fall 2009) piece titled “Get Google’s Seal Of Approval And Avoid A Smackdown.”

At least a dozen factors influence Quality Score, but relevancy is the ultimate cornerstone. Rodnitzky looks at four of the most influential factors — Query Clickthrough Rate (CTR), Account Clickthrough Rate, Business Type, and Landing Page Relevancy. He provides tips for improving each of the four, as well as answering the question “Should I always improve …” for all four factors. Moving on, Rodnitzky provides details on how to overcome a Quality Score slap if you suffer one, including information on contacting the AdWords team at Google and ways to fight either a policy violation or a business classification if those are factors in the slap.

And, for premium subscribers, Rodnitzky has updated the Quality Score Factors Cheat Sheet that is available for download from our site (hint: the link is included in the article).

The complete article follows:

Frenemy At The Gates: Influencing Quality Score

(This article is a follow up to David Rodnitzky’s feature story in our Fall 2009 issue titled “Get Google’s Seal Of Approval And Avoid A Smackdown.”)

Quality Score (QS) is the long snapper of the search engine marketing world; you generally don’t think about it unless there’s a problem. For 95% of search marketers, QS is an annoying, but ultimately acceptable, part of the AdWords management process. For the remaining 5%, QS is a nightmare. For some businesses, QS can be the difference between massive profitability and filing for bankruptcy. Trust me, this is not an overstatement. When QS was first introduced in 2006, I saw an AdWords account that I managed plummet from more than $1.2 million of spend a month to less than $100,000. This article looks at the current state of QS. What are the main factors influencing your score? Can you influence QS? If something goes horribly wrong with your account’s QS, what can you do (if anything) to fix this?

Relevancy is the main key to QS — the more you can demonstrate that your ad is relevant to a particular query, the higher your QS, and the less you pay per click. Never forget, however that QS is a way for Google to maximize the profitability of its ad auctions. Ultimately, Google makes money on a per impression basis (CPM). The more clicks they get for 1000 impressions served, the higher their revenue.

At least a dozen factors exist that influence QS. Let’s look at the most influential ones, and actions you can take to improve performance on each one.

1.  Query Clickthrough Rate (CTR)

Clickthrough rate (CTR) on a specific query, normalized by position, is the most important factor in determining QS. For example, if you have a CTR of 5% and your QS is 5 out of 10, improving your CTR to 10% should instantly improve QS. How much you can improve it depends largely on how your CTR compares to that of other advertisers at a specific position (this is what I mean by “normalized by position”). For example, if you are a 5/10 with a 5% CTR in position #1 and every other advertiser previously in position #1 has a 10% CTR, your CTR is below the normalized average. Your 5% CTR is actually hurting your QS. Flip that equation around — you have 10% while most advertisers are 5% — and you should see a significant QS bump based on your CTR.

Sadly, Google doesn’t provide data about the average CTR by position, so no precise way exists to know if your CTR is good, bad, or ugly. All you can do is constantly try to improve it and hope that over time you will meet or exceed the normalized CTR.

Tips To Improve CTR

  • Test Ad Text — Commit to carrying out a new ad text test every couple of weeks, and you are virtually guaranteed to see an improvement in CTR.
  • Use Dynamic Keyword Insertion (DKI) — DKI lets you insert a keyword directly into ad text. This can be a powerful boost to CTR, but first carry out proper testing — if too many competitors are using DKI, all ads start to look alike, reducing CTR.
  • Create More Targeted Ad Groups — The more targeted your ad group, the more you can customize your ad text to specific keywords.

Should I Always Improve CTR?

An ad that reads “Get $100 Free Just For Clicking Here” will likely increase your CTR — a lot! Of course, unless your business model somehow profitably pays people $100 solely for a click, your high CTR ad text will win the QS battle, but put you out of business. For this reason, you should evaluate a combination of CTR and conversion rate to find winning ad text. This may result in a slight decline in QS, but the end result is a compromise between lower CPCs and higher margins for your business.

2.  Account Clickthrough Rate

The historic CTR of your entire AdWords account lets Google roughly predict performance on new keywords you might try to bid on. This reduces financial risk for Google — advertisers who have not driven high CTR in the past receive fewer opportunities in the future to show up in new ad auctions. A good analogy is hiring new employees for your company. Let’s say you hired 10 people in the last year — five from UCLA and five from USC. The five from USC were terrible, and the five from UCLA were great. The next time you get a resume from either school, will you treat them the same? Of course not. This is what Google does with different AdWords accounts. Again, as with keyword-level CTR, Google provides no benchmarking information to give you a sense of whether you are in the good or bad category of account CTR.

Tips To Improve Account CTR

  • Buy Brand Terms — One of the easiest ways to increase CTR is buying your trademarked keywords. Unless your company name is very generic, you should see QS 9 or 10 on these keywords.
  • Use Exact Match And Negative Keywords — Continuing to weed out poor-performing queries increases relevancy (and thus CTR) for your account.
  • Expand Slowly — Resist the urge to launch 40,000 keywords during the first week your account is live. Start with a small group of highly relevant keywords and let them act as the foundation for the account’s CTR history. Over time, as you build history, slowly expand into more aggressive and less relevant keywords.

Should I Always Improve Account CTR?

Some keywords Google considers irrelevant that might drag down your account CTR may, in fact, drive huge profit for your business. A classic example of this is a competitor’s trademarked terms. While you are likely to receive QS 3 or less for buying such keywords, the profitability often makes it worth the drag on your QS. Evaluate before deciding.

3.  Business Type

How Google classifies your business can have a huge impact on QS. Over the years, Google has developed a list of sites “likely to merit a low QS,” which includes obvious bad apples, like phishing sites and hacking, fraud, and sex services. Others on the list aren’t so clearly evil, such as comparison shopping, travel aggregators, and information harvesters (one could conclude that any lead generation site may be an information harvester). If Google decides that your site is in one of their taboo categories, you could see all keywords drop to a QS of 1/10, essentially meaning you are banned from AdWords. Sometimes called a slap or smackdown, no amount of great keyword or account CTR will reverse a slap. More on this later.

4.  Landing Page Relevancy

Google uses a combination of manual landing page reviewers and an automated bot to assess your landing page. The primary factors considered are relevancy, originality, transparency, and navigability. Since these four principles usually lead to higher conversion rates, they are already best practices for landing page design. Google itself has admitted that landing page relevancy amounts to no more than 10%-15% of QS, making it a secondary metric in the QS algorithm.

Tips To Improve Landing Page Relevancy

  • Create Targeted Landing Pages For Each Ad Group — Creating a connection between your keyword, ad text, and landing page is a great way to ensure the relevancy of your landing page. An easy way to do this is to make sure that the keywords in your ad group appear in the text of your landing page.
  • Include Basic Footer Information — Make sure you include links in your landing page footer relevant to information about your business. At a minimum, include contact us, about us, privacy policy, and terms/conditions links.
  • Check Load Time — Google has stated that landing pages that take too long to load might receive low QS. Work with your engineering team and/or your web host to optimize load time to avoid this problem.

Should I Always Improve Landing Page Relevancy?

Since landing page relevancy is a minor factor in the QS algorithm, be wary of changing a high-performing landing page just to try to eke out small improvements in QS. Also, if you see 1/10 QS throughout your entire account and your landing page is classified as “poor,” realize that you have received a manual QS slap, which cannot be fixed simply by making changes and waiting for a reevaluation. Additional communication with Google is necessary prior to making landing page changes to overcome such a slap.

How To Overcome A QS Slap

When someone from the Google Policy Team manually reviews your AdWords account and determines you have egregiously violated one or more policies, your account may receive the dreaded QS slap. How do you know you’ve received a slap? Typically, either all your keywords have a QS 1/10 and are not getting any impressions, and/or you receive an email from Google (usually a vague notice that “Your Google AdWords account has been permanently suspended for repeated violation of AdWords or Landing Page and Site policies in this or a related account”). Accounts are NOT slapped for buying too many irrelevant keywords, not creating well-structured ad groups, abysmal CTR on ad text, or even a bad overall account CTR. Invariably, a slap occurs for one or both of the following reasons:

  • A major AdWords policy violation. Examples include credit card fraud, cloaked pages, repeating the same minor violation multiple times, trying to multi-serve on the same keyword with different URLs.
  • Google classifies your landing page as “likely to merit low Quality Score.” In this case, even if you didn’t violate a specific policy, Google just doesn’t want you in their auctions.

To overcome either of these slaps, you need to have a strong line of communication with the AdWords team. Several ways exist to communicate with Google. Ranked in order of internal influence, they are:

1.  The Direct Sales (DSO) Team — the highest level of service, typically reserved for large brands or companies spending at least $100K per month.

2.  The Agency Team— teams supporting large agencies.

3.  The Inside Sales (ISO) Team in Ann Arbor, MI — a call center team supporting mid-sized advertisers.

4.  AdWords Support in Hyderabad, India — a team supporting other teams and answering general emails.

5.  Email/Toll-Free Support in Mountain View, CA — contractors entering general inbound inquiries.

If you do not currently have a Google contact from Level 1 or 2, you will have a hard time fighting a slap. Teams below this level simply don’t have the time, power, and sometimes even the knowledge to navigate the Google ecosystem to resolve slaps. That’s not to say it isn’t worth trying to go through these channels to get back into AdWords, but it is usually a frustrating and unsuccessful process. Assuming that you or your agency has developed a relationship with someone on either the DSO or Agency teams at Google, the first step in your fight is to ask your rep why you were slapped (i.e., due to a major policy violation or due to being classified as an unacceptable business). They should be able to provide at least a basic (and sometimes a quite detailed) explanation.

Fighting A Major Policy Violation — Prior to arguing your case to Google, conduct an internal review to determine why your company violated the policy at hand. A few questions to consider during your research:

  • Who violated the policy? Did they do so with the implicit or explicit permission of team leadership? Are they still with your company?
  • When did the violation happen? Did you correct the violation before Google discovered it? If not, since being notified by Google, has it been corrected?
  • What is the likelihood that it will happen again? What mechanisms have you put in place to prevent a future occurrence?

If it turns out that the policy violation was a calculated, condoned, and ongoing scheme to trick Google, you are unlikely to get much sympathy from the Google Policy Team. On the other hand, if the violation was an innocent mistake by an employee who has since left the company, your argument for reinstatement is much stronger.

Once you’ve gathered this information, present it to your Google rep in a concise and honest way. Most importantly, you need to show them that you’ve addressed the issue at hand and will be a good partner going forward. Ultimately, if you are a legitimate company that has spent — and could continue to spend — a lot of money on AdWords, it’s worth it for both you and Google to get you back in the system. Still, you need to demonstrate to Google that you are serious about the process before they will give you a second chance.

Fighting a Business Classification — To fight a business classification slap, you also need to start with an internal review of your site. Questions to consider include:

  • Why has Google classified my site this way? What is accurate about their classification and what isn’t? How difficult would it be to make changes to address their concerns? If I made these changes, would I still be profitable?
  • Are there elements of my site that a Google reviewer might have misconstrued or not fully explored?
  • How is my site unique and relevant to users?

As with fighting a major policy violation, your goal is to create a case for re-inclusion in AdWords, either by showing that Google misinterpreted your site, or by addressing their concern and reassuring them it will not recur in the future.

It is important that the four pillars of landing page quality — relevancy, transparency, navigability, and originality — always be a vital part of your argument to Google. For example, let’s say that Google has classified your site as a get-rich-quick site and has given you a QS slap. Not all get-rich-quick sites are the same. If your site has thousands of articles on the pros and cons of get-rich-quick schemes, has plentiful links to FTC warnings on recent scams, has primary unique content, and clearly indicates what parts of the site are free to use and what parts aren’t, you may have a legitimate argument for inclusion in AdWords. Not all of these facets may have been obvious to the AdWords Policy team member who originally reviewed your landing page.

Final Thoughts On Quality Score

I believe that one of the biggest mistakes AdWords advertisers can make is paying too much attention to Quality Score. Quality Score is important, no doubt, but it can also make you take your eyes off the primary objective of any AdWords campaign — to make money for your business. Obsessing about CTR without regard for conversion rate, for example, is just one example of winning the QS battle but losing the search engine marketing profitability war. Trying to improve QS is always a worthwhile practice, but just make sure you don’ destroy your entire account’s performance in order to add a few more notches to your QS ranking.

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Download Your Quality Score Factors Cheat Sheet Today — Look up the major factors that can affect your quality score at any time by downloading our printable quality score factors cheat sheet. Just go to www.searchmarketingstandard.com/qualityscore.

About the Author

David Rodnitzky is CEO of PPC Associates, a leading SEM agency based in Silicon Valley. PPC Associates provides search, social, and display advertising management to growing, savvy companies. To learn more, visit ppcassociates.com, or contact David at david@ppcassociates.com.

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