Unmasking the Abomination of Quality Score

Google Quality ScoreDear Quality Score Victim,

I have to admit: I’ve been dying to write an updated piece about Quality Score (QS) since 2 years ago. The game has changed forever and I’ve spent more time gritting my teeth and cursing at my monitor (logged into Adwords) than ever before. The reason is because we were told quality score was to help ‘reward’ advertisers for constructing highly relevant campaigns and adgroups. But its all different now. Where’s the reward?

When QS was first introduced to advertisers in 2005, it was just a static score used to determine the minimum CPC based on the ad relevancy to its keywords. Over the next five years, Google would add in: CTR, landing page relevancy, account history (a combine average of all CTR’s in an account, and (the best part) “other relevant factors.” I’ve always gotten a big laugh out of “other relevant factors” because as I would dissect QS, I could see there was much more unexplained reasoning for low quality scores.

An Illustration of Traditional Quality Score (Pre-2009-2010)

Google Quality Score

In August of 2008, Google restructured QS and made it a “real-time” score that would take effect as soon as someone searched on Google. Some of the other differences Google made were: replacment of minimum CPC to “first page minimum bid”, landing page quality, and landing page load time. In expectation of a rough change to quality scores, we were surprised that existing advertisers who had been advertising a while, didn’t really see much change…until 2010. Now we go into the accounts and look around at QS but we’re not in Kansas no mo.

I’ve always been indifferent to conspiracy theories except when it came to my own. I had to put the pieces together myself. Google’s published material were of little help and of what Googlers would say about QS, you would have to wash the automatic procedural responses from the more helpful factual things that no one could officially comment on. And when Q4 2009 hit, something was happening. QS was changing forever.

If you currently have low quality scores then first I suggest trying these steps which have been published time and time again.

  1. Increase your CTR by creating highly relevant ads to the keywords in each adgroup.
  2. Make sure your ads point to landing pages that contain relevant content.
  3. Use ‘call to actions’ in your ad to improve CTR.
  4. Ensure your landing pages load quickly. If they timeout often, compress you page file sizes or image sizes, or increase the server bandwidth.
  5. See if you get a better QS from testing new match settings.

Prior to 2009, the above techniques probably fixed everything 95% of the time. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you have already exhausted the above resources aren’t seeing improvements. In many cases, they no longer work for your quality scores. We always start with the reasons above because they are more obvious and if they do not budge, we work our way deeper into the investigation if those don’t work.

I have spent the greater part of 2009-2010 troubleshooting quality score with my team. During the coarse of investigation and screaming bloody murder, and with the help of anonymous Googlers, I have unlocked 8 new criteria which have a certain effect on QS. Much of these points have never before been published anywhere by Google. Other points that Google has published have helped to support my investigations and case studies.

8 other things you can do to fix low quality scores:

  1. Use keywords that have enough volume to be deemed relevant. If you have keywords in your mix that just don’t carry the search query volume, it is quite common that you’ll find lower QS across the board. Google demonstrates that if the keyword search volume is extremely low (less 25 impressions a day), the keyword must not be very relevant and deserves a low QS. We have found the same to be true in many instances of using very specific keywords. For our local advertisers, we used to create several keywords with city targeted names. As the search volume for “service+city” decreases in less populated areas or suburbs, so does the QS. A real problem is that the accounts were flooded with these low volume (low QS) keywords and it seemed contagious to the better volume keywords in the account. These days it is best to delete the great majority of lower volume keywords in an account and lay refuge to the keywords that substantiate for most of your per-click spend.
  2. Pay close attention to your industry’s average quality score for each keyword. Google now factors in the average QS of your industry or competitors when determining your quality score. There are competitive industries where it’s hard for new businesses to get involved in Adwords. Heavy ‘barriers to entry’ protect existing advertisers but make it hard for new advertisers to perform well and keep up good QS levels. An example of this is the PPC management industry. It’s extremely difficult trying to compete for “PPC Management” keywords (as you could imagine). Somethings you can’t control. Go after other keywords that are less competitive.
  3. Avoid industry keywords that Google might want to put the “SMACK” down on. Google announced last year that it would not condone advertisers who were promoting products and services which they had no hand it delivering. This is because businesses nationally complained that the Sponsored Results were cluttered with affiliate marketers and get-rich-quick schemes. If you share the same keywords with affiliate marketers, get-rich-businesses, and other banned industry types; be aware that Google could mistakenly think you are one of these business types and make your advertising days hell. (To avoid other mistakes read about Quality Components below, specifically around Navigation.)
  4. Use multi-word keyphrases. One-word keywords and extremely general 2-word keywords will often lead to low QS. By nature, these terms are more vague and ambiguous. If Google finds there to be no specified meaning to your keyword, it will be faulted. This occurs more frequently in 1-word terms rather than 2-3-word terms so weight this factor more heavily with your single-word keywords. In multiple word terms, try and judge the vagueness and compare to more specific terms to see if they are getting higher QS.
  5. Make sure you are not hosted on servers that are shared with malicious phishing websites, affiliate marketers, and competitiors. There is not really a sure way to know who you are sharing a server with. Recently, we created a small targeted campaign for a client who initially had some coding problems. Once the coding bugs were fixed we saw no change in QS. Google was smacking them with 1/10 across the board with in a few minutes of launching. The diagnostic tool listed the problem to be the landing page. After troubleshooting every possible reason for this atrocious scoring, our second to last resort was to change the hosting. (The last resort would have been the change the domain name.) The hosting change worked and he was 7/10-10/10 across the campaigns.
  6. Look deeper into Google’s Landing Page Quality Component. Google states, “Other than complying with our Advertising Policies, we also recommend that advertisers bear in mind the three main components of a high quality website: relevant and original content, transparency, and navigability. Maintaining a positive user experience in these areas will help improve your site’s landing page quality.” Particularly in the areas that talk about Content and Navigability. Things to look for and avoid right off are: mirrored landing pages, duplicated or non-original content on site, having a website with no link structure or navigation (it looks like and affiliate offer so sales pitch page), data collection modules that offer free stuff to harvest data, linking to shopping comparison sites, direct linking to affiliate offers, linking to redirects (what’s the point?), and similar scenarios. IMPORTANT: Google will associate poor quality score with the website and not the Adwords account so if you get in trouble here, you might try a new URL if all other techniques fail. Do so once your website and Adwords account comply with guidelines mentioned on this page.
  7. Don’t build too fast. No one likes a bully. Whoever coined the term, “Patience is a virtue” should have said, “If you’re not patient, you will suck mud and die.” After countless bouts of troubleshooting QS, I have found success often when I scaled back and tried to advertise 1 or 2 small adgroups to start. One of the major observations I made is that Google might try and protect existing advertisers from new advertisers bullying their way into market. This makes a lot of sense (from the mom and pop business owner persective). As the smaller business owner who has been advertising on Google since Nam, how sad would it be if some schmuck-o with deep pockets came in blew them outta the water by over-bidding hundreds of keywords? That kinda of activity, unchallenged, would be the death of small business. This goes back to ’05 and the original principles and intentions Google had for QS which was protecting advertisers from bidding wars. To set up an optimized campaign, its gonna take time anyway. I suggest you start super slow in the first week or two and then pick up the pace if you need to from there. If you launch a campaign and you’re getting hit with poor QS, try reviewing the other factors and when you start again. Build out a new but smaller campaign/adgroup and re-launch. Delete the previous failures.
  8. Investigate deeper reasoning for slow landing page load time. Now and again, we will find an advertiser who is just really having a hard time getting pages to load quickly. Here, we just want to make sure there is no coding errors which would cause server timeouts. The way to notice this is if you try and visit the landing page but it never fully loads. You notice that the browser is still loading or “thinking” (if we give it human qualities as we often do with computers). If this is the case, investigate whether it is a server load issue or whether there is something on your website that won’t allow the page the load completely every time. You might seek the help of your web developer with this. Also, avoid Flash components that are not embedded into your readable code. 100% Flash intros are a “NO-NO” for Google. Google doesn’t read Flash…yet.

This blog was inspired out of frustration with Google’s ever-changing quality score algorithm. Right when you think you have it locked down, something changes and makes it more difficult. I am NOT going to be the one who says its a profitability scheme designed to make Google more profitable but I am sure someone will.

My only advice to advertisers seeking higher quality scores and better ROI is not to give up. Be patient and explore every option. If you don’t, you’ll never reach the light. Advertisers have always stood up to Google’s challenges to guarantee their own success with quality score. Just like SEO, most advertisers eventually fulfill every criteria for it until Google comes out with some new hurdle to overcome. Its harder now than ever to overcome. This is how Google sorts out competition jockeying for position and restores order to these environments. The good news is that less people will be willing to go the distance this time; leaving you with the true opportunity. This is the next hurdle. This is the new Adwords Quality Score Frontier.


Peter Dulay-Quality Score Skeptic

About Peter Dulay

Advertisers choose Conversion Giant because we know that conversions, revenue, and profit come from more than just your marketing. It comes from thinking “BIG” about your business.