The Quality Score Conundrum: The Fine Line Between Creativity and Conformity
Published: August 28, 2014
Author: Joe Stanton
The philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”
While the reflections of a long-deceased philosopher may seem apropos in a – yes, you guessed it – philosophy paper, its relevance in an article about the technically saturated orbit of pay-per-click advertising is admittedly far less apparent. However, if John Stuart Mill were alive today, and he happened to be searching Google for a pair of new running shoes, I think he’d be positively beside himself. He’d either be forced to seriously re-evaluate his theory on human behavior, or adequately explain how modern-day advertisers seem to have settled into such a comfortable rut of bovine contentment when it came to writing ads.
For the sake of the continued prosperity of our species, let’s assume his premise was indeed accurate, and something else has run amuck here:
This example (one of multitudes) of almost freakish headline uniformity is no doubt a manifestation of what is referred to as Dynamic Keyword Insertion in Google AdWords (DKI from now on). But what it’s called and how it’s used isn’t really the point here … what very much is the point, though, is how veteran advertisers with exorbitant advertising budgets seem to neglect one of the most fundamental components of any sort of advertising: the human factor.
Go ahead and run any number of Google searches for any number of popular products, and you’ll see the above scenario play out in a number of different permutations and varying degrees of servile ‘alikeness’.
What happened to the uncompromising modus operandi of an advertiser to connect with his customer on a deeply personal level? What happened to the universal appeals of personality, humor, and plain old uniqueness? Why are advertisers who are spending untold amounts of PPC dollars choosing ad copy shortcuts that inform us of an overall creative ennui and disinterest in the aesthetics that make advertising such a beautiful thing in the first place?
I think there are three ideas that essentially led to the ubiquitous disintegration in ad copy uniqueness and creativity we see today:
First, as smart as Google is, its algorithms can’t assess human emotion. Big Blue (IBM’s mega chess-computer that suffered defeat at the very human hands of then-world champion Gary Kasporov) couldn’t experience the exaltation of victory or the despair of defeat. And although Google is fettered by the same constraints, it still cares an enormous deal about the experience of its human users and human advertisers. To ensure the best possible experience for all parties involved, Google developed a highly complex system of rating relevance, a system that directly affects how much we as advertisers pay for our ads, and where said ads show up or “rank” on a search engine results page (SERP). Since Google can’t know (yet) what ad text will make our customers laugh, or what headline our customers will be thinking about later in the shower, one of the ways relevance (which at its core is a measurement of how well the ad appeals to its target audience) is assessed by how reflective the ad text is to the query the searcher initially typed into the Google search box.
It’s no great mystery then, why so many advertisers hasten to place the keyword into the ad headline with what appears to be a reckless abandon of other considerations.
The second idea – which may help explain why ad copy has in general gotten far less attention than it truly deserves – is that we advertisers all have bad tastes in our mouths from our ad writing experiences, and our general outlook on the whole deal is decidedly sour. We’ve all gone to excruciating lengths drafting ironclad negative keyword lists because we get clicks for “Chocolate Covered Macaroons” when our ad is clearly advertising “Chocolate Scented Bathroom Sanitizers” (yes, true story). If people aren’t reading the ads anyway, and they’re just clicking the first thing they see, what’s the point of it all?
To that I ask, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Perhaps we advertisers are somewhat responsible for the abandon on the users end … perhaps we’ve conditioned their listlessness by serving them uniformed lists of the same thing. If our ads get better, maybe we’ll earn a greater degree of attention.
Thirdly, we’re scientists – not psychologists! We thrive on data, statistics, and all things measurable. We slink into shadowy corners when accosted by such meddlesome things like emotional appeal and the psychological indications of our customers’ queries. And isn’t that what we’re really talking about here? We’re talking about the way our ads make our customers feel … and how can we as practitioners wrap our collective minds around something as gossamer and immeasurable as a feeling?
To that I say no – not really. It’s not about complex psychological concepts and catering to the subconscious needs of each customer … it’s a whole lot simpler than that. We’re just talking about being a little different in a big ocean of sameness. And I think that’s an idea we can all get behind rather easily.
Einstein wrote, “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal chord would suffice.”
At this point, you’re probably thinking two things. First, you’re likely thinking if you never see another philosophical quote in this post, it would be too soon. Amen – I promise that was the last one. Second, you’re probably thinking that DKI/including the keyword in the ad headline is one of the most effective ways to play nice with Google’s relevancy algorithms – which in turn is one of the best ways to land a great Quality Score (QS from now on), which in turn is a scientifically sound approach to gradually lowering your costs per click – the grand poobah of AdWords success.
And that leads us to our main objective. At what cost are we optimizing for QS? At what cost are we hyper-focused on shaving pennies off our CPC? Perhaps more importantly, how can we judge each particular keyword and determine when optimizing for creativity at the expense of our QS will yield a greater return on ad spend?
I think we’ll find that optimizing for creativity over conformity not only often increases our return on ad spend, but it can also increase our Quality Score – which indubitably is a win-win all around. For the less psychologically inclined, fear not – we’re going to wax simply technical from here on out.
Not Just Theory
My basic argument is that sacrificing temporarily on Quality Score can often be ultimately beneficial to the ROI of our campaigns, but it’s all just subjective theory without any case studies.
I’m going to give a few examples of actual ads we’ve ran in our client accounts, along with some performance data. The purpose here is to give you some ideas you can use in your own campaigns to create a more distinctive and engaging customer experience.
Note that the numbers shown below are not scientifically isolated A/B case studies designed to illustrate the changes in CTR as they directly relate to creating a more appealing ad. A number of other edits and tweaks resulted in a number of additional variables, and I apologize for not having firmer numbers. However, these are ads we’ve run in our client accounts. The numbers should be viewed as reasonable projections of some of the performance changes you could expect to see in your own campaigns.
Example #1: The Rhyme
Why not show your customers that you put some thought into your ads – while at the same time engaging them in a way that will increase the likelihood of them reading your entire message – while at the same time making a longer-lasting impression?
This ad for one of our clients may be borderline preposterous, but it manages to convey a sense of friendliness while getting across the business’s main selling proposition – namely, that while most of the competition pays out $12 per gram for 14k gold, they pay considerably more at 90% of spot price (and most of their customers know what that means). The rhyme is engaging, and it immediately creates a distinct experience for the prospective customer.
The Rhyme is typically a safe bet, and it can be used in a variety of scenarios. Use it sparingly and with caution for products or services of a more luxurious or costly nature, as some may perceive the rhyme to have a cheapening effect.
Example #2: The Reverse Psychology
By combining a little innocuous psychology with your USP, your ads will take on a unique persona and will almost be guaranteed to receive a higher CTR.
We’ve had instances where this backfired and we got too many clicks from casual browsers, so we either toned it down or successfully dissuaded the unwanted on-the-fencers by adding the prices to the ad text.
You can accomplish this effect in countless ways, so have fun with it and continue to experiment. You’ll get a lot of clients calling up and telling you how much they loved the ad (and seriously – how often does that happen?).
Example #3: The Copycat
There’s always a trending commercial or joke circulating social media, television, radio or YouTube. If it’s something your customers are likely familiar with, write an ad with the same brand of humor. For one particular client of ours – one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of specialty washers (the kind you use to fix things, not the kind you use to clean clothes) – we modeled an ad after the famous Dos Equis commercials (if you’re unfamiliar, watch or listen to a few online … they’re hilarious). Most of our clients’ customers are middle-age, working-class men, and the chances of them recognizing the Dos Equis parlance were high.
There are a number of creative honorable mentions including The Zebra (where you use the keywords to create an effect something like this), The Knock-Knock, and The Short Story. If you’re interested in some examples of those, just drop a comment below!
It does take time, but you’ll see that with a little creative flourish you’ll be able to provide all the essential information you want in a much more engaging and appealing way.
The unique personality of your ad text could make a substantial difference in the overall performance of your campaigns. And sometimes it’s worth sacrificing on QS (temporarily), and paying a bit more per click.
Try it … what’s the worst that can happen?
Conclusion (a.k.a this is almost over)
Regrettably, there’s no rubric or definitive matrix to help you determine which of your ad groups or keywords could benefit from non-conformist ad copy (and you should be weary if you ever do stumble upon one). There are a huge number of variables that go into account performance data, including elements completely beyond your control such as the competitive dynamics of each industry, the unique accounts of your competitors and Google’s continuous algorithmic updates.
I think implementing some of these ideas will benefit almost any campaign in some form or another, and if it doesn’t, no harm no foul. It’s not a great inconvenience to pause and resume ad variations.
Luckily, Google makes it easy for us to run A/B ad copy split tests without committing to any overly complex or costly 3rd-party tools. Make sure your ads are rotating evenly (a setting found in the campaign settings menu), and then run two ads in each ad group you want to test. Once you’ve accrued some statistically relevant comparison data, you’ll have an easy time picking the winner.
In case you’re unfamiliar with statistic validity, Google has a great feature (still in beta but functioning like a pro) called AdWords Campaign Experiments, or ACE. You can elect a campaign to be involved in your experiment by activating this option on the campaign settings menu. Set the traffic to run 50/50, which will send half of your clicks to the ad groups you label “control only” and half your clicks to the ad groups you label “experiment only”. Once you configure this setting, select the option to begin the campaign experiment.
Navigate to an ad group you want to test, duplicate it (via a simple copy/paste), and rewrite the ads in the duplicate ad group with your creative and unique copy. Back on the ad groups tab, you’ll see little green beakers where the little green “enabled” circles used to be. This indicates that this campaign is involved in your experiment. Change the green beaker to the grey beaker by clicking it and selecting “control only.” Set the duplicate and modified ad group to “control only” (the blue beaker).
The beauty with this system is that Google will automatically calculate and let you know whether or not the experiments data is statistically relevant over any given period of time. You can see this information by clicking the “segment” drop-down menu and selecting “experiment.”
Like it is with relationships, it’s easy to get absorbed in the daily grind and lose sight of the true essence that held such a high appeal initially. We spend a great deal of time with numbers, and it’s easy to disassociate from some of the elements that attracted us to marketing in the first place.