About two years ago, our Founder and CEO, David Rodnitzky, issued a challenge to all PPC Associates employees to “find a repeatable method for improving Quality Score.” Sounds simple enough, but four offices and 30-plus new employees later, that prize is still up for grabs! In my pursuit of “the answer,” I’ve come across just about every QS myth imaginable. Let the debunking begin!

1) Myth: Quality Score is at the keyword level. For even intermediate SEMs, quality score seems to be thought of as a keyword’s attribute. In actuality, QS is based on the performance of a keyword with a given ad. That means if you’re rotating ads with dramatically different CTRs within an ad group, you will see the lower CTR almost always has a worse position and a higher CPC. Here’s how Google puts it: “Each ad variation and keyword combination will undergo its own Quality Score evaluation, and accrue its own individual performance history within your account.”

2) Myth: Landing-page relevance is a strong factor in Quality Score. Any time I ask an interviewee to tell me about Quality Score, he/she lets it be known that ‘landing page relevancy’ is a big factor! I’m here to tell you it’s not. QS is still almost all about CTR. That being said, as Google gets more sophisticated, that might change. Google even released a slightly cryptic blog post on this very subject a few months ago. While I’m sure LP does play some influence on that magic number, it’s a small piece of the pie. Where LPs can really affect your QS is the dreaded Google slap (for violations of sacred policy). The impact here, however, lasts only as long as your policy issue is still open. With all that being said, I’m perfectly fine with the landing-page relevancy myth. Why? QS aside, landing-page relevancy will increase your CVR – so any improved landing-page relevancy for your keyword set will make you more money, which is the whole reason QS is such a topic of obsession.

3) Myth: A keyword’s Quality Score will be ‘reset’ if moved. This one is a biggie. There is a perception that moving keywords is bad. As an agency, we’re forced to (carefully) tear things up and restructure at a pretty quick pace. If QS wasn’t maintained after moving a keyword, we (and everyone else trying to improve an account) would be in real trouble. Campaigns are designed to have a beginning and an end (they have an end date, after all). Ad groups are made to be parsed, moved, duplicated, etc. Moving keywords is fine; just keep in mind myth 1. That being said, there are still some negatives to moving around keywords, and they revolve around ad extensions. Call extensions, for example, must meet click criteria at the ad group level for your phone number to be eligible to show. If you copy and paste your ad group, you’ll be starting back at ground zero, since you’ve got 0 clicks. I have also seen sitelinks showing up with less frequency after moving a keyword, but that’s a working hypothesis at the moment.

4) Myth: You can buy better Quality Score. Okay, so maybe this myth was debunked in 2008, but I still hear it all the time. It’s certainly true that CTR is the biggest influence on QS; it’s also true that better-positioned ads have higher CTR. Using the old “if a=b and b=c, then a=c” logic, bidding higher means higher QS! Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, and Google isn’t quite that evil. The ‘algo’ has a CTR expectation by position. So, at the end of the day you’ve still got to be creative and really think about your ad copy. Sorry, folks – you can’t just throw money at in this case.

5) Myth: Quality Score is a metric that Google has made readily available. Everyone knows that quality score is on a 1-10 scale, right? Wrong! The truth is, not even that ‘secret Google connection’ knows what kind of scale we’re working with. This one is easy to prove if you were around on Oct 27th, 2010. Talk about a fire drill — just about every account on the planet had all their keywords drop to 3 or below. From one of our (many) Google reps, and confirmed by several others, and reported as a ‘known issue’:

I’m sorry to hear that you’re seeing this sudden decrease in quality scores across the account. After taking a closer look and seeing that Average CPC, CTR, and click/impression levels appear to be quite stable, I checked into this and found that our technical team identified an issue affecting your account. The issue appears that the Quality Scores of the keywords in 
the actual auction are not being affected, but the way they are being reported in the interface is incorrect.

So, this means that the actual QS and the QS reported in the UI are actually separate systems. This also explains why you’ve got that one exact-match keyword in your account with 30% CTR over thousands of clicks with an avg. position of 1.0 and Google is telling you’ve got a 4/10! Personally, I don’t even look at the UI numbers – it’d drive me nuts!

At the end of the day, QS boils down to CTR. To get good CTR, you’ve got to have good account structure, tight ad groups, and killer ad copy. So, my advice is to forget QS – and start focusing on the real goal of PPC – not improving a false proxy QS number in your UI, but making money by putting in the hours and maximizing your program’s relevancy to Google users. Good PPC management really boils down to making smart adjustments based on experience, willingness to test, and long hours….not Quality Score.

Oh, and before I forget, David, the answer is “42”….how do I claim my prize?

Mike Nelson, Senior SEM Manager

4 Comments

  1. Dries (Freelance SEA Consultant) January 28th, 2012

    Myth number 4 is still one of the most misunderstood factors of Google Adwords. Glad you mentioned it here. Have you seen a correlation between clicks and QS when CTR stayed equal?

  2. admin January 31st, 2012

    Hi Dries,

    Thanks for your comment. There’s a couple ways I view this…

    1) Seasonality: During this time, clicks tend to go up (or down) when CTR can stay relatively stable. In this instance, I haven’t see much variance in QS.

    2) Account history. If you’re looking at a longer date range, you’ll have more clicks. This makes your CTR more statistically relevant, so Google can certainly improve your QS due to the duration of time you’ve been advertising with that consistent CTR. In short, it’s better to be an ‘old’ advertiser than a ‘new’ one as it relates to QS.

    At the end of the day, I think Google’s primary goal is to maximize revenue. They do this by keeping their current customers happy – which means account quality score is rather important. Additionally, they actually do want to give users a good experience. That being said, if you’re in a vertical with poor QS (eg. EDU) in order to make up for this ‘poor user expereince’ (based of historical low CTR across advertisers) you just have to pay more! That being said, everyone in the vertical has to pay more. So, as long as your QS is better than your competitors, you’ll be a winner. Sometimes that unforunately means you’ve got a 3 and they’ve got a 2!

    Best,
    Mike

  3. Rod Holmes January 31st, 2012

    Given all of the great info above, but especially #2, how do you imagine Google assigns the initial QS in a brand new account? As you said, the standard answer is the relevancy between KW, ad copy, and landing pages; I’ve had Google reps / trainers repeat this many times, read it in countless posts and books. Even in the Google post you link to, Google says, “[Google is implementing trials]… that increased the weight given to relevance and landing page quality in determining Quality Score and how ads are ranked on Google.” So, any data or info you have that could back up #2 would be fantastic. I understand you feel QS should be ignored by and large and CTR should be the focus, and I don’t disagree. I’m just hoping you have some further data to back up your statement that you’re sure LP is a small part of QS.

  4. admin January 31st, 2012

    Hi Rob,

    Thanks for your comment. As you know, QS understanding is usually stitched together from working on various accounts in various verticals, so unfortunately it’s hard to “prove” anything with hard numbers.

    My position is that initial QS is based on relevancy to the ad (basically does the ad contain the keyword) as well as the QS baseline of advertisers currently in the auctions (with this idea being much more important). What you’ll find working across accounts is that, with the same basic ad and LP strategy, you can update two different keywords in different verticals, and the initial QS will vary quite a bit. I’ve uploaded keywords that started at 7, and others that started at 3. This is pretty powerful if true – because you can report how much you’ve improved QS relative to the expectation if you record the initial QS.

    Three more directional ideas that show LP relevance is a trivial factor that I’ve seen are..
    1) I bought the keyword ‘test’ in 3 different accounts with different LPs and ads. The initial keyword’s QS was 1 in each instance. Also, I’m not afraid to admit that, back in my early days, I bought the keyword ‘keyword’ multiple times (on accident). During each occasion the way I noticed the error was not excessive bleeding, but just account checks. This is because the QS was always 1 or 2, even from the start, so ‘keyword’ never got many impressions. I think the low initial QS was due to the baseline established by other advertisers, but certainly you can just as easily argue that was due to the landing page irrelevance (dang!).

    2) You can buy a keyword and form an ad group with no ad, and Google will still assign a QS to the keyword. It might be interesting to record that number, and see if that number changes once the ad/dest url is uploaded (but the keyword is still paused). I haven’t done this exercise just yet, but next time we get a brand new account I’ll try it out!

    3) The fact you can improve QS without changing your LP. This doesn’t show that LP has no value, but it does show that it’s a secondary factor. I’ve seen a QS be as low as 3/10, and over time brought it up to a 10/10 (with 3 line sitelinks at that – by the way, it was non-branded).

    One factor that wasn’t mentioned in my post was Account History. Once you’ve had an account that has ran for a while, you can add that as a 3rd factor that’ll influence your initial QS

    Hopefully that elaborates on my position a bit more.

    Best,
    Mike

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