“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This gem from heavyweight boxing legend Iron Mike Tyson also applies to AdWords account strategy, especially when starting a new account.

Beginning in 2006, some advertisers in the affiliate marketing, Made-for-AdSense, and other spheres have referred to harsh quality score treatment — especially treatment caused by poor landing page and website quality scores — as the “Google Slap.” But “slap” was never the appropriate terminology. I know Google won’t like being compared with Mike Tyson, but it’s the only analogy I have in the jar. So, let’s be clear. Slaps are for sissies. If your landing page and website quality are really bad, you’ll probably take a Google Punch in the mouth. With regard to landing page quality score hits on your keyword quality scores, “it tends not to have a small impact,” Nick Fox, Director of Business Product Management (and a primary architect of the Ads Quality system), told me in an interview last week. When it comes into play, “it usually causes a fairly significant hammer in an account,” he added.

Most advertisers don’t even need to worry about landing page and website quality (LPAWQ), other than staying reasonably vigilant about certain guidelines for disclosure, clean navigation, and page load times. Iron Nick Fox isn’t about to go through the ropes, wading into the crowd of respectful, paying customers, and begin biting people’s ears off. There are rules here!

The coiners of the term Google Slap, unfortunately, have now begun spreading misconceptions about the role landing page and website quality plays in the overall weighting of factors that result in your keyword quality score, which ultimately (along with your bid) affects your ad’s eligibility to show against a given keyword, and its rank on the page. Higher quality scores help you maintain high ad positions for less money — a phenomenon which is essentially unchanged since 2002.

Refresher: landing page and website quality

For quality score, Google currently considers click through ratio (CTR) and several other factors. CTR continues to be weighted very heavily, especially as a CTR history builds up in your account as a whole, for display URL’s in your ads, and most of all, for a particular keyword. Alongside CTR, Google is looking at other signals, such as predictive data that builds on the knowledge base Google has about user responses to various types of keywords. Along with assessing whether your keyword is “really” relevant to your offer, it’s likely the system assesses commercial intent. Keywords that are nearly always searched by users looking for non-commercial information may not ever reach the highest pinnacle of quality score (Google’s scale now is 1-10, and all keyword quality scores can be looked up in your AdWords account). But essentially this is the auction working as it always has with CTR doing a lot of the heavy lifting, with some refinements added by Google to tune search results pages for increased user satisfaction (fewer irrelevant ads showing up).

In my interpretation, it’s useful to see landing page and website quality as a whole different thing. As Nick pointed out, small changes in your pages aren’t likely to affect your keywords’ quality score. In fact, in the majority of cases, Nick reports, the impact of landing page and website quality score on your keyword quality scores is “essentially none.”

Now, confusion is being introduced into the marketplace by the Google Slap Fixers. They tell you they have a whole system for upping landing page relevancy like by creating a great many pages for each individual keyword. Do you think Google is fooled? I doubt it.

Unfortunately, the purveying of page-creation solutions to marketing communications problems has now spread to respected SEO’s who think they can introduce 1998-era solutions to 2008 paid search problems. Have they read Google’s documentation about ad quality? More to the point, have they built and improved any significant number of AdWords accounts for conventional business clients?

The more people in the industry talk about landing page and website quality, the easier it is for advertisers to be seduced by the notion that testing and tuning landing pages will funnel a quality score benefit back into your account. But that’s just not the case. Nick Fox’s take, again from last week’s interview, is that it isn’t really feasible or informative to run landing page tests specifically for the purpose of discovering their impact on keyword quality scores. While keyword quality scores are refreshed constantly and are in fact determined in real time in a query-contextual fashion (and reported in your account as aggregates), landing page and website quality score updates are infrequent.

Moreover, does Google break out the actual scores, or describe the scoring system, for landing page and website quality? No. Instead, you can view either a green checkmark or a red X for LPAWQ in the account detail on any given keyword. The same goes for a separate quality issue, landing page load times. So for now, it’s very much a “black or white” (or green or red) phenomenon. Nick Fox refers to the LPAWQ effect as “quite binary.” He also remarks: “It tends to be more of a business model thing.” Translation: you can’t A/B test your way out of a deliberate punch in the mouth.

Pattern matching

According to Nick, Google uses a “regression type approach” to look at how a “variety of signals interact with one another” in terms of on-page factors and user responses to pages and websites over time. Google’s system looks at pages and sites on an ongoing basis (especially in the early stages of account ramp-up), and if their characteristics match the patterns of the prohibited kinds of sites and pages, they pick yours out of the proverbial lineup and assign low quality scores. In such cases, the impact is usually fairly serious, and it will affect your ads’ eligibility to show up, and/or cause you to have to bid more (way more in some cases) to show up on the first page of search results.

Think you can fool the system? Maybe it’s possible. But there is probably human oversight combined with the data. There might even be editorial notes and flags placed on accounts. You won’t see that. When you get the silent treatment from Google reps, it may mean they don’t think the account has much potential to be greenlighted because, in their view and backed up by certain data, you’re a willful violator of their Landing Page and Website Quality Guidelines.

Low quality scores? Find out if it’s the landing page

If you have a poor quality score of, say, 3 on a given keyword, you can easily drill down for more information to see if LPAWQ is the culprit.

In your AdWords account, first you will want to be showing quality score in the keyword list of any given ad group. It may be hidden by default. There is a drop-down to “show” quality score.

If one is poor, you can click the magnifying glass icon and the exact score will come up. From there, click again, and a page of additional information will be displayed. This should tell you whether the issue is with keyword relevancy or LPAWQ. Admittedly, the textual explanations are boilerplate. But if there is a big green checkmark showing for LPAWQ, then that isn’t your problem.

User engagement metrics?

User engagement metrics such as time spent, page views, and even conversions are all obviously very interesting from an audience and business standpoint, but they don’t make an AdWords quality score go up because Google is mostly just looking for evidence of significantly negative user experiences in order to treat them punitively. If nothing is particularly wrong, you’re greenlighted.

As such, you should undertake your website development and response testing efforts for business or audience reasons, with no expectation that those worthy experiments will funnel back into your keyword quality scores.

I’ll explore this aspect in more depth in a future column.

The AdWords Quality Score system is far from transparent. But I hope the above summary counters some of the mythology currently in circulation. Advertisers should focus on core relevancy and targeting techniques, close major performance gaps in accounts, and worry less about the impact of landing pages on keyword quality scores.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column

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About The Author: is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of Winning Results with Google AdWords.

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