At one time, quality score (QS) was the new kid on the block—the game changer of paid search marketing. Before Quality Score, the golden rule was in effect: he with the most gold, rules. Those of us with massive budgets during that time were able to achieve top positions with a simple bid increase. In 2005, Google released QS for a variety of stated and unstated reasons. The most obvious one is that it makes them more money.
In essence, QS is really Google’s attempt at click optimization to ensure the ads with the highest chance of being clicked make it to the top of the page. It makes sense that Google would rather have a cheaper $1 ad clicked three times out of five than a more expensive $2 ad clicked only once out of five.
Gaining a few extra bucks is just a short term tactic, but Google has shown time after time that they think in decades, not years. The true value of quality score is that it optimizes the paid search results so that they are almost as (and sometimes even more) relevant than the natural results. This makes their Search Engine Results Page (SERP) even that much more germane to the user’s query and helps secure Google’s search engine as the top choice for most of the world’s searches.
Last year, we passed the point where AdWords with quality score has been around longer than Adwords without quality score. So, it’s no longer a new variable to consider but rather a cost of doing business in paid search and only hardcore SEM vets can even remember back before QS.
In fact, quality score optimization has become one of the dominating topics in our industry for good reason: those keywords with high QS enjoy higher positions at lower costs. That kind of optimization is a no brainer for SEM pros to aim for.
A little birdie told me that the founder and president of search management platform ClickEquations, and fellow Search Engine Land contributor Craig Danuloff, was writing a book on quality score. Craig is a recognized industry thought leader and a very knowledgeable guy on all things SEM, so I thought it would be interesting to pick his brain on why he wanted to write about QS, what kinds of things are in the book, and what the future might hold for quality score.
Q: Okay, so why a book on quality score?
Craig: It started out as a series of blog posts, and as I dug into it the size and complexity of the topic, it was clear that a more substantial effort and treatment was needed. It also became clear to me that the role quality score plays is even more central and crucial than most people realized – the success or failure of every keyword in your account is in large part due to quality score, so not understanding and controlling it is very expensive.
Q: Why did it take you two years to complete?
Craig: Primarily because the folks at Google are given very good training in resisting advanced interrogation techniques – they do not give up their secrets easily. It’s also a surprisingly large topic with many facets that I wanted to really research fully, think through carefully, and explain clearly and properly. It just took a lot of time. Plus it’s not my day job, and Bob Dylan keeps going on these long tours which are extremely distracting.
Q: We know the Google definition of quality score…what’s yours?
Craig: Broadly, I think of it as feedback to how well executed the advertising efforts are around a keyword. It measures not only how well you’re doing the things Google wants you to do, but also how well you’re doing the things any advertiser should want to do well to maximize their own revenue – targeting, creative, etc. It is also an honest friend that will tell you when a keyword isn’t working and maybe pausing or deleting is the best solution.
Q: To relative rookies in Search, just how important is quality score versus other KPIs?
Craig: I believe it’s the most important KPI in paid search. If you look at overall for an entire account, which very few people do, and create a quality score distribution graph (which I help people do via a free Excel template that comes with the book) you get a stark picture of the success or failure in your account and very good ideas about what to do to change or improve it.
On an individual keyword level, it not only serves as feedback but as I mentioned it literally drives success – determining how often your ads appear, the position they appear in, and how much you pay per click. You can’t win with a poor quality score and it’s very hard to lose with one (or many).
Q: What are some of the frequently asked questions you hear with regards to quality score and how do you answer them?
Craig: As with anything, questions tend to focus on the problems or exceptions. Accounts that have chronically low quality scores frustrate people immensely, and there hasn’t been a good explanation of why this happens and what to do about it.
When an account is filled with quality scores below 7, there are systemic and probably historical problems that need to be addressed. You can’t fix that at the keyword level. There is a chapter in the book devoted to fixing quality score disasters, and several others that lay out ground-rules and step-by-step methods for improving quality score.
Q: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions out there right now about quality score?
Craig: There are many, but the biggest one surrounds what ‘relevance’ means. In the words of Inigo Montoya “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.
For now, let’s just say Google is not using the dictionary definition of that word. Getting to the bottom of that is I think the blockbuster reveal in the book – the PPC version of a formerly secret love child.
Q: Don’t want to give too much of the book away here, but what is your top level approach to addressing quality score?
Craig: At the highest level it’s easy – pick keywords that will attract a narrow set of search queries and then write text ad copy that those people will find compelling and persuasive. CTR drives quality score and the best way to get clicks is to have every ad directly answer the question implicit in every search. If you do that, everything else takes care of itself.
It’s hard to follow this advice because there is pressure to grow accounts which leads you to keywords that aren’t perfectly targeted for your business, because the time and tools needed to organize well aren’t available, because the metrics in your account that appear to be giving you feedback really aren’t, and because good copyrighting is a tough task and most accounts don’t have enough time allocated to it.
Good quality score management is preventative medicine and just like in the real world it’s ultimately a lot easier and cheaper than corrective surgery.
Q: Are there still things about quality score you don’t understand? If Google would answer three questions for you, what would they be?
Craig: Well Google was fantastic and did answer just about every question I gave them on this subject. The book is vastly better as a result of their help. I approached Frederick Vallaeys (AdWords Evangelist at Google) about 18 months ago and told him about the project and said that I really wanted to get the info right and asked for formal assistance from Google. He was immediately supportive and explained that Google would love to have advanced users have a source for the kinds of nitty-gritty details and explanations that they wanted.
In the months that followed, he and his team were extremely helpful in providing interviews and answering questions. Without this assistance I just couldn’t have delivered as many definitive answers and detailed explanations of the thorny issues that have confused many of us for years – so a huge thank you to Frederick and Google on behalf of AdWords advertisers everywhere!
Of the very few questions where they declined to answer or elaborate on as much as I might have wished, I’d still like to know the decay rate on historical quality score (how much more does last week impact results more than last year, etc.), details of the non-linear scale used for actual quality score (they’re not whole and linear numbers between 1 and 10), and there is one nagging issue resulting from the relevance revelation that I actually hope to get resolved and talk publicly in the near future.
Q: Why should people read your book? What will they learn?
Craig: From a purely financial perspective, quality score has such a dramatic impact on impressions, positions, and costs that even minor improvements in quality score based on lessons from the book I believe will result in thousands or tens-of-thousands of dollars in decreased costs or increased profit for most advertisers – sometimes in just one day.
From my experience, many accounts have major quality score problems and in those cases implementing the facts and ideas in the book should be transformational. So the first reason to read this book is to do a better job and make a lot more profit.
On a more personal basis, I think serious paid search managers want and deserve to finally have all those nagging questions answered. It turns out that most of what is publicly known and shared about quality score is the simplistic version, not just the summarized version. In other words, what we’ve been told isn’t exactly true when you get down to the details and therefore it shouldn’t be relied upon to make the kinds of decisions you need to make every day to optimally manage your account.
The book shares the next level about what is really getting measured, how it’s really getting applied, and the specific steps that can really have an impact. I think even hard core PPC people will learn a lot and un-learn a lot, and walk away with a new perspective about how AdWords really works.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.