Hacking Quality Score: How One Advertiser Got A Quality Score Of 8.8/10

adwords-quality-score-featuredIn previous articles, I’ve discussed why I believe that Quality Score is so critical to PPC success. To illustrate the point in a more concrete way, I want to present a detailed case study of a WordStream client that is absolutely crushing its AdWords Quality Score. In this case study, I’ll reveal exactly how they did it, and how much they’ve gained from their efforts.

Average Quality Score Of 8.8/10? What? How!

The advertiser in this case study is a small business operating in the insurance industry (I’ve anonymized the data to protect client identity), which happens to be one of the most competitive verticals in PPC. A skeptic might suggest that the situation is pretty hopeless, without chance of success.

But the truth is far from it! In fact, this AdWords advertiser is thriving! Take a look here:

Figure A: The Reason for Such High Quality Scores is (Surprise!) The Advertiser’s Amazing CTR’s

Figure A: This advertiser’s Quality Score rocks!

Figure A shows a graph of the advertiser’s Quality Score distribution. The green bars on the graph show that all of the  keyword impressions in the advertiser’s account are being accrued to keywords with perfect Quality Scores of 10/10 or 7/10, for an impression-weighted average Quality Score of 8.8/10!

To give you a better sense of just how great this is, the yellow curve on the figure shows the typical Quality Score distribution based on some internal WordStream best practices that we’ve developed. From that, you can see that it’s quite rare to have such high percentages of perfect 10 Quality Score keywords and no low Quality Score keywords in an account.

So how the heck did they do it?

Quality Score Is Just Normalized Click-Through Rate

In a previous article, I showed how having a high click-through rate (CTR) relative to Google’s expected CTR for your ad position is the key for having high Quality Scores. Thus, you’d expect an advertiser with super-high Quality Scores to have decent click-through rates. This is indeed the case, as you can see in Figure B.

High CTR  = High Quality Scores

Figure B: High CTR = High Quality Scores

Above, I’ve graphed the CTR versus the average ad position for the advertiser’s top 200 keywords (those with the most impressions). Notice how this advertiser’s click-through rates are off the charts!

To give you a sense of how amazing these click-through rates are, the tiny little yellow curve on the bottom of the chart shows you what a typical CTR would be for a given ad position — again, based on internal best practices developed at WordStream. Also note that the advertiser’s overall average CTR from search is a whopping 14.06%, despite being in a relatively low average position of 2.88.

The reason for the high Quality Scores is straightforward: the advertiser has very high average click-through rates vs. what Google expects to see.

The real question here is: How do you get a 14.06% CTR in an average position of 2.88?

Most of the outlier keywords with CTRs of 30%, 40%, 50% and even 70% are branded keywords, which generally have very high CTRs — but the rest of the keywords aren’t. It’s interesting to note that there are even keywords with 0% CTR which have perfect Quality Scores of 10/10. It’s almost like the high account average CTR is pulling up the Quality Scores for all keywords in the account. I see this in a lot of accounts, and it’s one reason why I always advocate budgeting at least 15% of your PPC budget toward branded keywords.

But, what about all the other keywords with high CTRs? How the heck do they do that? Is there a secret computer glitch in the AdWords system that can be exploited?

This Advertiser Earned His High Quality Scores!

The first thing I notice when looking over this account is that this advertiser is no lazy bum! His amazing Quality Scores weren’t the result of some computer glitch, but rather of diligent, smart PPC optimization work. He’s in his account at least once a week for half an hour or so actually optimizing stuff. Take a look here:

Slow and steady wins the race – Ongoing PPC optimization is Key to Success

Figure C: Slow and steady wins the race – ongoing PPC optimization is key to success

The figure above was created by looking at the change history logs in AdWords, from which I can ascertain what (if anything) is actually happening in the account. Notice how, in the last month, this small business advertiser has diligently created 10 new ads, tried out 164 new keywords, and added 4 new ad groups. Furthermore, by looking at the 90-day change history numbers, you can see that the advertiser’s optimization activities are consistent over time — definitely a key habit for solving the Quality Score mystery.

It’s also worth noting that even with his amazing Quality Scores of 8.8, he’s not resting on his laurels — he’s still in his account every week, optimizing stuff! This is an attitude that I’ve found to be common among PPC marketers with high Quality Scores.

Okay, so now we know that to get good Quality Scores, you have to do some optimization work. But you’re probably still wondering what exactly the advertiser is optimizing! Let’s first take a look at his keywords.

Focus On Long Tail Keywords

In order to get double digit CTRs, you’ll need to be a little picky in choosing your keywords, especially in a super competitive vertical like insurance. How picky? Take a look here.

To get duble digit CTRs, you’ll need to be a little picky in choosing your keywords

Figure D: To get double digit CTRs, you’ll need to be a little picky in choosing your keywords

In the preceding chart, I analyzed the account’s keywords to see what percentage of impressions are being attributed to keywords with one word (e.g., “insurance,” which is hopelessly broad and unspecific) versus long tail keywords with 3 or more words (e.g., “boston motorcycle insurance,” which is far more relevant and specific). Notice how a whopping 82% of this advertiser’s keyword impressions are being attributed to long tail keywords? This is a key to achieving double digit CTRs.

Being picky is more than just picking specific keywords; you also need to eliminate junk search queries using negative keywords. But, do negative keywords impact Quality Score?

According To Google, Negative Keywords Do Not Impact Quality Score

The official word from Google is that using negative keywords do not impact Quality Score; however, I’m not so sure about that. I can assure you that smart usage of negative keywords will most certainly raise your CTR — and higher CTR almost always leads to higher Quality Score. (It will also improve your ROI!) Let’s take a look at this advertiser’s use of negative keywords:

Figure D: Do Negative Keywords Raise Quality Score? It's unclear - but it certainly raises CTR and ROI.

Figure E: Do negative keywords raise Quality Score? The Goog says no, but this advertiser swears by it.
Regardless, it certainly raises CTR and improves ROI.

You can see that negative keyword optimization is probably the advertiser’s most favored PPC optimization method, having added around 100 negative keywords in the last month and around 200 in the last quarter. Like weeding a garden, negative keyword optimization is an important ongoing task!

The combination of targeted keywords and specific negative keywords is a very powerful combination. Notice how, in the following figure, you can see that the advertiser’s average impression share across the entire account (on a budget weighted basis) is 89%!

Figure E: Being Picky with Keywords Means capturing a high impression share of a more narrow portfolio of keywords

Figure F: Being picky with keywords means capturing a high impression share of a more narrow portfolio of keywords.

This is pretty much as high an impression share as you’ll ever get, since Google never monetizes 100% of any keyword search. Since there are billions of insurance searches every month, and it would cost too much to buy them all, your keyword targeting strategy should involve being picky and capturing a high impression share of a narrow portfolio of keywords, as opposed to targeting broader keywords and capturing a lower impression share.

Ad Text Optimization

The next step to getting high CTRs is matching those “golden” keywords with killer ads — and to do ad text optimization, as this advertiser has clearly done:

Figure F: This Small Business Advertiser has 100 ads!

Figure G: This small business advertiser has 100 ads!

Above, you can see that even this small business advertiser has over 100 active ads in his account, which is relatively high for a small account.

Leveraging PPC Best Practices

Finally, a quick scan of the account shows that the advertiser is leveraging all the various AdWords best practices like ad extensions, advanced match types, etc. While this may seem obvious to advanced PPC marketers, adoption of many of these features is quite low — for example, only about half of small businesses have conversion tracking turned on!

Figure H: A quick check of PPC best practices!

The Benefits Of Quality Score

I’ve previously discussed the benefits of having a high Quality Score, but how does the theory align with the reality of this case study?

This particular advertiser was previously spending around $1,000/month on PPC and is now spending about half that much. His CPC is roughly half the industry average. His average CPA is approximately $12. What’s not to love here?

This Could Be Your Quality Score, Too

Hopefully in this article today, I’ve convinced you that “hacking” AdWords Quality Score amounts to doing some smart PPC optimization work, with the proper expectation that it’s going to take some time to figure it out. So, what the heck are you waiting for?

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Google: AdWords | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is founder and CTO of WordStream, provider of the AdWords Grader and 20 Minute PPC Work Week.

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  • Stephen

    A wordstream good wordstream article wordstream there! I wordstream hope wordstream for wordstream more!

  • Larry Kim

    dude be cool. would you prefer an article that makes grand conclusions and assumptions based on no data at all? I don’t think so. I only have data on the accounts i work on so what the heck are you expecting in a case study, duh.

  • Chande

    @larry_kim:disqus this is nice, but doesn’t tell much about exact niche for this advertiser. I have seen couple of accounts in non-saturated niches where this is easily reachable by optimizing for no1 result (CTR per account usually around 20-30%).

    Things get more tricky in saturated niches or B2B where long tail wins – so if you optimize only for QS or CTR, you would be nowhere. In one particular case, avg position was 1.1, CTR was around 2% (almost everything was long tail) and reaching QS above 3 or 4 was almost impossible – simply not enough volume for given keywords to get enough data to optimize CTRs for specific ads (talking about 1000s of long tail keywords, simply not worth the time & effort).

    So this whole QS stuff is just a bluff from Google to pursue some vague metric, not optimize for really important stuff like LTV :) my 5 cents.

  • Larry Kim

    would love to audit this account

  • Chande

    Sure – send me PM on Twitter and I’ll send some data back.

  • Stu

    Larry mentions wordstream 3x in his article. You mention wordstream 6x in your 2 sentence comment and I mention wordstream 3x in my 4 sentence comment. In the end, Larry is pumping out a RIDICULOUS amount of content because he knows what the bots want, and people like it, and share it. Larry, I am jealous of what you are able to get published and the mentions you are able to receive.



    You continue to be my (and my fellow grad students) go-to for SEM knowledge and insight. I appreciate how much time you invest in your articles and how much inside data you share. I understand that by doing so you are promoting Wordstream. However, I read a lot of your content and never get the feeling that your articles are purely advertisements for http://www.Wordstream.com. I believe you are a sincere educator/author. Never get discouraged by other “experts.” You are appreciated.

    http://www.Wordstream.com (one last plug for you) ;)


  • http://www.toptiertools.com/ Frederick Vallaeys

    Hi Larry,

    The reason Google says they don’t use negative keywords for QS is that they use the position-normalized **exact match** CTR of a keyword on Google.com to calculate QS. Negative keywords only eliminate impressions when there is a broad or phrase match so that’s why it’s not a big factor of Quality Score.

    Thanks for sharing this case study!

  • Larry Kim

    thanks fred. i’ve read and linked to the standard google explanation in the article. Still I’ve found that the higher the CTR, the better the QS (seemingly regardless of match type). it’s almost as if there’s some other undisclosed element – like average account CTR from all search campaigns – that is also being used in the calculation? How else to explain how keywords with 0% CTR are getting QS of 10/10 in my data?

  • Larry Kim

    heh thanks anna. u crack me up! :)

  • Aditya Jagtap

    Hi Larry,

    While the post is informative, I felt you have tried to promote wordstream tool.


  • Guest

    Nice article, but is 8.8 really that great? I manage accounts that have 9.3, 9.9 and a 9.2 according to the tool I use.

  • Mike Shostack

    Interesting data, but the issue comes with the scale. By your own admission, the advertiser is now spending about $500/mo. I could have a phenomenal QS as well if I cut my spend to that level and only put it towards my highest QS/CTR terms and ads.

    Unfortunately, for those of us managing larger spends, optimizing solely towards metrics that drive QS is simply not feasible most of the time as we need to balance things that might improve CTR with conversion metrics and volume.

    That said, it is interesting to see how high they could get their QS at that scale, although I’d be curious about the mix of brand/non-brand terms in there.


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