One of the biggest frustrations for an AdWords advertiser is when a minimum bid for highly relevant keywords jumps from a few cents to a few dollars without any seemingly reasonable explanation. The keyword, ad copy, and landing page can all be highly relevant. The CTR could be above 5%. The keyword converts well. Users are obviously happy to be clicking on your ads. However, when Google updates the quality score, there are days when logic and minimum bids seem to disagree.
Besides screaming at Google and calling the AdWords system illogical, what should you do next? Below is a step by step diagnosis procedure for trying to find the hole in your quality score chain.
Step 1: Look at keyword analysis
The first step is to examine the keyword analysis details page to see what Google suggests. Unfortunately, there are times when AdWords will show ‘This keyword isn’t highly relevant’ when you completely disagree. That’s OK, we’ll handle optimization in a few moments. What you are looking for are issues with the ‘landing page’ or ‘landing page load time’. If the load time is causing the problematic minimum bids, your IT staff needs to become involved. If the landing page is the issue, we’ll walk through that checklist in a little while.
Step 2: Look for account changes
The second step is to find out if anyone changed something within the account. Hopefully, you have different logins and access permissions set per user. Go to the Change History Tool, select all of the options, and run a report looking for any changes that could have affected your quality score. Some of the red flags you should look for are changes to destination URL, display URL, ad copy, or location targeting changes. In these instances, the recent changes could have affected your quality score, and changing some of those settings back to their original state should fix many of the issues. You should add additional ad copies to test out their conversions; however, it’s useful to always keep an older ad running not only to test against, but because you can revert to it in cases where something goes wrong.
Step 3: Look for site changes
The third step, and one you should conduct even if you’ve already diagnosed the problem, is to find out if the website changed in any manner. Ask your designer and IT department if anything about the website has changed. Were any pages updated, was there downtime, is your mod-rewrite working correctly? Find out if someone else in your company (or your clients) did anything that would have affected the site’s landing pages. This includes examining the robots.txt file. The easiest way to examine your robots.txt and crawl errors is to use Google’s Webmaster Tools. Under Tools > Analyze robots.txt you can see if adsbot-Google (the AdWords crawler) is having any issues with your site. You can also use Webmaster Tools to see if there are other crawl errors that are causing adsbot to have problems reading your website.
Step 4: Examine click-through rates
The fourth step is examining your ad click through rates. Run three ad performance reports. Make sure that you filter the report so that you are only examining search data. The content network CTR does not affect your quality score; so that data is irrelevant to this diagnosis. For the first report, choose a timeline when you knew your ads were doing well. Since sometime during nice ad performance and your minimum bids skyrocketing is when things went wrong with your quality score, it can be useful to cut off the report about two weeks before things went downhill. For example, if you knew things were going well from 7/1/08 to 7/31/08, you might wish to run a report for the date range of 7/1/08 to 7/17/08. Secondly, run a report for the two week timeframe when you suspect things must have started changing. In the above example, that would be from 7/18/08 to 7/31/08. Finally, run one final report for when you know things were not going well. Due to the high minimum bids, you will probably see a lot fewer impressions as some of your keywords were probably not showing. Open the reports in excel, and then use the VLOOKUP function, keying off the AdWords Ad ID, to quickly compare changes in CTRs for any of your ads. Look for downward CTR trends that might indicate a change in performance leading to a higher minimum bid. We’ll examine how to tackle low CTR ads below.
Step 5: Use the AdWords Keyword Tool
Lastly, use the AdWords Keyword Tool. Choose the option ‘website content’ and paste your landing page URL into the appropriate box. Now see if the keyword tool suggests the same keywords that are having quality score issues. If the suggested keywords are the same, or very similar to your AdGroup, then you should be OK. If they are different, or the themes are very mixed (for instance, suggestions with both mortgage and plasma TVs), then you have a landing page theming problem.
How to fix the problem
Now, either you’ve found the problem, or it’s eluding you. We’ll walk through solutions to the most common problems found above, as well as a general guide to fixing unknown quality score issues.
General Unknown Problems
This is one of the hardest places to recover from, as you really don’t know what is causing the problem. The best action is to make sure you are following landing page and organizational best practices.
Your ad groups should be very tightly themed. A general rule of thumb is to write one very targeted ad that has one explicit purpose from a searcher’s viewpoint. Then, look at each keyword and see if each ad copy accurately describes that keyword’s search intent. If the keyword is not well described by the ad copy, it should go into a different ad group. After you have organized your keywords, then write a few additional ad copies to test out CTR and conversion rates.
Your second task is the landing page. Just because Webmaster Central does not find any crawl or robots.txt errors, and the keyword tool does not find any theme errors, this does not mean that your landing page is perfect. A general rule is the higher the minimum bid is, the more likely the landing page is the cause. If you rework your ad group organization and do not see any improvements, then it’s time to play with the landing page. You can first test out a few other pages on your website to see if any others generate better quality scores. If that does not work, then it’s time to start playing with the page content.
Low CTR is one of the easiest problems to fix. First, if you deleted your higher performing ads and replaced them with new ad copy, put the deleted ads back into circulation. When adding new ad copies, it is best practice to write a few new ads, leave the older ads in circulation, and then keep the ads that are the best performing for your goals. If for some reason you had to delete the old ads (time sensitive offers, legal issues, etc) then put the copywriters to work coming up with several new ad copies to test.
One issue comes into play when you have a high converting, low CTR ad and a low converting, high CTR ad. The high converting ad is generally better for your company. The high CTR ad is definitely better for your quality score. Make sure you know which ad really has the highest profit. It can be useful to keep a high CTR ad in the mix even if it has a low quality score to keep your minimum bids lower. However, you’ll want to start taking elements from each ad and try some combinations that have both a high CTR and high conversion rate.
Landing Page Crawl Issues
Again, this should be an easy problem to fix. If you see problems with your site being crawled, Webmaster Central will tell you what the problem is so that you can fix that exact problem. If it’s a robots.txt issue, then change the robots.txt and use the tools found in Webmaster Central to make sure adsbot-Google can spider those pages.
Landing Page Theming Issues
If Google cannot accurately understand the theme of your page, your quality score will suffer. What happens is that Google thinks your page is about one theme, and if your keywords are another theme, then the mismatch will give you a low landing page quality score. The best way to fix this issue is to rewrite the content. Before changing your website, you can rewrite the content and then paste it into the AdWords Keyword Tool and see what Google thinks the new content is about. You can also put it on a test page and use the AdSense preview tool to see the types of ads that Google thinks should be shown for that page. That can also help you determine what Google thinks is relevant for your content.
Regardless of low or high quality scores, by following organizational best practices, you can often avoid seeing low quality scores in the first place. This is a best practice that will be useful in saving you extra work later on in a campaign’s life.
However, regardless of how much time and effort you put into your account, a day will come where you see minimum bids that are higher than you think are appropriate. If you have gone through some of the above information and can’t find an appropriate solution, don’t hesitate to ask your Google rep for advice. There have been cases where Google has mistakenly given sites low quality scores. That’s just one of the curses of automation.
There are also types of sites that Google wants to have low quality scores. If your site is one that Google thinks will have issues with a decent quality score, then you will have to put extra emphasis on the content and website usability. While Google thinks some of these sites will end up with low quality scores, with proper website layout and content these sites can have decent quality scores and still convert well, but it can be a difficult balancing act.
Quality score is complicated. It is a difficult concept to deal with as Google gives out a limited amount of information about quality score. Much of that is done so that the system is harder to game. Other times it’s because the system goes through various tweaks. While the general concepts of what affects quality score does not change that often, the algorithms are updated more often than most people realize.
While quality score is ambiguous, with the proper diagnosis and appropriate changes, you can recover from those issues to once again enjoy the benefits of a high quality score.
Brad Geddes is the founder of bgTheory.com, a company dedicated to educating, training, and consulting with businesses to maximize marketing effectiveness and budgets., a blogger at eWhisper.net, and a frequent conference speaker. The Paid Search column appears weekly at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.