Optimizing for quality score is a best practice, except when it’s not. Here’s why.

Amy Bishop on
  • Categories: Channel: SEM, Google: AdWords, Paid Search Column, Search Ads: General, SEM Industry: General
  • Quality score is a complex metric because it is a basic but fundamental component of ad rank.

    Optimizing for quality score is a best practice, except when it isn’t. A high quality score is a sign of account health, except when it isn’t. Like any other paid search “best practice,” it is only a best practice when it works in your favor.

    Because quality score is a fundamental element of an account and has been widely written about, it is a focal point for many advertisers. While some of that is fair, some of the attention it receives is unnecessary.

    More than a few people have reached out and asked how quality score can be improved in their account. My first inclination is to suggest they first ensure that a quality score improvement is going to help drive them closer to the business goals they hope to achieve.

    The reality is that spending a lot of time and capital on increasing quality score doesn’t always pay off, as you will soon see.

    Tie your account goals to business goals

    To determine if something is “working,” you have to know whether or not it is contributing toward your goals. This is where things can get a little sticky.

    Sometimes when I speak with people, increasing their quality score is their goal. If that’s the case, there may be a good reason — but I’d ask the account owner to dig into:

    1. What they ultimately hope to achieve with their AdWords account.
    2. Why it is that they want to increase quality score. Typically, the resulting answer to this question is something along the lines of “Because it’s a best practice.” Do you see where I’m going with this? I think this is the human version of Excel’s circular reference.

    So let’s back up. Let’s step outside of the pay-per-click (PPC) account for a second and talk about business goals. Once those are written down, then we will write down PPC goals that support each of those.

    Business goals are almost always something like: generate X number of leads at an acceptable cost, generate sales at X percent return on investment (ROI) or calculating return on ad spend (ROAS), and contribute to $X in revenue.

    Quality score could possibly support one of the PPC goals, but there’s almost never a situation where it is a goal on its own because there is almost never a situation where it is a direct link to a corporate goal. I know. I said it. And I mean it! (Honestly, I can’t think of a single one.)

    What you can learn from quality score

    There are a lot of great insights that can be learned from quality score, most obviously:

    Each item listed is important, even at the surface level, but, there’s more than meets the eye with these metrics. If your quality score is suffering due to relevance and your click-through rate still seems to suffer, there could be a deeper issue at play.

    For example, it could be that the keywords you’ve chosen are too broad or don’t show enough intent and are being matched with queries that aren’t really the best fit.

    This is pretty easy to dig into: Just look into the search terms report and make sure the terms are a good fit for your products and services. If there are just a few misses, it could be solved with negatives, but if the problem is widespread, you may want to rethink your keyword strategy.

    When quality score matters

    Quality score is an important metric, and it should still be evaluated as a potential optimization opportunity. For example, if one of your highest conversion-generating keywords has a low quality score, it would be reasonable to assume improving the quality score could improve the average cost per acquisition (CPA) on a high volume of conversions. That would be well worth your while!

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, you might find quality score so low it is impossible for a keyword to get any traction. It can be worthwhile to focus efforts on those terms, which could result in expanded reach.

    In addition, if you find there seems to be a quality score issue at scale (click-through rate, for instance), that might indicate an area of opportunity that could have a wide-reaching positive impact without a high level of effort.

    There are times quality score optimizations can have a real, substantial impact, it just isn’t safe to assume that is always the case.

    When quality score can be detrimental

    The goal of quality score is to ensure each searcher is met with advertisers that will provide the best experience both in terms of relevance to the needs they’ve identified and in terms of user experience (UX).

    Quality score is pretty well refined, too. The search engines have spent a lot of time improving quality score, the supporting factors and providing insight into areas in which advertisers can improve.

    However, that said, it isn’t perfect. Although the cues quality score looks for are good indicators, there are times they can be counterintuitive. While you may be marching toward an increase in quality score, you could be marching away from more important performance metrics.

    There are a few ways this can happen, even with the best of intentions. Here’s one: Ads with dynamic keyword insertion (DKI) often show increases in click-through rate over those ads that don’t have DKI, but that doesn’t always mean the ad is better quality.

    Although the click-through rate (CTR) may increase, conversions may not. At that point, if you were basing your performance purely on CTR and quality score, it would be considered a win. However, if you were basing your results on performance against business goals, an increased cost per lead with no increase in conversions wouldn’t be considered a win.

    This is just one example of many where making an increase in quality score your primary goal can come to the detriment of more important performance indicators.

    Should that scare you away from making quality score optimizations when needed? No! It should only serve to illustrate why quality score shouldn’t be the primary account goal.

    When optimizing for quality score isn’t the best use of time

    There are times quality score optimizations just aren’t likely to have a worthwhile impact on your keyword’s performance. For example, if your keyword meets any of the following criteria, quality score optimizations aren’t likely to have a big impact:

    To optimize or not to optimize

    The goal of this post wasn’t to suggest no one should ever optimize for quality score — in fact, you should! But, at some point, you will likely have to prioritize some account optimization efforts over others, and your quality score optimizations should be prioritized based on their likelihood to impact your account and business goals.

    As we’ve seen from my examples above, there are times optimizing for quality score can come at the expense of other key performance indicators, which becomes an unjustifiable risk.

    The most important thing is to always benchmark your performance against relevance, landing page experience and expected click-through rate as they apply to your business. Any optimization made to improve quality score should do just that, but without taking away from your primary goal.


    About The Author

    Amy Bishop
    Amy has built and implemented multi-channel digital strategies for a variety of companies spanning several industry verticals from start-ups and small businesses to Fortune 500 and global organizations. Her expertise includes e-commerce, lead generation and localized site-to-store strategies. Amy is currently the Director of Digital Marketing & MarTech at ZirMed.