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Google’s Quality Score Whitepaper Attempts to Set the Record Straight

Published: July 28, 2014

Author: Will Aronson

To many paid search marketers, Quality Score remains one of the most important elements of a campaign.  It is the core metric that, with minor changes on its 1-10 scale, has the power to drastically affect the cost of an ad click and the positioning of that ad, and in turn to impact overall efficiency and profitability.
Historically, Google has strived to keep the entire recipe for its Quality Score metric hidden from the public, never releasing the full list of factors that impact the metric, and the degree to which they impact it. Late last month, however, Google released a whitepaper on Quality Score that shed some more light on the metric, with the goal of dispelling many of its misconceptions.
Though many of the points may seem like common knowledge at this point, there are several insights worth noting that can improve your strategy.  I have outlined these below (note that I’m taking the quotes directly from Google).

“Quality Score Is a Helpful Diagnostic Tool, Not a Key Performance Indicator”

While this is generally understood, it does seem to dispel the notion that Quality Score is the Holy Grail of all AdWords metrics.  Across many of our accounts we have calculated and tracked Quality Score as if it is a KPI, which contradicts Google’s comment.  Given the importance of the metric from a cost and ad positioning standpoint, it will be difficult for many marketers to de-emphasize it, as Google suggests.  Google’s point here, really, is that the underlying components that make up Quality Score are what we should focus on, not just that 1-10 number.

“Focus Your Efforts on High-Value Areas Where You Can Affect Change”

Google suggests that you focus your efforts in the areas where you can maximize the impact of Quality Score improvements, and that you shouldn’t “waste time on things that you can’t change or optimizations with limited upside.” Seems straightforward – we should focus on the areas where we have the greatest opportunity for improvement and growth.
However, we often think (logically) that the areas with the greatest opportunity are those with the lowest Quality Scores and growth potential.  The way I read this is that those are the types of areas that Google might deem “low-upside” – areas where Quality Scores are consistently low because of relevance and low click-through rates (e.g. competitor terms, very broad terms, less-relevant but high-volume terms).
Though in many cases these are very important, high-conversion-volume terms, it seems that it might not be worth spending the time and effort in these areas to drive those incremental gains we are always seeking.  Maybe we should rethink the amount of effort put toward these areas, and instead of trying to improve the Quality Score of “Competitor Keyword A” from a 1 to a 3, we should focus more on improving our tried-and-true keywords from 6s and  7s to 8s and 9s.  And in those cases where the Quality Scores of top terms are very low, continue to look for more relevant keywords that can generate higher click-through rates and higher relevance ratings from Google.

“Understand What Does and Doesn’t Matter When It Comes to Ads Quality”

In the most notable part of the whitepaper, Google outlines three things that matter and three things that don’t:

Do Matter:

-User’s device
-Relevance to user’s intentions
-Performance on related keywords (for newly launched keywords)

Don’t Matter:

-Account structure
-Running ads in the GDN or search partners
-Placement on the page

Some of these are well understood, but a few are not necessarily that obvious.
Device matters: Prioritize Mobile – I think this is the most important thing mentioned in the whitepaper.  Your mobile landing pages are going to impact your Quality Score, just as your desktop (and tablet) pages will.  If you have a mobile ad presence, ensure that your mobile site is optimized and easily navigable, and that your landing pages are relevant to your ads and the user’s queries.
With Enhanced Campaigns, this is even more important – with just one Quality Score number spanning all devices for each keyword, you don’t want your mobile site/experience to drag down your Quality Score for other devices, especially if desktop or tablet traffic comprise a major portion of overall volume.
So what should you do?  If your mobile site uses the same URL as your desktop site, you will want to optimize your mobile landing pages as mentioned above.  If your desktop landing page doesn’t provide the best mobile experience or you have a separate mobile site, take advantage of ValueTrack to drive mobile traffic to the mobile site, or to a more mobile-friendly page on your single site.
If an appropriate mobile experience just doesn’t exist, and depending on the reliance on desktop traffic, it’s probably worth considering holding off on significant mobile activity until a mobile-optimized site is ready.  Of course that’s a less-than-ideal scenario, but this information from Google (combined with the hyper-growth of mobile search activity in general) should be all the convincing you need to prioritize mobile.
Aside from landing pages, mobile-friendly ads and sitelinks are also important considerations, as they will drive higher click-through rates.
Relevance to a user’s intentions (and not just the query) matters – Relevant ads and keywords are of course at the core of Quality Score–but the interesting line in the whitepaper reads: “focus on delivering relevant ads to answer queries rather than trying to optimize to manipulate your score.”
This is very similar to Google’s shift toward semantic (intent-based) search in the organic space, and it’s a subtle hint that simply adding the keyword/query into the ad won’t necessarily yield the highest marks in the relevance category.  It will be interesting to see if and how the Quality Score algorithm evolves further to recognize and match the user’s intent with ad copy, instead of simply matching the query to the words in the ad/keyword.
For newly launched keywords, performance on related terms matters – This insight reinforces that by expanding your keyword set in areas where Quality Score is already strong, you are going to get an immediate boost for your new keywords.  It’s a nice reminder that we should primarily look to expand our keyword coverage in top-performing areas and should not focus as much on growing less relevant (and therefore lower-quality) areas of our accounts.
Average position doesn’t matter – Earlier in the whitepaper, Google explains that expected click-through rate, and not actual click-through rate, is one of the three core components of Quality Score. This is an important distinction when considering your average position.
Google recognizes that you are likely to see higher click-through rates in position 1 than in position 4, and therefore does not penalize you for your lower click-through rate in lower positions (or award you for higher click-through rates when you are in higher positions).  Be aware that increasing your bid and position to drive higher click-through rates will not directly result in higher Quality Scores – you will need to use other methods to improve your Quality Score.
Ultimately, positioning and Quality Score should be viewed as two separate entities.  You should optimize to the best performing position regardless of Quality Score, and should work to improve Quality Score without considering your position.

How should we adjust?

Regardless of what Google says about Quality Score, it will likely be difficult for paid search marketers to diminish the metric’s importance when its impact is so clearly visible.  That being said, there are ways for us to pivot and adjust our strategy to take advantage of Google’s new insights.

-Think of Quality Score as simply a diagnostic tool, while focusing on click-through rate, ad relevance, and landing pages for improvement.
-Focus optimization and expansion efforts where success is already being seen, as opposed to areas that consistently yield low Quality Scores; this will drive the greatest improvement due to Quality Score.
-Consider the entire mobile experience, from ad copy to landing pages, as it will impact your Quality Score across all devices.
-Adjust ad copy to relate to the intent of a user’s query, as opposed to stuffing keywords into the ad.

Ultimately, the drivers of improved Quality Scores make for a better consumer experience – which improves the metrics by which we should really be measured: ROI, CPA, and CVR. Google-speak or no, there’s nothing ambiguous about that.

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