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Google Quality Score: Can it help with both paid and organic search?

August 31, 2010

One insight I gleaned from my recent trip to Google’s San Francisco offices is the importance of the Google Quality Score. Briefly, this is a bot that looks at landing pages to assess how relevant they are to the keywords people buy in paid search campaigns. To quote Google:

In general, the higher your Quality Score, the lower your costs and the better your ad position.

Paid search campaigns focus on cost per click. Google gives you better discounts if you have a good Quality Score. As important, your ad position will improve if you improve your quality score. These things together will improve the return on your investment.

Three notes of caution:

  • Google does not do deep semantic analysis. It’s Quality Score is a function of the frequency and position of the actual words and phrases you buy. If you buy a lot of synonyms and long tails for your primary keywords on your landing pages, you will not likely get a good quality score for those words unless those actual synonyms and long-tail phrases appear in prominent places on your pages, such as h2 and h3 tags. It might still be worth buying them if you get good engagement for your clicks. But if the keywords that attracted users to your page are not apparent on first scan, users will often bounce off your pages and your engagement rates will not be high enough to justify the relatively high cost of an ad with a low Quality Score.
  • Google tracks bounce rates from ads and organic listings. If you get high bounce rates, it flags Google’s  editorial department to examine your page and see if your Quality Score needs to be lowered from the one the bot assigned. If the editor determines that you are attempting to buy irrelevant words to pump up traffic to your pages, your quality score will be dropped. Even if the bot assigns a good score, humans who can do deeper semantics then the bot (by virtue of their understanding of natural language) can still drop your score.
  • Google also checks for transparency when it assesses the Quality Score. All sorts of things can adversely affect your Quality Score beyond keyword relevance. For example, if your paid landing page has only one link to a conversion experience and the only way to back out of it is by hitting the back button, the quality score will go down dramatically. Why? Because Google recognizes that forcing users down a prescribed path without options is a bad user experience. The overarching rule Google follows is what we keep preaching here (following Jakob Nielsen): If you give users clear user experiences and let them control their activities, they will reward you with loyalty.

The upshot is, the Quality Score is the life blood of paid search engine marketing (SEM). In one sense it is important for organic as well. If you code pages for organic search and you also buy the  keywords for which pages are optimized, you can use the Quality Score to help you optimize both organic and paid search effectiveness. And contrary to popular myth, they do not cannibalize each other. Rather, paid and organic search  tend to magnify each other.

After I returned from Google, some folks at IBM asked if we could use the Quality Score to gauge organic effectiveness without paid. They reasoned that the Quality Score algorithm is very similar to the organic search algorithm. The things we teach in our book about keyword frequency, position and proximity are the very things that affect your Quality Score. So the Quality Score is a rough-and-ready way to asses organic effectiveness, just as Google AdWords is a rough-and-ready keyword research tool. Right? Wrong. There are two reasons why it is best to leave the Quality Score to paid campaigns and use other tools to measure organic effectiveness in those cases where a page has no paid campaign associated with it

1. Relevance is less than half of the overall ranking of a page in Google. At least half of the algorithm is based on link equity, and the Google Quality Score can’t help with that. Other aspects include domain-specific things, and other infrastructure issues. So if we used the Quality Score information, it would not reflect our expected Google search ranking.

2. There is no tool that can determine what the Google Quality Score would be prior to publishing. The only way you can determine the score is by publishing the page and buying the words. If you don’t have a paid component, this will not be in your budget. Also, as I started the Quality Score is not static. It goes up and down depending on bounce rates for the landing page designated by the ad campaign. High bounce rates will set a flag on the page and Google will likely drop the quality score after a human audit.

Bottom line: The Quality Score is essential to understanding paid effectiveness. But it is no substitute for tools that can help you assess organic effectiveness, for example, Covario. It measures the kinds of things Google looks for when it assesses Quality Scores. But it also does a thorough analysis of keyword effectiveness and link equity relative to competitive pages for those keywords.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    September 9, 2010 3:09 pm

    Great article, I haven’t had a chance to take a look at your book yet, it’s encouraging to know that you address how important Quality Score is, the other day I was reading through Google Advertising Tools from O’Reilly and in the entire book (400-500 ‘pages’) the only reference to Quality Score is a couple of inches in a sidebar on one page!.

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