“When you start with what’s at stake for the buyer, you earn the right to their attention.” – Jake Sorofman
Highest Bid Wins
In a previous post, I mentioned that there are several factors involved in how paid search advertisements are ranked on the search engine results page (SERP). One of those factors is how much a merchant or advertiser is willing to pay (or “bid” in the industry parlance) for keywords used in the search. Years ago, this was the only factor. And in true auction style, the top spots on a SERP went to the highest bidders.
That is no longer true. When they are based solely on whoever could afford to bid the most, search results became less about relevance to the online user and more about the size of the advertiser’s budget. Since Google makes the vast percentage of its income clicks on ads, it makes sense for them to ensure that the ads presented to searchers are as relevant as possible.
When ads are more relevant to searches, it’s more likely for them to be clicked on. The better the overall experience for the user (i.e., the better the search results), the more likely they will return to Google for additional searches.
Quality Score: Most Relevant Ad Wins
To help provide a more even playing field for advertisers, and to provide searchers more relevant ads, Google introduced the Quality Score (QS) in 2005. This new formula (Ad Rank = Max CPC bid x Quality Score) completely changed the way ads are ranked in a SERP. Previously, an advertiser bidding 10 dollars on a keyword would be positioned above someone only bidding five dollars. With the addition of the QS, that would not necessarily be the case. If the 10 dollar bidder only had a QS of two, their Ad Rank would be 20. With a QS of five, the five dollar bidder’s Ad Rank would be 25 and would garner a higher position. In effect, by instituting the Quality Score as part of its ad ranking formula, search results became, and continue to be, more relevant to users. After all, the whole purpose of using a search engine is to quickly find a solution to a problem or an answer to a question without a lot of distractions or irrelevant results.
There are two main things to keep in mind in how paid search results are compiled for the user. One is that an auction is held each and every time a search (also known as a query) is performed. The other is that each keyword you bid on is given its own Quality Score. This means that the price you end up paying when your ad is clicked on is in constant flux. This fluidity is largely due to the factors making up the Quality Score: Click-through rate (CTR), keyword relevance (to both ad and query), and landing page quality.
Click-through rate (CTR)
Google is notoriously tight lipped about the exact formula for determining the Quality Score, but it is widely accepted that the CTR carries the most weight. Much like the overall QS, a higher CTR is viewed as representing higher relevance. In other words, the more times your ad has been clicked, the more appeal it is deemed to have. That ad therefore earns a higher ranking. The CTR is determined by the number of times your ad is clicked on divided by the number of times it is shown on the SERP. Although not entirely accurate, at least for the moment, be aware of how this one factor can influence your ranking and cost per click.
Considering that the name of the game is relevance, it makes sense that the search engines place great emphasis on the relationships between the keywords used in a query and those found in the ads and the landing pages. When creating your ad and landing page copy, keywords should be carefully considered and analyzed so that your ad is considered relevant enough to be shown when those keywords are typed in by the searcher. As mentioned previously, understanding the use of negative keywords (words and phrases that can be used as a filter to help prevent unwanted impressions and clicks) is just as important as focusing on the keywords you want to use to attract those clicks.
Landing Page Quality
Beyond keyword relevance, the search engines want to ensure that the quality of the users’ experience carries over to the landing pages they are directed to. If your website is slow to load, is confusing to the searcher (e.g., it takes the user to your home page instead of a specific product page), provides inaccurate or incomplete information, or intrudes on the overall experience by auto-installing software on the user’s computer—not only will your bounce rate go up, but your site may be penalized with lower rankings by the search engine.
Google recently updated its algorithm to account for a site’s responsiveness, particularly on mobile phones. If your site is not mobile-friendly, it will most likely be penalized despite other factors that might otherwise give you a higher QS. In addition to the relevance of information, Google is including ease of use as part of its definition of quality user experience.
What’s a Good Quality Score?
Keywords are ranked on a 1-10 scale with one being the bottom and 10 at the top. Keywords ranking below a five should be reexamined or dropped altogether, since they will adversely affect your overall QS. It is generally agreed that keywords ranking at 7-8 is what you should aim for. Depending on the campaign, you will have to determine if it’s worth your time and energy to work on increasing a score to 9 or 10.
Why is the Quality Score Important?
Think of the Quality Score much like a consumer credit score; the better your score, the more credit worthy you are considered by financial lenders. A higher score is rewarded with lower interest rates and better terms on loans. A lower score can cost you more in higher interest rates and could potentially preclude you from even getting a loan.
To the search engines, a good Quality Score represents your higher relevance to users and a higher potential for users to click on the ads. This often translates into lower costs per click for you as an advertiser. Conversely, a lower QS will cost you, both literally and figuratively, in the online auctions for ad rank and position. You will have to bid higher to overcome a low QS. Even then, your ad might be shut out completely if Google deems other ads more relevant.
For anyone serious about running a paid search campaign, the Quality Score can mean the difference in meeting your financial goals or badly missing the mark.