Quality Score Changes (Bid Taxes Going Up?)

I always wonder if Frank Luntz invented the name Quality Score for Google.

It just sounds like the man behind ‘climate change’ (which was otherwise known as ‘global warming’) would call something a ‘quality score’ when it actually functions as ‘advertising tax’.

The Quality Score is Google’s way of handicapping your keywords/text-ads, in the sense of both ranking and limiting their appropriateness and therefore likelihood to run.

The idea, as Google portrays it, is that keyword/ad/landing-page combinations which are more appropriate for a given search get a higher score, and those less appropriate get a lower one. A higher score helps ads run more frequently and be positioned higher, while a lower quality score drives them to be run less frequently and positioned lower.

This of course all aligns with the idea of putting user experience of searchers first, as better ads (more relevant and ‘voted’ so by clicks) get higher quality scores.

And oh ya, the lower your quality score the more you have to pay for the chance or priviledge of running your ads at all.

This is where the prime directive gets sold out – ads with lower quality scores (to a point) can run and even rank highly if the advertiser is willing to pay enough.

In some cases quality scores were so low that a ‘Minimum Bid’ was put into place, which is the moral equivalent of saying that we have no available seating for dinner this evening, unless you can find it in your heart to slip the maitre de a Benjamin.

Beyond a certain point, however, keywords have been shut down entirely (and marked ‘inactive’ until the words, ads, landing pages, or bids were modified and re-evaluated.)

Quality score is calculated using yet-another-secret-google-algorithm, but we know it reflects the symmetry of language between the query, keyword, ad, and landing page, click-through-rate performance, load time of the landing page, and other elements.

Quality Score Revised

The way Quality Score is calculated and applied is being changed, which as just announced in a blog post entitled ‘Quality Score improvements’. Luntz would be proud.

Here’s what they say about the changes:

A more accurate Quality Score

Most importantly, we are replacing our static per-keyword Quality Scores with a system that will evaluate an ad’s quality each time it matches a search query. This way, AdWords will use the most accurate, specific, and up-to-date performance information when determining whether an ad should be displayed. Your ads will be more likely to show when they’re relevant and less likely to show when they’re not. This means that Google users are apt to see better ads while you, as an advertiser, should receive leads which are more highly qualified.

Keywords no longer marked ‘inactive for search’

The new per-query evaluation of Quality Score affects you in that keywords will no longer appear as ‘inactive for search’ in your account. Instead, all keywords will have the chance to show ads on Google web search and the search network (unless you’ve paused or deleted them). Keep in mind, however, that keywords previously marked ‘inactive for search’ are not likely to accrue a great deal of traffic following this change. This is because their combined per-query Quality Score and bid probably isn’t high enough to gain competitive placement.

‘First page bid’ will replace ‘minimum bid’

As a result of migrating to per-query Quality Score, we are no longer showing minimum bids in your account. Instead, we’re replacing minimum bids with a new, more meaningful metric: first page bids. First page bids are an estimate of the bid it would take for your ad to reach the first page of search results on Google web search. They’re based on the exact match version of the keyword, the ad’s Quality Score, and current advertiser competition on that keyword. Based on your feedback, we learned that knowing your minimum bid wasn’t always helpful in getting the ad placement you wanted, so we hope that first page bids will give you better guidance on how to achieve your advertising goals.

It’s worth mentioning that the impact of these changes will vary from advertiser to advertiser; some might see no changes to their ad serving, while others may see a noticeable difference. As always, we recommend optimizing ads to prevent them from receiving a low Quality Score.

First Impressions
The core idea of calculating Quality Score on the unique characteristics of each search instead of coming up with a single score per keyword is clearly a step in the right direction.

The dynamic nature of the new Quality Score, however, may make it a lot more challenging to know and manage the implications of your Quality Scores. They don’t say if they’ll still report Quality Score in the Adwords interface, of more importantly if they’ll make any QS rating available via the Adwords API.

By scoring independently in each situation, many keywords may suffer what will in effect be a lower impression share – getting shown far less often than their potential – but it’s not clear that this loss will be reported or visible.

We may see volume drops for certain keywords and not have any clear indication that the reason is a low Quality Score in certain situations. And it’s not clear that there will be any feedback as to which situations – certain queries, certain network sites, certain times of day or whatever – are delivering low QS which therefore will make it quite difficult to take corrective action.

Similarly, while not having keywords marked ‘Inactive for Search’ sounds positive, it may be worse to have words running at extremely low impression counts if there is not a clear indication that this is happening or that it’s due to frequently low Quality Scores in the situations where the keyword is being scored and considered.

The ‘First Page Bid’ metric at least makes the process of bribing the matre de more transparent. There’s nothing worse than either slipping someone a $20 only to have them scoff at you because a $100 was necessary, except of course passing off a $100 when $20 would have done.

Having the price of admission clearly marked will enable advertisers to make their own decisions as to value.

One issue it would be great to have Google clarify is the way Quality Score is calculated, and therefore ‘First Page Bid’ too, over the life and history of a keyword. In the past the ‘Minimum Bid’ was frequently insanely and unjustly high for new keywords added to a campaign, and would decrease rapidly as a click-history was established.

This required paying up to $10 per click for terms without any competitive bids and which would later settle at bid prices as low as $0.10. Hopefully these types of ‘hazing’ fees for new keywords won’t be included in the new system – but of course only time will tell.

The Roll-Out
The new Quality Score changes are being rolled out slowly, so you may not see these in your account immediately. There will be another post at the Adwords blog before final system-wide launch.

Do you have Quality Score concerns? Post a comment!

Update: More info on new Quality Score reporting.

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