Quality Score is probably the AdWords topic that has been written most about, with blog post titles varying from All Hail Quality Score – King Of The AdWords KPIs! to Why I Don’t Optimize for Quality Score. These sort of contradictory statements may confuse the less experienced paid search marketer, and I hope to reduce some of that confusion here, without rehashing too much of what has already been said.
But before diving into why Quality Score matters (and when it doesn’t) and how to increase and track it, Iet’s first discuss why Google uses Quality Score.
Quality Score is Google’s way to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior from advertisers. And the rewards and punishments are significant: higher positions and/or lower CPC’s for high Quality Score keywords and the opposite for low Quality Score keywords.
So the first question we should ask ourselves is: what kind of advertisers does Google like?
- Advertisers that provide a good user experience. This means the searcher gets satisfying search results, i.e. relevant ads and relevant, high quality landing pages. Providing a good user experience will make searchers continue to use or switch to Google (if they were using a different search engine) and that’s how market share is preserved and increased.
If you consider a search query as a question, then providing a good user experience means answering that particular question in your ad and landing page.
Even without the existence of Quality Score, you would want to give searchers a good user experience, as this is also the best way to get positive results from paid search.
- Advertisers that make them money. World domination doesn’t come cheap, and most of Google’s revenue comes from advertising. When you pay per click, Google will prefer the advertiser that generates more clicks in the same position and reward that advertiser.
For example, if your CTR is twice as high as your competition’s CTR for the same position, Google can charge you half their click price and still generate the same revenue. Add to this that a high CTR is also an indicator of relevant ads that provide a good user experience, and we can safely say that Quality Score is mostly about CTR.
The visible Quality Score is not the actual Quality Score
Before going any deeper into Quality Score it is important to realize that the scores you see in your account are just an approximation and an average. Their role is to provide advertisers feedback about their performance.
The actual (or real-time) Quality Score is different in many ways (many thanks to Craig Danuloff for clearly laying this out in his book Quality Score in High Resolution):
- Visible Quality Score is only updated once per day, at most. The actual Quality Score is calculated real-time, for every search query.
- Visible Quality Score considers only search queries identical to the keyword. So you don’t get a Quality Score for the queries you don’t have as a keyword in your account (and that could easily be thousands of search queries). These queries will ‘borrow’ the Quality Score from the keywords they were matched on.
- Visible Quality Score is an average of different geographies, devices and text ads. The actual Quality Score that is calculated real-time can differ strongly per geography, device and corresponding ad.
- Visible Quality Score is an integer between 1 and 10. However, the number Google uses in Ad Rank and CPC calculations does not fall within this range (and we don’t know which range they do use).
So you shouldn’t consider the visible Quality Score as the absolute truth, neither can you take it at face value. However, it’s the number we have to work with when talking about Quality Score.
The benchmark for a good Quality Score still is 7
This is something that has been considered true for years, but in Revisiting the Economics of Google Quality Score: Why QS Is Up to 200% More Valuable in 2013 Larry Kim declares “A Quality Score of 5 is the new 7”.
Call me old fashioned, but I have to disagree. Besides, there’s a difference between an average number and a healthy number as the average will depend on the population you’re analyzing.
When looking at all the keywords for our clients in the past 7 days (to have a recent view), I see the following distribution (impressions by Quality Score):
The numbers above are based on 107 million impressions and $2.4 million of AdWords spend. The impression-weighted average Quality Score is 7.1.
Either way, I don’t consider a Quality Score of 5 as the new benchmark I’m willing to accept. Even in 2014, a score of 7 is very common and achievable for most keywords with a clear commercial intent.
To give all the numbers meaning, I gladly refer to Tenscores’ fantastic Quality Score infographic, which shows this categorization (amongst many other things):
How Quality Score is calculated
I’ll be very short about this one, as you can find a list of all the factors on the official Quality Score support page. In short it can be summarized as:
By hovering over the speech bubble icon next to a keyword, you’ll find the status of that keyword for each of these 3 factors:
As said before, CTR is by far the most important factor, but there’s no official weighting for each of these factors. In this classic introductory video about the ad auction, Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian shows a pie chart to give you an idea of the importance of each factor for Quality Score.
But actually, the factors are hard to put in a pie chart. Once your landing page experience is above average, you can’t further increase your Quality Score by improving your landing page. Of course, you can always improve your conversion rate, which is an excellent reason to work on your landing pages.
On the other hand, you can always increase CTR (even if it’s above average and even if you have a Quality Score of 10) to further increase your actual Quality Score.
So what is a good CTR?
This is one of the most often asked questions, especially by those new to paid search. And of course the answer is: it depends, mostly on position. Or: any CTR that will give you a good Quality Score.
I understand that isn’t satisfying, so to somewhat satisfy your need for benchmarks, a couple of interesting studies have been done on this to give you an idea of CTR’s by position:
Decoding the Quality Score by Steve Baker.
Some very interesting charts and analyses based on Steve’s findings for non-branded, exact match, Google Search only keywords. So it’s important to also exclude branded, non-exact and Search Partner data when comparing these numbers to your own:
Going Unicorn Hunting: The Secrets Behind Ads with 3x the Average CTR
Yes, it’s Larry ‘Quality Score’ Kim again, but this time I fully agree and I’m impressed by the great insights he shares in this thorough article, where you’ll find graphs like these and many more unique nuggets about CTR, Quality Score and great ads.
How Quality Score affects you
Again, you’ll find a complete list at the bottom of the official support page, but Google doesn’t show the Actual CPC and Ad Rank formula anymore.
So next to eligibility and bid estimates (first page and top of page), Quality Score affects two things advertisers care deeply about: the Ad position and the actual CPC.
Quality Score & Ad Position
Ads are ordered by Ad Rank, and since October 2013 this also includes your ad extensions so the formula isn’t as straightforward anymore:
Ad Rank = (Max Bid x Quality Score) + the expected impact from your ad extensions and formats
This is no official formula, just my way of putting the old and the new together. What remains true however, is that Quality Score still plays a large role in the position of your ad.
Quality Score & CPC
Let’s start with the well-known Actual CPC formula Google used to show on their support pages:
Actual CPC = (Ad Rank to beat / your Quality Score) + $0.01
The Ad Rank to beat is the Ad Rank of the ad beneath yours. This formula makes it very clear that Quality Score plays a large role in the price you’ll have to pay for your clicks.
If the scores from 1 to 10 were the actual scores Google used in this formula (and they aren’t), the impact of changes in Quality Score (compared to a 7) would be as following, as calculated by Craig Danuloff in 2009:
Again, don’t take these numbers at face value, they’re just illustrative of the potential impact of Quality Scores changes on your CPC.
Other numbers concerning the impact of Quality Score on CPC can be found at Fact number 5 of the 5 Surprising Facts On Quality Score Change by Kohki Yamaguchi. He found that a unit change in Quality Score affects CPC by 5%. That may sound disappointing, but the effect is cumulative so it adds up if you increase your Quality Score with multiple points. The effect also appears to be stronger in the lower ranges of QS as you can read in Frederick Vallaeys’ comments.
The takeaway here is that improving your Quality Scores, especially the lower ones, will greatly reduce your CPC and who doesn’t want that?
When not to worry about Quality Score
By now you may think Quality Score is the most important number in your account, so it’s time to put it into perspective as in some cases a low Quality Score isn’t your biggest problem.
These scenarios can be found in Learn When To Ignore Low Quality Scores by Brad Geddes. In short they are:
- Google isn’t calculating it correctly
- You don’t have enough data (new keywords)
- It’s your industry
- It’s a brand name (not yours)
In these cases, especially if the keywords are profitable, your time is probably better spent at improving other areas of your account.
Where and how to improve Quality Score
Improving Quality Score is mostly about account structure and creating great ads, and as both will be future parts of this series, I’ll dive much deeper into these topics later on.
As you probably have many ad groups and keywords and little time, the first question is: where in your account should you start improving your Quality Score?
Google shows it at the keyword level, but it’s actually much more useful at the ad group level (cost or impression weighted). This is because improving Quality Score is about improving the relationship between search queries and ads (and landing pages), and this happens within an ad group.
To find these ad groups, you can follow the steps in this video, where Brad Geddes shows how to use Pivot Tables to find out your account wide Quality Score distribution and how to prioritize the ad groups based on their normalized Quality Score and weighting ad groups by cost (you could also weigh by impressions).
As you should do this regularly, you could save yourself quite some time by using the Quality Score Analyzer, that will generate a prioritized list of ad groups weighted by cost and normalized Quality Score.
Once you’ve found an ad group with high costs or impressions and a low normalized Quality Score, you can follow these steps to increase its Quality Score. Again, many credits go to Craig Danuloff and his book Quality Score in High Resolution:
- Rule out landing page issues. Just to be sure, check if you have a below average landing page experience by hovering over the speech bubble icon next to the keywords. If that’s the case, this is the first thing you should fix, by following Google’s guidelines for improving landing page experience.
- Decide if the keyword is worth fixing. Before going any further, look at the keyword(s) with the most impressions in that ad group and ask yourself: does this keyword attract searchers with a clear intent? Is it relevant to my business or my offer? If you can honestly answer ‘yes’ to these questions, go on to the next steps.
But especially if the CTR is very low (let’s say below 1%), chances are, it’s a keyword that ‘reaches’ a lot of people, but hardly generates any clicks or conversions. If you have a direct-response mindset you will have no problems pausing or deleting such a keyword.
However, if you (or your client or boss) have a traditional marketing mindset, you may have added keywords that are informational, ambiguous or have no clear (commercial) intent for branding purposes (look at all those impressions!).
But do you remember the text ads you didn’t click on yesterday? You probably don’t, but Google does and it won’t play along with your branding fantasy. In a pay per click and relevance world, keywords with lots of impressions and very few clicks don’t serve Google and apparently they also don’t serve the searchers as they hardly click on it. This is an undesirable situation for both Google and the searcher and they will make it an undesirable one for you too by lowering your Quality Score and make the few clicks you do get very expensive.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to generate awareness, but paying per click simply isn’t the most effective and certainly not the cheapest way of doing so. Instead, create some great looking banners and run a CPM based campaign on the Display Network, you’ll get much more bang for your buck over there.
- Review and react to the search queries. As mentioned before, the visible Quality Score is only calculated for exact matches. So if you have (modified) broad or phrase keywords in that ad group, you’ll want to review the search terms report and add relevant queries as keywords (and irrelevant ones as negatives), so these queries can earn their own Quality Score. This could mean these new keywords need their own, separate ad groups, which brings us to the next step.
- Create smaller ad groups. As said in the introduction, you can consider your ads as the answers to the queries (questions) from the ad group. So take a good look at the ads and (high volume) queries from an ad group: are the ads the best possible answers to the questions asked? Or are there simply too many different questions in 1 ad group to be able to share the same answer? If that is the case, you’ll need to split up the ad group in smaller ad groups and write new, better tailored ads for these new ad groups.
- Write better ad copy. At one point this will be the only way you can further increase your Quality Score. There’s always a better ad to write, and you should relentlessly test and write ads for ever increasing CTR’s. As your display URL’s past CTR is also one of the Quality Score factors (albeit a small one), you could also try out a new display URL or use one that has performed well in the past.
- Try a higher average position. Yes, CTR should be normalized for position, but if you don’t have many impressions or haven’t been in high positions for a while, temporarily bidding higher to appear in higher positions can accelerate the evaluation of your performance. There’s more data in the top positions, so it’s easier for the algorithm to compare performance in those positions. If you believe in your keyword and ad copy and nothing else helps, you could try this out. Of course, in the end, you should set your bids based on the value per click and your targets.
- Exclude poorly performing geographies. Take a look at the performance of different geographies in the Dimensions tab. If you see locations that have a significantly and substantially lower CTR and also perform worse in terms of CPA or ROAS, you could considering excluding those locations to boost your numbers.
- Add mobile preferred ads. Most advertisers still don’t have mobile preferred ads in their ad groups. That’s fine if your mobile bid adjustment is -100%, but in all other cases you’re advertising on mobile devices. If you see a substantial amount of impressions coming from mobile devices, you should definitely add mobile preferred ads and sitelinks to your ad groups. And of course, these ads and sitelinks should be mobile friendly. So shorter sitelinks, ‘call us now’, a display URL that indicates a mobile friendly website, etc. This should increase your CTR on mobile devices, which should increase your average Quality Score.
If you like flow charts (I know I do), Tenscores created a great flow chart you can follow to increase Quality Scores. Worth printing out and keeping on your desk.
Tools to track Quality Score
Unfortunately, in AdWords, Quality Score is an attribute, not a metric. So you can’t see any trends or graphs for Quality Score, the score you see is today’s score.
The good news is there are different tools that can do this for you and they generally make life easier when it comes to tracking and identifying Quality Score issues. It’s also a great way to monitor if your hard work pays off.
Free AdWords Scripts
AdWords Quality Score Tracker Version 2.0 by Martin Roettgerding
How Account Quality Score Can Guide AdWords Optimization by Frederick Vallaeys
Store Account, Campaign, AdGroup, and Keyword Level Quality Score by Russel Savage, many more AdWords scripts can be found on this site
To make life even easier, these very affordable tools will help you track Quality Score in a more user-friendly way than using scripts. Each has its pros and cons and their websites will give you a good impression of their features:
Quality Score: Your Audit Checklist
Is your account impression-weighted Quality Score 7 or higher?
If it’s lower: have you identified and prioritized the ad groups that need fixing?
If it’s lower: have you followed the steps above or the Tenscores flow chart to increase Quality Scores in those ad groups?
Bonus: do you use a script or third-party tool to track Quality Score?
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