Decoding AdWords Quality Score

Quality Score is Google’s way of measuring the relevance of a keyword you’re bidding on in AdWords to your ad’s copy and your landing page copy. As Craig Danuloff wisely said at SMX Advanced in Seattle last June, “Quality Score is a secret sauce that Google uses so we don’t know what the hell is going on.” Truer words were never spoken. But this doesn’t help to decode the quality score, does it?

Actually, Mr. Danuloff seems to be the pre-eminent quality score scholar. I highly recommend you read his posts about Quality Score on the ClickEquations blog.

But I digress…

Quality score is a pain in the ass, but it’s a necessary evil and a critical factor for anyone who wants to spend as little as possible in AdWords while continuing to bask in the glory of relevant keyword-driven traffic.

But what is quality score, really?

From a mathmatical perspective, quality score is an algorithm that uses multiple criteria to determine your ad’s “ad rank” and minimum bid. Quality score influences a keyword’s eligibility to participate in the AdWords auction, the actual CPC and, as mentioned above, your ad’s rank. There’s even a formula for determining ad rank “Ad Rank = CPC bid × Quality Score”

Look, I was an English major, so I’ll boil this down for you in simplistic terms which I myself can sort of understand. Your ad’s rank (or, position in the paid search results) is determined by your maximum bid x your quality score. Note that his is true for keyword-targeted ads only.

Now I know you’re wondering how that formula is at all helpful when it doesn’t tell you how quality score is determined. All my sources (ahem *google*) tell me that CTR is the biggest ingredient to determining quality score. However, one can only get a CTR when one has accrued impressions and clicks (you are now thinking to yourself).

Wrongo! Google gets around the annoying requirement of actual campaign performance by setting a CTR for all new keywords posted to your account based on historical performance of that given keyword on GOOGLE (and search partners). Google also looks at the historical performance of your account (e.g., “account history”), plus the performance of the CTR of your display URL.

“But my site is newly launched,” you say!

“But I don’t have any historical account data since I just launched my AdWords account today!” you protest.

Google isn’t very forthcoming about how it addresses these issues (see Danuloff’s quote, above). So I won’t dwell on them except to say, you’re absolutely right! Good point! Send Google an email and ask them how the hell they can assign a quality score to an account and a domain that has no prior history. Ask them how long it takes for the aforementioned account to begin to develop a quality score based on its own unique performance (as opposed to performance on Google). Also, please ask them why some domains seem to inherently get poor quality scores even though they have accrued very little impressions in their AdWords accounts AND/OR they have what looks to be an amazing CTR? Please do let me know what they say.

Anyway, here are some other items that influence your quality score:

    • The relevance of the keyword to the ads in its ad group
    • The relevance of the keyword and the matched ad to the search query
    • Your account’s performance in the geographical region where the ad will be shown
    • Other relevance factors

(I swear I didn’t make this up)

So there you have it – a detailed deep dive into how Google assigns quality score (to keyword targeted ads).

“But what if I’ve appeared to do everything right and my quality score is low and my minimum bids high?”

Well, friend, you’re out of luck. My advice is to try the following, in this order:

  1. Ask your rep for help. Don’t have a rep? Move onto item 2…
  2. Call Google’s toll free number and ask for help. It’s 866.2.Google (but don’t hold your breath that this will produce any actionable recommendations, so moving on…)
  3. Read Google’s “Tips for Success” page and when you’re done, read it again. Then try to apply it to your campaign in a way that makes sense.
  4. If nothing else works, create a new account for your domain and start with a small selection of highly relevant keywords, ad copy and landing pages. Bid high for a few weeks and gradually reduce your CPC after you’ve established decent CTR.

Here are a few things I beg you to avoid. I’ve seen them kill accounts right out of the gate:

  • Bidding too low – your minimum bid may be .05, but please don’t start out bidding that low. This could cause your ad position to sink to obscurity and will sabatage your account’s overall quality score (low ranking ads get sub-par CTRs.
  • Don’t bid on extremely broad “broad” match terms. Trying to target race car enthusiasts? Avoid bidding on the term “Toyota” even if they make a decent race car. Seriously, stay away! I’ve seen terms like “marketing,” “blue,” “free,” and “shoes” in campaigns that are live, have a piss poor CTR and are dragging down the quality score of the entire campaign. Stay. Away.
  • Get rid of terms that have a quality score of 5 or below. Some people (I’m looking at you, Mr. Danuloff) would say it should be 6 or below, it’s not always possible to achieve that high of a quality score and if your minimum bid is low (at .30 or less) then I think you’re okay. So don’t get too attached to your terms – they’re expendable.