Analyzing the Google AdWords Landing Page Algorithm

Google’s pricing for AdWords includes a component that looks at the content of landing pages, and a recent change that has caused price increases is proving controversial in the search marketing community.

The landing page algorithm by Google AdWords has caused quite a bit of controversy amongst advertisers since it first arrived in advertiser’s AdWords accounts in December 2005. Since it launched, Google updated the landing page algorithm again in May 2006, often referred to as the April bid hike. However the latest July 10th update by Google has created quite a stir in the forums and the blogosphere for many reasons, particularly how it could impact advertisers making money through click arbitrage.

Before the landing page algorithm was launched, Google used to use click through rate (CTR) as a way to determine not only how quality the ad was, but also how good the overall experience for the visitor was. Unfortunately, advertisers who provided a poor user experiences on the landing page could also write a high quality ad—or a misleading one—to promote it, resulting in an ad with a high CTR but poor user experience.

So what exactly makes for a poor user experience on a landing page? Google seems to be targeting a range of things including such things as excessive advertising or landing pages with little or nothing else but advertising. But when I talked to Nick Fox, Senior Business Product Manager from Google on the new landing page controversy, it isn’t just the click arbitragers who are being targeted. He also specifically referred to market areas as well, including scams, work from home ads, and things that are “free but not really free.” So not only are they targeting the overall user experience on the landing page, but specifically the actual content on the landing page as well as how it relates to the ad itself.

They also seem to be targeting advertisers who are advertising something similar or identical to other advertisers. This could get into a dangerous game of Google being the one to determine which competitor is the best and which will be required to pay more in order for their ads to continue running. In a discussion on DigitalPoint, a member posts that he asked for a landing page review, and the response from Google seems to imply that not only are they judging based upon his landing page, but also based upon what makes his service different from other site’s serivces, effectively picking and choosing the ones who get increased bids, and those who do not.

The AdWords team responded in part with “Thank you for calling in today. You wanted to know the status of your site quality review. I wanted to let you know that our specialist team concluded their review, and maintained the current status of your site. They explained that there are currently a number of people providing free, unfettered instant access to MLS listings. Our goal is to provide a user with the best possible results, and it is not clear from your site what makes your solution one of the best options for the end user”. However, the advertiser notes that Google obviously did not read his accompanying advertisement very well, since that was not what he was advertising. His advertisement was:
Anytown MLS Listings
Our Realtors Send Daily Customized
MLS Listings For Anytown, USA Before Google launched the latest incarnation of the landing page algorithm, Google had human evaluations of ads and their landing pages, to determine what people thought was a good user experience, and what made for a poor one. I asked Michael Mayzel from Google on how this tied in with the end result of the current landing page algorithm. “We first start with human evaluators and end user feedback to determine a sample of landing pages that provide a low quality user experience. We then build computer algorithims to accurately detect similar types of pages, verify the accuracy, and then deploy those algorithms to evaluate all advertiser pages,” Mayzel said.

From a business perspective, it obviously makes sense to determine the quality of a landing page by an algorithm than by a human review, especially when dealing with the number of advertisements that Google has in their ad inventory. But an algorithm is never as good as a personal human review, so there is definitely a question of just how many advertisers really are being unfairly penalized by this new change. And unfortunately for affected advertisers, being penalized means they now have their ads disabled or are forced to pay $10 a click in order to keep their ads running. And all this when their landing page could have perfectly acceptable to a human reviewer.

Prior to the new landing page algorithm change, the Inside AdWords blog did state that the number of affected publishers would be small. And Fox reiterated what that blog said and that only a small number of advertisers were being affected by this change. He also said there has been a very low number of “false positives”, meaning that very few advertisers tripped this new landing page algorithm that really shouldn’t have. When it comes to landing page quality, Fox said it is “pretty black and white.”

Fox also stated that while the number of impacted advertisers were low, they also were a group of advertisers that tended to get a lot of impressions and spend a lot of money. It is an interesting business decision to target those advertisers who spend a lot of money, because there had been speculation that perhaps the landing page algorithm would only affect those advertisers who spend under a certain dollar figure per month. But this seems to not be the case, as I asked Fox if spending a certain dollar figure a month would result in an advertiser not being targeted with this new landing page algorithm, and the answer was no. All advertisers and their ads are being affected by this change the same, regardless of whether that advertisers is large or not.

There also is a review system in place for advertisers who feel they have been unfairly impacted with the new algorithm, but success seems to have been limited, at least when viewing advertiser feedback in various forums. Many have asked for reviews, only to be told that they need to improve. Of course, AdWords is not being very specific at what the landing page algorithm is looking for to determine quality.

When I asked for specifics on what could improve landing page quality or what exactly on the landing page was being evaluated, Fox was reluctant to answer. But landing pages are re-evaluated regularly (although Fox would not state just how regularly that is) so there is hope for those who want to make changes in an attempt to drop down their minimum bid prices.

Plenty of speculation abounds at what could be parts of the landing page equation that equals a quality landing page. A thread at WebmasterWorld had some interesting suggestions that an advertiser was given by an AdWords rep after the previous landing page algorithm update in May. The suggestions included an increased amount of content, a separate privacy policy page, a contact page, as well as quality links to external sites.

But even those advertisers who believe they are delivering a highly targeted, successful and quality landing page are finding that they are also being hit with the increased bids. At DigitalPoint is another example of an ad and landing page hit by the increased bid:
Flying Widget Pro 8.0 $109.95
Major Magazine Says Flying Widget 8.0 Is The Best Widget Available
When you land on the page, it’s a page that sells one product, Flying Widget Pro 8.0. That page has tons and tons of text information about the product, a photo, customer reviews, and an order button. It was very successful and had little competition. Now they want $10/click.

And $10 seems to be the figure common with most of the bid increases seen by advertisers. And while $10 a click is simply not profitable when looking at ROI for many advertisers, what do willing advertisers get for that $10 a click, besides their ads being active once again? It is interesting to note that while Google has deemed these ads as low quality from a user experience perspective, the high bid price required to activate them could result in with a situation where these ads would then appear above the other ads, ads that Google has deemed as higher quality by not increasing minimum bids on.

How exactly does this happen? When advertisers are forced to spend $10 a click from under $1, there could be a situation where those advertisers would then be positioned at the top of the paid results, because their significantly higher bids are pushing their placements above other ads. Fox said that because ads are still ranked the same, those advertisers who are now paying significantly more for clicks could see their ad placement increase along with their bid price. But this would also be dependant on the number of higher quality ads for the particular keyword or keyword phrase, since positioning is not only based upon bid price but also ad quality, as well as just how much higher those advertisers are paying in relation to the other advertisers in those paid search results. So yes, advertisers could end up seeing their ads placed higher in the list of paid ads compared to where they displayed prior to the minimum bid increase.

If an advertiser has been hit with the increased bid prices—and some advertisers are faced with bids jumping to as much as $10 a click—what can he or she do to try and combat it? One thing is simply improve quality and then ask for a review or wait for the page to be reevaluated by the AdWords bot. Fox confirmed that if and when the quality of the landing page improves that the minimum bid price can drop down to reflect that. He also suggested that improvements to the ad copy itself can also help, as both influence the minimum bid price that advertisers must pay. For minor changes, the AdWords bot will update the minimum bid on an unknown schedule, although advertisers can contact support if they make major changes to the landing page quality and they would like to be reevaluated sooner.

For those hoping to use new campaigns or new accounts as a workaround when hit with these extremely high bid prices, unfortunately this won’t work. The landing page algorithm takes effect immediately, although it may take a while for the CTR component to impact the bid price as well. But it does open the door for advertisers to create new ads and a series of landing pages to try and find ones that aren’t heavily impacted by this new landing page algorithm.

Why did Google make this change in the first place? Fox stated they decided to move in this direction because of the negative feedback Google received over their previous stand on the issue where they would simply disable ads from appearing and require changes be made in order to activate them. This change would now allow advertisers to make changes to get those ads appearing again, or chose to pay the higher bid price instead.

So, knowing what we know about the landing page algorithm, and then looking at the Google AdWords Landing Page and Site Quality Guidelines, here are some improvements advertisers could make to their landing page to improve quality or what advertisers should consider when creating new landing pages in the future.

Link to the correct page
If you are advertising vacations to Hawaii, make sure your landing page is specific to vacations in Hawaii. Do not link to a generic travel site homepage. Give the user what they are expecting, information on planning their trip to Hawaii.

Ensure your ad copy matches the page copy
The closer your landing page is to the ad copy in your AdWords advertisement, the better. If your ad copy specifies finding the best hotels in Hawaii, make sure your landing page is about Hawaiian hotels, not just Hawaii travel in general.

Make sure ads are labeled as such
If you have sponsored links or other paid advertising on the page, whether text links such as AdSense or banner ads, make sure they are clearly labeled as advertising and that they could not be confused as being content links to other parts of your site. And when you use advertising, don’t be overly excessive with it.

Ensure you have a privacy policy in place
If you don’t have a privacy policy that is linked from your landing page, create one detailing how you handle any personally identifiable information you gather from your site. You should include why you need this information, who has access to it, and what will be done with the collected information.

Contact information
Ensure you have a page with contact information, including how visitors can reach customer support. You should also include some general information about your business. This is especially crucial if you are selling a service or product. Ensure you link to this page from your landing page.

Landing pages that require registration for more information
If you are requiring visitors to sign up or submit details to get the full detailed information they are expecting, allow a preview so they know what they will get once they register or subscribe.

When offering something for free
If your ad copy implies that visitors will receive something for free, make sure you deliver and do not make visitors complete multiple steps in order to receive what they expected to receive immediately for free. Google stated they are targeting free offers that aren’t really free.

Ensure your content is unique
Keep your page with as much original and unique content as possible. If you have an affiliate product page, rewrite the product description so that it is unique to your site, and not identical to the thousands of other affiliate pages promoting the same product. And as a bonus, eliminating duplicate content on your page can help in your natural search rankings as well

When your landing page consists of primarily external links
If your have primarily search results, directory results or text ads as your landing page content, add some original content about the page topic. Offer the visitor useful information besides the outgoing links, whether those outgoing links are making you money per click (such as Yahoo ContentMatch search results or paid directory listings) or not.

Do not take over your visitor’s web experience
Do not resize browsers, remove back buttons or auto install software without permission. Do not bombard your user with pop-ups or pop-unders as they navigate your site. Clearly mark navigation on your websites, don’t make visitors hunt around to find your home page or other pages within the site.

While no one entirely knows the secret sauce other than the Google engineers in charge of the landing page algorithm, these suggestions make a good starting point to reverse the negative impact of increased minimum bids. However, it is important to note that the ad copy itself seems to have an impact on the landing page score, since they do advise advertisers to ensure their ad copy matches the on-page content of the landing page.

When you make your changes, Google’s “AdsBot-Google” bot will automatically detect the changes and your minimum bid prices will be altered accordingly. However, because Google declined to say just how frequently this updating takes place, there is no current timeframe available on when this will update. And again, they did say that if an advertiser makes major changes to the landing page—or if they feel their landing page has been penalized with increased bids unjustly—that advertisers can contact AdWords support to have their ads and landing pages reevaluated.

Overall, reaction to the new landing page algorithm is mixed. While Google does say that only a small number of advertisers are being affected by the new algorithm, there is still plenty of buzz in various webmaster forums about the change, who has been affected, and examples of what got hit with hefty minimum bid price increases. And one does have to wonder what the next landing page algorithm update will bring, or if something else will be thrown into the mix when it comes to determining the overall ad quality and bid price required from advertisers to keep ads and campaigns active in AdWords.

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