Rethinking Quality Score: It’s All Relative

Watch for keywords with high position and lower coverage

Most search marketers understand the importance of quality score. After all, it’s the single most important predictor of success in a paid search campaign since it affects how frequently your ads are shown (ad coverage), where they appear on the page (average position), and how much you’ll pay per visitor (cost per click).

However, what many search marketers fail to grasp is that quality score, per se, has limited use as an actionable metric. Yes, higher quality scores are better. But if you’re already the dominant advertiser for a particular keyword, increasing your score from 7 to 10 will have little benefit and in fact, may distract you from other areas of your campaign that are in greater need of your attention.

And that assumes that the quality score as reported in your search campaign reports is even reliable. While doing some research, I came across an interesting example in which my company was assigned a quality score of 4 out of 10 on our brand name. (If my company can’t get a 10 for our odd brand name, then clearly the metric is flawed).

From a day-to-day management perspective, it’s more useful to focus on relative quality score (i.e., your score compared to the advertisers you’re directly competing against at each position in the search results).

Search engines incorporate quality score into the paid search algorithm not on an absolute basis, but rather relative to other advertisers appearing near you on the results pages. When deciding between two ads to show, the search engines will always give preference to the one with the higher quality score.

So you may believe you have a “good” quality score of 7, for example, but if you are competing for placement against advertisers with a quality score of 10, you’re at a disadvantage. And in that case where we were assigned a score of 4 on our own brand name, it was perfectly fine because no other advertiser could score any higher.

Heresy? Perhaps.

But is it more important that you blindly follow the well-worn advice to “maximize quality score” knowing full well that in most cases it only benefits the search engines? Or is it more important that you devote your limited time to the areas of your campaign where you can have the greatest impact?

Don’t Blindly Make Changes to Your Campaign

In practical terms this means that you should be actively considering relative quality score in each decision you make when navigating the bidding landscape. In short, don’t blindly make changes to your bids, ad copy or landing pages without considering relative quality score.

While all of these actions have the potential to improve your campaign, depending on your relative quality score, only one of them is optimal at any given time while the other two could actually be ineffective, wasteful, or even counterproductive.

For instance, if you’re considering increasing your bid to raise your position to the top of the SERP, you need to first understand whether your quality score is competitive with the advertisers already in the top positions.

If your quality score is lower, the search engine will show your ads less frequently than theirs. You will receive fewer impressions and clicks, and your average CPC will likely be higher. In many cases, you could even receive fewer impressions than you would if you didn’t raise your bid!

How Can You Assess Relative Quality Score?

The obvious problem is that you can’t measure relative quality score directly, as the search engines won’t report your competitors’ quality scores.

However, you can circumvent this issue by looking at a different metric – ad coverage – which measures the percentage of the time your ads are shown by the search engines when users search on your keyword terms.

There is a direct relationship between relative quality score and ad coverage. Generally speaking, if your ads appear less than 90 percent of the time, this indicates a low quality score relative to nearby competitors.

A Key Action Item

A low relative quality score puts you at a disadvantage because your ad will be shown less frequently than other advertisers’ ads near yours, you’ll receive fewer clicks, and you will pay a higher price for each one. It’s therefore important to monitor your campaigns for relative quality score problems on an ongoing basis by identifying keywords with low ad coverage.

This problem becomes particularly serious when your ads appear near the top of the page. Not only are CPC prices more expensive there, but quality scores also “float upward” (that is, low quality advertisers tend to appear closer to the bottom of the page while high quality advertisers tend to appear near the top).

The difference between several high quality advertisers tends to be quite small. It’s common for advertisers to experience a sudden decline in traffic due to seemingly minor improvements on the part of competitors.

Because of this quirky dynamic of the quality-driven auction, it pays to regularly watch out for keywords in your campaign that appear in the top positions but have low ad coverage (less than 90 percent). When you find one, you’ll want to lower your bid.

By lowering your bids, your ad will move to a lower position on the page and will now be judged relative to a set of advertisers who will likely have lower average quality scores. The result is that your relative quality scores will improve, resulting in a large gain in traffic and a reduction in average CPC.

That’s right, more heresy: in certain situations, lowering your bids can actually earn you more traffic.

Once your ads begin appearing 90 percent or more of the time, follow up with ad copy optimization to improve your click-through rate and quality score, which will give your ad a better advantage when you do decide to raise your bid again and move into the higher positions.

As for landing page optimization, hold off until you’re in a high position with high ad coverage. While optimizing landing pages can increase your total revenue per click and enable more aggressive bids, it’s typically one of the most time-consuming aspects of online marketing and can draw needed attention away from getting your ads to the top of SERP where they’ll be seen and clicked.

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