But I think Ad-Rank deserves a little attention first.
Ad-Rank doesn’t get very much attention – certainly a lot less than bidding, and even a lot less than Quality Score. But Ad-Rank determines your position, and to some degree whether your ads display at all.
According to Google, “Ads are positioned on search and content pages based on their Ad Rank. The ad with the highest Ad Rank appears in the first position, and so on down the page.”
Ad-Rank = CPC bid (Max CPC) × Quality Score
So we bid to gain Ad-Rank.
And we care about Quality Score because (among other things) it helps us achieve Ad-Rank.
Ad-Rank and Quality Score
Quality Score is important because it is weighted equally with your bid in determining where/if your ads run. The two factors are intertwined and the result is interdependent.
As the chart at right shows, you can get the same Ad-Rank with a lot lower bid by improving your quality score.
And as Quality Score gets more important, bidding gets less important. Not unimportant, but less important. It’s a zero-sum game.
Ad-Rank and Bidding
Yet while Quality Score is getting more visibility and mind-share than ever before, I’m not sure its ascent is being considered when thinking and acting on bidding.
Creating bidding strategies and running bidding rules or using bidding algorithms that don’t take QS into account at all, seems strange and seriously sub-optimal.
Traditionally bids are decided in an effort to impact position, and often the assumption is made that when an increased bid resulted in a higher ROAS or ROI, it was the change to the bid that was the direct cause – but I don’t know of a rule or algorithm in any PPC software today that either a) checks the actual position impact or b) checks to see if a Quality Score change was a mitigating factor.
It should of course now be noted that both bid and quality score increases have other impacts beyond their influence on Ad-Rank; Google has said that minimum bid and quality score thresholds are set for achieving Top (as opposed to Right Column) positioning, for example. So there are cases where it’s wise to increase your bid regardless of Quality Score issues.
Ad-Rank and You
The core tenant of High Resolution PPC is that we’ve all been lulled into an over-simplified view of how paid search works, both to accelerate our adoption, simplify our understanding, and keep us from complaining about really unfair or opaque aspects of the system that is taking our money.
Ad-Rank is an open secret. It’s well documented, easy to understand, extremely important, and almost never discussed. Time to change that.
Most of the comments and analysis on the Google Quality Score updates, including my own, had mentioned the fact that the changes as described seemed to deal a death-blow to the old ‘good-ok-great’ Quality Score ranking system, but didn’t mention any replacement.
Brad Geddes apparently has the scoop that there will be ‘more transparency’ in the new system:
More visibility coming to Quality Score. The ‘OK, Great, and Poor’ will be replaced with a much more transparent system. At present, the easiest way to see many changes is to run a keyword report and sort by minimum bid high to low. With the new system, you will eventually be able to run a report and sort by Quality Score so that you can get a much better view of your keywords quality score.
Excellent. Hope they’re available in the API!
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.
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 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.
This is true, in part, because some important information is either unavailable or plays hard-to-get. Examples mentioned included search queries, information about missing clicks, and results in terms of true profitability.
This post drills down on search queries; the others will be covered in future posts.
Let’s start with an assertion: It is not possible or reasonable to competently manage paid search campaigns without full access to search query details.
This isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s required.
Managing without query details is like managing a baseball team without being allowed to know what happened at the plate. Suppose you’re told who gets on base and who doesn’t, but nothing else.
How do you rate or make changes to your batting lineup without knowing who strikes out, who hits deep long fly balls miraculously caught on the warning track, or who gets hit by pitches?
The analogy may not be perfect, but the point is that choosing to add, delete, change bids, add negatives, not add negatives, or modify match type without knowing queries is a bit of blind-folded juggling.
And yet, most people do manage paid search without full and detailed query reports – they have to because the data is not available to them. With very limited exceptions, you can’t get it from the engines, in web analytics software, or even in specialized paid search management tools.
Why Search Queries Matter (the short version)
Queries are vital because they can contain insight into the desire or intent of the user. If you sell tennis racquets, for example, and buy the keyword ‘tennis racquet’ (using the standard Broad Match) then your ad might be shown to someone who wants ‘tennis racquet restringing’, or ‘New Prince V14 Tennis Racquet’ or ‘used cheap tennis racquet’ or even someone looking for ‘tennis racquet art’.
Are each of those people relevant to you? Are the ones that are relevant equally relevant? Can you write a single text ad that speaks directly to each of those people and persuades them to click and take action?
If you know the search queries that people clicked on when triggered by the keywords you’re buying, you can answer these questions and take action to improve the targeting and results of your account.
Without knowing, you’re left without the ability to fine tune your campaign, so you waste money and miss revenue opportunities.
Where The Queries Are(n’t)
When talking about this, I’ve found that people usually have either never thought much about the difference between queries and keywords, or have the impression that they do have access to that information but don’t use it aggressively so they haven’t realized the limitations in the little bit of query data they can access.
Let’s review what search query data is available in some of the most widely used SEM analytics and reporting tools:
- In Google Adwords the Search Queries report lists queries at the ad-group level, but it does not tell you which keywords triggered which queries. And they notoriously hide a massive percentage of them in rows marked ‘Other Keywords’.
- In Google Analytics does not display search queries at all, at least by default. It can be hacked to display queries, but from what I can see in the ones I’ve used you cannot see/link the queries to specific keywords (or even bucket them into adgroups).
- In Omniture SiteCatalyst & SearchCenter offer great query support if you purchase the optional ‘db universal’ VISTA rule (typically $5K). With this enabled you gain fairly complete search query reporting and it’s a metric you can use with the full power of SiteCatalyst reporting, meaning you can use the ‘break down by’ feature to subsort by query relating it to keyword, product sold, or just about anything. You can also access it via their Excel tool in powerful ways.
- In most stand-alone paid search management tools (like Clickable, Acquisio, SearchRev, SearchIgnite, Efficient Frontier, and others), search queries do not exist. They’re completely unavailable. These tools rely on the search engine API’s for data – they don’t have their own page/URL tags – so they just can’t get query data. Which means their customers don’t get it either.
There are many other analytics and paid search tools of course, and I don’t personally know the details of many of them. (I believe Marin Software does have their own tags and can gather query data, but I don’t recall the level of reporting, for example.)
If you know the details of available or unavailable query information and reporting, please leave details in the comments.
Missing Data 1, Good Search Reporting 0
Based on this review of the popular platforms people use for paid search reporting, it seems safe to say that the vast majority – probably at least 90% and maybe as many as 98% of search managers do not have the ability to look at which queries drove clicks (and spent their money) on a keyword by keyword basis.
Imagine if your sales records only told you what categories of items you sold, not which specific items or SKU’s were sold. How would you decide on inventory re-orders or future promotional plans. You couldn’t with any level of accuracy so you’d have to just guess and play the averages.
This is what the search engines want you to do. Your inefficiency is their profit margin.
It’s hard to understand why the web analytics and focused paid search software companies place such a low priority on this vital information. I have some theories, which I’ll share in future posts.
A Fair Shot
If it’s the search query/keyword combination that triggers ads, causes your money to be spent, and dramatically clarifies the ‘why’ of who clicked and converted, why should paid search advertisers have to manage their accounts without this information?
I suggest you ask your search engine account managers, or analytics / PPC tool providers that question.