Those Mysterious Quality Scores: Fundamentally Simple

This week, I'm going to interrupt our discussion of ad testing to demystify a concept that, judging by the number of questions I've received lately, seems to be a topic of high interest (and some high anxiety): PPC Quality Scores.

If you're aware of quality scores at all, you may have a vague notion that the search engines "grade" the "goodness" of your PPC campaigns, and for those campaigns that earn good quality scores, sprinkle some kind of digital pixie dust that helps those campaigns perform better.

You may have also heard that PPC quality scores are calculated by semi-secret scoring software wielding complicated mathematical formulas, all dancing in real time to confound advertisers' efforts to understand, much less manipulate to "game the system" for unfair advantage.

While there's some truth in these notions, the fact is that understanding quality scoring, and creating campaign conditions to earn maximum benefit, is simple and straightforward.

The search engines (Google, Yahoo and Microsoft) want two things to happen:

  1. They want users to find exactly what they're looking for.
  2. They want advertisers to get site visitors whose intent -- expressed as a search query -- exactly matches what's offered by the advertiser's site.

That way, satisfied users return to the search engine for dependable search results, and advertisers can depend on a steady stream of clicks that result in sales, and so keep spending advertising money with the search engine.

Years ago, in the early dark ages of PPC, the search engines employed a pure auction system, whereby the highest-bidding advertisers gained the highest ad positions. While this seemed fair from the advertisers' perspective, it sometimes resulted in irrelevant ads appearing at the top of the search results page -- making it more difficult for users to find exactly what they were looking for.

So, for example, an advertiser could choose to pay high bid prices for high-volume keywords like "Ally McBeal" and display an ad for Janet Jackson ringtones.

The user lost because ads that appeared at the top of the page weren't really related to the intent of the search. And advertisers whose relevant ads were displayed lower on the page lost because their ads weren't prominently displayed.

So Google (followed later by Yahoo and Microsoft) decided to reward relevant advertisers (and punish irrelevant ones) by instituting the quality scoring system, which simply put says:

Advertisers who display relevant ads may achieve higher ad positions -- at lower costs-per-click -- than competitors who may be paying higher costs-per-click.

Advertisers who display relevant ads benefit two ways: more clicks (since their ads appear higher on the search results pages) and better ROI (since their costs are lower).

The quality scoring system is based on a complex group and series of calculations that take into consideration the relationships among the words in keyword lists, in ad text and on landing page -- as well as many (possibly hundreds) of other factors that the search engines won't reveal, in order to reduce the likelihood that some advertisers will try to "game the system" and gain unfair advantage.

Does that mean that as an advertiser you need to understand all the factors that are included in quality score calculations -- and conduct frequent micro-analysis and microsurgery on your campaigns?

The answer is "no" -- if you create your campaigns correctly in the first place.

If you've been following the preceding 14 installments of this column, you've already learned the best practices for building PPC campaigns -- which, not coincidentally, ensure good-to-great quality scores:

  1. Build small ad groups composed of a small number of keywords that are closely related to each other (see this installment and this one).
  2. Write killer ads that contain almost every keyword in the ad group's keyword list (see here and here).
  3. Include words from the keyword list and ad copy on the page the visitor arrives on once they've clicked on the ad. I'll expand on this in upcoming installments, but the preceding sentence tells you 90% of what you need to know.

That's it - that's all you really need to know about quality scoring to create successful PPC campaigns. If you're one of those left-brainers who simply must know all the details, I recommend the excellent series of blog post by Brad Geddes, and Google's official explanation.

But what if you're not starting a new campaign -- how do you know whether your campaign suffers due to poor quality score and what should you do about it? That's the topic of next week's column -- c'mon back then, and meanwhile, let me know your comments and questions via the feedback form below.

About the author

PPC advertising expert David Szetela is VP of Search Marketing Operations at Bruce Clay, Inc., a global Internet marketing agency. David has authored two books on PPC search marketing, helping to train up a generation of search marketers. He has been voted one of the top 25 PPC experts for three years in a row by PPC Hero. He is a regular speaker at PPC Summit, Pubcon and search and advertising events, and his weekly radio show, PPC Rockstars, is broadcast on and distributed by iTunes and other major outlets.