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Quality scores: padding Google’s bottom line, or protecting consumers?

We’ve seen some recent behavior in Google AdWords markets where a new ad campaign immediately gets a quality score rating that forces minimum bids into the $5 range. There was a time when you could launch a campaign and immediately count on a few inexpensive clicks to get you started, but that day appears to be gone. Instead, the new account has to arrange to buy a few expensive clicks at $5 to get the quality score reset to $1, and a few more expensive clicks at $1 to get reset down to a price that’s competitive. That’s true even if the keywords you are bidding on are so long-tail that no one else is there – you simply need to ante up to play.

As mercenary as this seems, we think there’s something deeper going on. Google has never been an exclusively bottom-line focused company. Their timeline spans years, not quarters, and we believe that ultimately this change is not a short-term revenue strategy. To put it another way, although Google is in the business of selling clicks, their goal has always been to get the most clicks that actually provide value to consumer and vendor alike. With that in mind, we can see this new quality score as the first tentative step into a much more sophisticated exploration of ad quality.

Google has made it clear that they intend to expand its measure of quality into the post-click experience. Landing page “quality”, which before was just a measure of whether or not the words on the page matched the ad, is the first to increase in focus. Load times have been added recently, and Google will also start enforcing compliance between the destination and display URL. We expect that in the future they will move continually deeper into the human-website interactions in order to improve their quality score metrics.

All of these efforts are designed to increase quality of a user’s experience, reduce confusion, and in doing so, improve the user’s perception of the entire search experience. The big winner is Google, of course; its brand identity is further reinforced by its active policing of quality after the ad has been clicked, increasing customer loyalty. But a close second are the consumers who will get better advertising for more targeted products.

So, are we about to see massive quality score inflation as Google starts to more actively police websites? Probably not. Google almost certainly overestimated the standards websites needed to get better quality scores. This is as much a reflection of how far websites still have to go in order to become truly user-friendly, but you have to work with you have as a starting point. Google will realize this and will almost certainly scale back their standards a little in the next few months. Yet the fact that the additional measures exist, and that they are published, will result in better websites, and this will benefit everyone that who sees AdWords as a conversation with consumers, not an opportunity to exploit or confuse them.

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