At its most basic level, paid search advertising is a marketplace where billions of small auctions take place every day to determine which ads will show for a search term and in what order. Because of the nature of auction-based pricing, with an open market where anyone with an account can bid, costs per click may seem out of your control. However, you can control several factors that combine to lower costs per clicks up to 50%.

What Is Quality Score?

Quality Score is the rating, on a scale of 1 to 10, of a search engine’s perception of how well your keywords and ads match searcher intent, the quality of the landing page your ads click through to, and your ads’ historical performance. A high Quality Score indicates that your ads are well-matched to search terms, and that they and the website pages they link to provide a good user experience. Google introduced Quality Score in 2005 as way to correct issues inherent to a straight auction model, where highest bidder won, period, regardless of how relevant their keywords or ads were. The addition of a factor that captured relevance and, later, quality of user experience fundamentally changed paid search advertising. In the ensuing years, Bing and Yahoo added quality measurements to their paid search ad platforms as well. The official name of the factor Google uses to determine cost per click for an individual auction is Ad Rank. However, Ad Rank is calculated from the same components as Quality Score, and Quality Score is basically an aggregate of a keyword’s Ad Ranks over time. Thus, Quality Score and Ad Rank can be used interchangeably.

Quality Score Components

How is Quality Score determined? Through a calculation involving three core components:
  • The relevance of the ad and its corresponding keyword to the search query, as perceived by the search engine
  • The historical click-through rate of the:
    • Keyword and ad
    • Display URL – the URL shown in the ad, not the URL of the actual landing page
    • Overall paid search account, especially in the geographic region of the searcher
  • Landing page experience, as perceived by the search engine
    • The searcher’s device is a factor in landing page experience; serving non-mobile-optimized landing pages to mobile users will harm your Quality Score
When you introduce a keyword in Google Ads, Google uses your account’s historical performance to determine the Quality Score of the new keyword. If your account is starting from scratch, or if the new keyword is a complete departure from everything else in your account, Google assigns it a base Quality Score of 6.

Table showing estimated impacts of Quality Score to cost per click (CPC)What Impact Does Quality Score Have on CPCs?

The relationship between Quality Score and CPC cannot be overstated. Data analysis done in 2013 estimated that the average Quality Score in all of Google AdWords (as Google Ads was known at the time) was 5. The analysis then determined that increasing discounts to CPC are applied as a keyword’s Quality Score goes above 5, and that costs per click get progressively higher the lower a keyword’s score goes below 5. The data in the table is taken from the 2013 analysis, and should be considered more of an estimate than pinpoint math. Even so, the range of discounts and penalties provide a clear picture of how Quality Score affects CPC.

How to Improve Keyword Quality Score Over Time

Because it isn’t determined by only one component, you can improve multiple Quality Score factors at the same time to improve your score faster. Quality Score optimization tactics fall into four basic categories:

Improve ad group targeting

“Tightly themed ad groups” means that the keywords in the group are targeted around a specific theme, and ads have been created to focus on that theme as well. This increases the relevance of an ad in the group to a keyword in the group, which of course is a major component of Quality Score. Also, since performance on related keywords can affect the Quality Score of individual keywords in the group, having keywords organized into targeted themes can also help boost their score.

Improve keywords

When conducting keyword research, seek out long-tail terms, which have lower search volume but higher specificity. These niche terms are easier to match with searcher intent than large-volume terms, and they’re very effective at targeting specific customer groups. Use negative keywords strategically to weed out irrelevant traffic. Think of negative keywords as sculpting your keyword traffic: to paraphrase Michelangelo, they remove everything that isn’t desired. Eliminating irrelevant traffic increases the likelihood that visitors will have a positive experience on your landing pages, which will improve Quality Score. (It also reduces your cost per acquisition and increases the likelihood that searchers who click through will convert!) Another way to improve Quality Score at the keyword level is to delete keywords with low scores, as they’re dragging your whole account down. Use the low-score data to identify which keywords aren’t working and analyze the data to inform future keyword research.

Improve ads

As with keywords, improving ad copy will benefit your paid search performance in many ways. Ad copy that matches searcher intent will not only increase Quality Score by improving relevance, it will also increase click-through rate, which is another component of Quality Score (and paid search performance as a whole). Specificity is key to good ad copy. Ads that attempt to capture broad groups of searchers are too generic to attract searchers who are interested in what your company offers. A classic marketing axiom holds that “the worst target market in the world is everyone,” because such a broad audience is almost impossible to reach effectively. Specificity also helps with keyword and searcher intent relevance. The keywords in an ad group can be completely optimized, but if the ad copy associated with those keywords is vague or bland, Quality Score will suffer and so will paid search performance. Ad extensions are another way to affect your Quality Score, but they must be used intelligently. Using extensions doesn’t automatically improve your score; in fact, if the content in the extension(s) is irrelevant or leads to disappointing landing pages, your score could take a hit. So be sure to optimize any extensions you use as much as you optimize your ad copy.

Improve landing pages

Because the searcher’s experience doesn’t stop once they click on an ad, Quality Score includes landing page quality. A searcher who clicks on a well-written, tightly targeted ad only to be greeted by a generic landing page – or, worse, the homepage – will likely abandon their conversion journey then and there. To deliver a good landing page experience, make sure your page aligns with the ads that lead there. Repeat the offer and messaging used in the ad, then use the landing page to detail the benefits of the offer and let the searcher convert. (To deliver the best possible landing page experience, engage with a CRO team.) Don’t forget the technical aspects of landing pages, which can significantly affect user experience and conversion. Landing pages must be mobile-friendly; conversion rates tend to be lower on mobile than on desktop, so maximize your odds of conversion by presenting mobile-optimized pages. Additionally, page load speed has a dramatic impact on user engagement, so ensure your SEO team makes minimizing page load time a priority.

The Value of Quality Score Improvements: Case Study

A utility billing company had a rather good average Quality Score of 6.5, meaning they were getting an average CPC discount of more than 20%. However, we don’t believe in settling for “good enough,” so we made improvements to ad groups, keywords, ads, and landing pages over the next 6 years. As a result, the company’s average Quality Score increased 37% to 8.9. Line graph depicting improvements in Quality Score and their estimated impacts on cost per click and ad spend Over those 6 years, the CPC discounts for Quality Score increased and compounded until the company had saved an estimated total of $1.5 million just on costs per click. This amount is over and above what they would have saved had their average Quality Score remained at 6.5. Graph showing estimated cumulative savings in ad spend due to Quality Score improvements During that same time period, ROAS increased by 55% even as conversion volume scaled up by more than 14 times. Quality Score improvements didn’t cause all the increase, but they definitely contributed. In the final year of the engagement, the company saved an estimated $632K from Quality-Score-generated CPC discounts. ROAS at the time was 465%, so the company could re-invest those savings into ad spend to yield a return of up to $2.9 million. If you’d like to learn more about how one metric within Google Ads can have such a profound impact on costs per click and thus ROAS, or if you’d like to know which steps to take to improve Quality Score, contact us to talk about paid search performance.