Google Tweaks its “Other” Black Box: Ads Quality Update Deepens Measures of Relevance


Word is out that Google has gone through another round of algorithmic tweaks to address content quality in the organic search results. These updates have collectively become known by the nickname Project Panda.

Not to be outdone, the Ads Quality team at Google has been pondering adjustments to the Quality Score formula with pilot projects in smaller markets like Portugal. As a result of these tests, Google is announcing today that landing page quality, or the “relevance” component of Quality Score, will be weighted more heavily than previously. The rollout is now going global.

Explains Jonathan Alferness, a Director of Product Management at Google: “What we’ve found is that the ads at the top of the page typically get more clicks and are rightly rewarded for strong relevance. But some of the ads further down the page might have particularly good ‘post-click’ experiences and deserve a boost.”

In the past, landing page quality was usually administered as if it were “policy”: that is, there was an attempt to look for what Alferness calls “negative signals”. An advertiser that violated “policy” would find its ads suspended, for all intents and purposes. Some would even have their accounts deleted. More recently, perhaps to set things on the road for the current wave of testing that will incorporate a broader-based assessment of landing page relevance into the ranking formula, Google began making a distinction between landing page quality and landing page policy. That being said, for the most part, Google will be assessing advertisers “on the same basic principles as in the past,” says Alferness.

That sounds fair enough. But if it’s essentially the same, why announce a change?

Because — although the initial effect may be small — it’s clear that some advertisers may be rewarded, and others, punished, for sending users to “correct,” “relevant,” or “expected” landing pages. (Quotation marks don’t imply that Google or Alferness used these terms.)

Alferness advises that advertisers “build a page for the aggregate set of users that is natural or appropriate to what they are looking for.”

Traffick’s take? Above all, it’s impossible to comment authoritatively on changing formulas whose details are never fully revealed. Just days ago, we reminded you that Google’s primary definition of “relevance” was clicks. It still is, with a little wiggle room thrown in referring to broader concepts of relevance. It’s worth asking: would Google prefer to cultivate an image of a user-experience-obsessed company because that’s nobler-sounding than a company that just maximizes effective CPM rates? Probably it would. But is it true? Isn’t Google mostly just treating clicks as synonymous with relevance, just as it did in 2002? When Fred Vallaeys said as much just weeks ago, wasn’t he basically correct?

No matter. As we’ve seen, anyone with a tool to sell, an ax to grind, or a surfeit of smoke to blow up a client’s butt is going to latch onto this new official incorporation of scent into the mix and begin weaving beautiful fantasies out of it. Of that we’re sure. That despite Alferness’ advice to focus landing page testing primarily on the “user experience” (and, we’d add, engagement and business metrics), rather than trying to “reverse engineer the algorithm.”

Let’s cut to the chase, if there is any left to cut to. What might be some real-world examples of winners and losers (even if most changes will be slight) under the updated algorithm?

  • Appropriate levels of granularity will be a winner. Companies who have languished too long with bloated ad groups, too few landing pages, sending too much traffic to the home page, etc., may suffer slightly.
  • Google is going to be looking at keywords more so than navigational elements, according to my interpretation of some of Alferness’ comments. That means conventional architecture, clear copy, and “SEO style” incorporation of relevant keywords in page elements can only help. If some aspect of your page, form, cart, etc. is highly deficient, it might begin hurting your Quality Score. But for most navigational and layout elements, it’s safe to say for now that Google won’t be micromanaging the user experience as if there’s one best way. And that’s a relief.

Companies that have been doing things this way in the first place were doing so for good reason: better user satisfaction and better information scent are almost always tied to better campaign ROI. Companies should not have needed any external motivation to address relevancy and information scent issues, but Google, clearly, is now providing an extra incentive to do just that.

For smart, user-sensitive advertisers, the change will likely be noticed only as a positive.

Meanwhile, for lazy, disorganized, or clueless users of the AdWords platform, well, the Google AdWords Tourist Tax probably just went up.

Google won’t comment on whether such changes are revenue-neutral for the company, but given their ability to test and calibrate the auction, it’s a safe bet they aren’t setting themselves up for a significant loss. But this is more of a long-term loyalty play than a short or medium term revenue play. And it isn’t just user loyalty that is involved, but advertiser appreciation. By forcing the issue on practices that may spur higher aggregate conversion rates, Google will be able to remind and convince advertisers of the value of the platform for years to come.

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