Landing Page Relevance Criteria: Google’s Modus Vivendi


Following up on the news that Google is incorporating landing page relevance more directly into Quality Score as it affects position and thus CPC’s as well as eligibility in the keyword auction…

As a few of us try to digest Google’s high-level announcement, it’s still unclear what exactly Google is measuring now, or plans to measure in the future, when it comes to relevance and scent in the keyword, ad, and post-click user journey. Ruling out major policy violations, the discussion with product management director Jonathan Alferness seemed to break it down into two areas:

  • Navigational experiences and usability
  • Consistent relevance from a keyword or meaning standpoint

But there is a third factor, I think, as I attempted to imply in the idea of users coming to an “expected” landing page. We’ve ruled out “policy violations” as being even more serious than what is being measured for ranking purposes. But there is something similar, and that is basically:

  • Non-policy-violating websites and pages that are in somewhat of a grey zone in that they don’t exactly take the user to the type of page they were expecting. For shorthand let’s call them ‘purposeful misdirection’. Again: extreme versions of ‘purposeful misdirection’ are violations that consumers require protection from. Those long strings of privacy-violating forms you need to fill out to get the $5 iPod that never materializes are so far over the line, Google suspends accounts, kicks ass, takes names, etc. But what to do about “lite” versions of this? Nothing has been violated, but something (‘purposeful misdirection’) is still a bit unfair to other advertisers.

I expect Google has the technology and mechanical turk capacity to measure all three, and to incorporate them into Quality Scores. But I’d guess the third is particularly interesting.

There are a couple of reasons Google is likely interested in negating ‘purposeful misdirection’, aside from the obvious point that users don’t like it as it represents poor or inauthentic information scent.

  • The first reason it’s particularly interesting is that it may be the least subjective of the three categories of user experience, so it’s an area we can all agree on. Relevance in meaning is subjective, depending on how you look at it. User experiences (clutter, Flash, interfaces, layout, speed) are important, but who decides what’s good or bad? But we should all be able to agree that if you promise x type of page, and you don’t get x type of page, that’s no good for users.
  • The second reason it matters is because some advertisers will gently misdirect users so that they increase CTR’s, all else being equal, and CTR’s boost Quality Score. Since nearly Day 1, Google has been aware of this phenomenon, but to enforce it manually via policy specialists became infeasible. Arguably then, Google is still perfecting scalable ways of smoothing out anomalies in ranking. In sum, an ideal ranking system would not ban an advertiser for implying something (free, buy, read, download) that wasn’t quite true (might take a little more effort than implied, or the offer expired, etc.), but would apply just enough of a Quality Score penalty to offset the unfair boost in CTR that comes with luring users with blue-sky wordings. For that matter, this is essentially the principle that has been in place around rules against excessive punctuation, all caps, etc.

So have you been sliding by with gently excessive claims that don’t violate policy, but do shade the truth (free download, free shipping, implying you’ll get relevant content when all you get is a paywall), enjoying a CTR benefit and lower CPC’s as a result? Google’s new algorithm is probably looking to tighten that up a little, so you pay a bit more to do that.

If you’re on the other side of the fence, writing ads that filter aggressively (responsible B2B ads that use cues to ward off consumers; or ads that refer to ordering, buying, or complex actions you may need to take to receive a benefit or read premium content), you’ve been so honest that it actually hurt your CTR, Quality Score, and CPC’s (though it would have helped your conversion rate). As a thank-you to you, and a win for consumers, an “up front and honest” style ad may bubble up a bit higher in the rankings, or cost a few cents less to the advertiser.

These things may be difficult to measure, and to be sure, it would appear that human intervention on a wide scale might be needed to make it effective. But in fact, there are ways to simplify the process. Few if any could disagree with a methodology that essentially asks “true or not” when the ad refers to the type of landing page that is to be expected (eg. premium topical content on the landing page), and the user gets something else (eg. a paywall and no possibility of receiving said content without completing a transaction). The means to make it true might be a slight re-wording of the ad, offer, and landing page (free trial), which would make an “honest company” out of you, and an “honest search engine” out of Google.

No advertiser really loses under this (obviously, speculative, as is all the speculation in this post) scenario. If you’re particularly clever in softly misdirecting users to shake out some semi-desired action out of them, well at worst, your CPC’s creep up a bit. If you’ve been more honest in the past with some of your ad wordings, which dampened CTR’s and cost you some Quality Score love, you may have been doing yourself a favor anyway, in the form of improved conversion rates and reputation. Now, the theory goes, Google’s also going to thank you with a slight improvement in rank (or a discount of a few pennies per click).

If you’re an agency and you manage many accounts with ads at both ends of that spectrum, you might even have the opportunity to observe whether this comes to pass.

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