When it comes to Quality Score, everyone wants a 10. But for certain types of keywords, that’s about as likely as WordStream doubling my salary to drink bourbon and grill dry-aged ribeyes on a veranda overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee. We can dream, but it ain’t gonna happen.
You see, when you add a new keyword to your account, Google automatically assigns it a starting Quality Score of 6. From there, a combination of factors, including expected CTR, ad relevance, and landing page experience, will determine whether that score sinks or skyrockets. But not all keywords are created equal.
Today, we’re going to talk about what constitutes a good Quality Score depending on what kind of keyword you’re bidding on. Viewing this key Google Ads metric in context will help you identify the right keywords to focus your optimization efforts on.
Here’s a high-level overview of what you’ll learn today:
Now let’s dig into this topic in a little more detail, including a quick recap on how Quality Score works.
For those of you who are new (or could use a refresher), Quality Score is the metric Google uses to determine the quality (duh) and relevance of your ad copy and landing page in relation to a given keyword.
It’s then used to calculate your cost per click (CPC) and ad rank for that keyword. The higher your relevance and your Quality Score, the better your ad rank and the less you pay every time someone clicks on your ad.
This makes Quality Score really important to your Google Ads performance.
Also important to your performance—from a conversion and ROI standpoint—is intent.
If you sell mugs decorated with witty phrases, the keyword “buy novelty mug” is inherently more valuable to you than, say, “mug” or “what are mugs.” While those last two are relevant (ish) to your business, they’re not commercial; those searchers are very unlikely to buy anything from you.
As such, time spent trying to improve your Quality Scores on broad, informational keywords will have much less of an impact on your bottom line than optimizing high-intent keywords that lead directly to action.
Believe it or not, this holds true for businesses outside of the highly competitive ceramic drinkware industry, too.
For the purposes of this exercise, we can divide keywords into four major groups: brand, competitor, high intent, and low intent.
A branded keyword is a layup. No other advertiser can use your brand in their copy (it’s against Google’s guidelines) and it’s unlikely that a competitor’s using your name in their URL or on a landing page.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s almost impossible to get a Quality Score of 10 when bidding on your competitor’s name; for New Balance to outrank Nike on a search for “Nike,” they’re going to have to pay an arm and a leg.
Between the poles of brand and competitor, we can split keywords into two groups: low intent (typically informational or navigational searches) and high intent (commercially relevant keywords, the ones that lead to conversions, the backbone of your AdWords account. Need I go on?). Both are important to your overall AdWords success (if you use remarketing, cheaper low intent keywords are a great way to create audiences and drive conversions down the road), but treating them as equals is a waste of your time and money.
With that, let’s look at what a solid Quality Score looks like for each type of keyword (and talk about how to improve them if you’re missing the mark).
Even though your website should be the first thing that shows up in the organic results when someone searches for your business, there’s a big old chunk of real estate above the organic listings that your competitors are welcome to claim. (And the above the fold real estate on brand searches looks even more commercial on mobile devices.) Fortunately for you, competitors need to pay a premium to do so.
That being said, many of them are ready and willing.
For this reason, you need to bid on your own keywords. The required investment is small—especially compared to some of those high intent keywords (we’ll get to them in a minute)—but dominating the SERP pays dividends. You can basically sleep your way to a high Quality Score for branded campaigns. That means if you’re not seeing at least an 8, something has gone horribly wrong (don’t worry, it’s fixable).
Think about the contributing factors. The expected CTR should be high since the search was for your brand (intent city) and your ad couldn’t be more relevant. The only potential detractor is landing page experience, which is impacted by a combination of content, structure, and load time.
Check out this New Balance ad that surfaces when I search for the brand and nothing more (can you tell I love leisurewear sneakers yet?).
The copy isn’t salesy outside of an obligatory “shop now” in the description. The rest of the ad speaks to the brand’s heritage (“Since 1906,” “For more than 100 years”) and ad extensions are used to share additional value propositions and links to high-traffic pages.
Guess what? You can do this, too.
Simply speaking to your prospects and sending them to a relevant location will yield a high Quality Score, making your branded keywords dirt cheap on a CPC basis.
High-intent commercial keywords are the most important subset of keywords in your AdWords account. They also tend to be the most expensive. As a result, high-intent keywords are the area in which maximizing Quality Score will have the greatest impact on performance.
Whether you’re a merchant of $15 skinny jeans or $25,000 software, high-intent keywords are those search terms that convey clear intent to do X, where X is your conversion objective.
Let’s say you sell flowers online and, two days before his mother’s 49th birthday, a terribly forgetful son needs to send something that will elicit a smile. He types “buy flowers online” into Google and sees…
What do you notice about these ads? What do they have in common?
The ads are relevant and feature CTA’s for days.
Even 1-800-Flowers (who have brand recognition for days) uses the search term in their copy. You’ll also notice a smattering of dollar signs and deals, all of which exist to entice a searcher into clicking. These advertisers are specifically attempting to improve their expected CTR for the term “buy flowers online.”
Before Google even considers the landing page experience component of the Quality Score calculation, each of these advertisers has made a concerted effort to optimize for ad relevance and CTR. This means that two-thirds of the contributing factors are accounted for, making a QS of 6 or 7 attainable through diligent ad testing and good account structure alone.
Landing pages are trickier to tackle from a resources perspective, but if you can ensure speed and relevance, you’re going to please Google’s algorithm. For your high-intent keywords, try to build out single keyword ad groups and implement ad group level landing pages. While this can be a major hassle (not to mention expensive), ensuring semantic relevance and fast load times is the best way to improve this crucial component of your Quality Score. For the keywords most likely to impact your bottom line, it’s totally worth it.
Low-intent keywords aren’t unimportant. In fact, they form the foundation of any great remarketing campaign (and can be used to forge successful Lookalike audiences in Facebook). That being said, most SMBs and overworked agencies simply don’t have the time to push Quality Scores to 10 across the board.
Let’s say you’re running the AdWords account for an online MBA program. This is a ridiculously expensive niche, with stiff competition and CPC’s commonly exceeding $30.
That’s why I’m suggesting you set a more realistic target: aim for a Quality Score of 7 on your non-branded, top-of-funnel keywords.
Google’s baseline Quality Score of 6 is faux optimism on their part; it’s almost guaranteed to go down from there as soon as you record a few hundred impressions. Why? Think back to those contributing factors again.
Google cannot determine your CTR if a keyword is brand new. If you’re lumping comparable keywords into a single ad group (instead of using the SKAG I mentioned earlier), you’ll never maximize the landing page experience component outside of load time. That leaves only ad relevance, which can suffer from the same keyword oversaturation that may plague your ability to max out landing page performance.
From a business value standpoint, it simply isn’t worth your time and money to invest in trying to max out Quality Scores for informational or navigational keywords. That being said, you can make strides towards reaching a Quality Score of 7 for your low-intent keywords by crafting irresistible CTAs (like we talked about earlier) and ensuring a well-laid-out account structure.
This means no more than 20 keywords per ad group. They need to be related by some common thread; whether that’s semantic or thematic is your call, but ensuring similarity will allow you to ensure ad and landing page relevance without stretching yourself too thin.
Finally, we come to the most challenging subset of keywords (at least in terms of Quality Score): your competitors’ branded terms.
Everything that works in your favor when bidding on your own brand is now reversed; your lack of “relevance,” at least as Google sees it, means you need to bid up if you want to show up. A Quality Score of 3 or better in a competitor campaign means you’re killing it. That’s because your only real weapon—outside of your own brand recognition—is irresistible ad copy.
Let’s dig into an example…
Here’s a SERP for the search query “HubSpot”:
HubSpot doesn’t have an ad on this page, but they’re the first organic result (remember what I said about all that real estate? Read ‘em and weep). Both competitors with ads served for my search are deploying similar tactics—hammering home difference in cost and a demo offer—with one exception. One is attempting to trick Google’s Quality Score algorithm (and searchers, for that matter) by implanting an alternate spelling of HubSpot. Don’t do this. While it may save you a buck, it may result in ad disapproval or suspension (plus the dishonesty is a bit uncouth).
Instead, focus all your efforts on crafting headlines that can’t be ignored and CTA’s that make your competitors’ offering look obsolete.
Improving your Quality Scores isn’t a one-time thing: it’s a constant process. For each type of keyword, you should be aiming for the following Quality Scores…
While a well-manicured account structure and great copy can go a long way towards establishing success, the nature of expected CTR is such that continuous testing is the key to maintaining enviable Quality Scores across the board.
Allen Finn is the co-founder of Toasted Collective, a cannabis-focused digital agency. Many moons ago, he worked at WordStream, where he reigned as fantasy football champion for some time.
See other posts by Allen Finn
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