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Why Google keywords cost more but deliver less

Why Google keywords cost more but deliver less Dave McCarthy

Quality Score has been on everyone's mind recently. Everywhere I go and everyone I speak to has a story about some great keyword that he or she was buying and making a huge profit on until Google gave the user's site a poor quality score. Now the user can't afford the minimum bid. I often hear things like "It's not fair," "Why doesn't Google want to make money?" "My landing pages have good content; it doesn't make sense" and "Help Me!"

The truth is that Google is trying to take the principles that make its organic search results the most beloved in the world and apply them to its paid search results. What does this mean for you as an advertiser? It means you need to take the strategies used for SEO and apply them to your paid search. You need to stop thinking in terms of landing pages and start thinking about your landing page as one small piece of your entire domain. You also need to take the advice Google gives you and give it no reason to hurt your business with a poor quality score.

What Google tells us to do
Google preaches one thing: quality experience -- for its users and your potential customers. To that end Google has taken it upon itself to ensure that the page you deliver is of high quality. Here's what the company says it is specifically looking for:

  • Relevance: This is a no-brainer: If you sell electronics and someone clicks on your ad for a "digital camera," send them to your digital camera page, not your home page.

  • Originality: Okay, that's a weird one. Google specifically says "Feature unique content that can't be found on another site." Uh-oh, does this mean that my RSS feeds from related content sites aren't helping me? Probably not. If Google says they want content that can't be found on another site, then you can be sure they're searching for your content on other sites. If they find it, your quality score will suffer.

  • Transparency: This covers the general best practices -- like being open and clear about the nature of your business. If you offer a downloadable product or collect personal information from your users then there's a lot to know and follow in order to stay on Google's good side.

  • Navigability: Make it simple for users to find what they're looking for. Keep the sales process short and to the point. Don't use things like pop-ups, pop-unders or sliders.

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Okay, so all of this seems manageable, but is this it? Is there anything else to it? I think there is. As Quality Score evolved over the past two to three years, Google always apprised us of changes. That all ended in a September 18th blog post where they announced that they "will no longer post advance notice of upcoming updates." This means you can't take anything for granted anymore. It has been since this blog post that most people have started having serious problems. What can you do about it? Here's some help.

Here's a real world example:

A search on Google yields many results. Circuit City is doing a good job with their efforts. The company has a relevant ad obviously set up with dynamic keyword insertion.

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And the ad directs to a landing page that covers all of Google's stated must-haves.

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Relevant: This page is definitely all about Digital Cameras. It covers every manufacturer with well-tagged images, and the title says "Digital Cameras at Circuit City." Notice also the great third party sources like ConsumerReports.Org. This really adds credibility to the page.

The content is original because it has user and editorial reviews -- a must for any popular product website. Without user and editorial reviews it is very hard to generate fresh original content.

This is not much of an issue for a well known e-tailer like Circuit City, but they do have their phone number in bold black text on every page, Contact Us on the bottom, lots of links to FAQs, Help etc.

It's very easy to go in and out of top level categories, like Cameras, Phones etc. Then once inside a top level domain the site makes it very easy to navigate by price, manufacturer or primary feature set.

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Not wanted
But some of you are going to have a very hard time because Google is specifically targeting your site for removal. If you're wondering which sites fall in this particular group, Google has laid it out. Here's what they don't want:

Data collection sites:
What, no more free iPods?

Real world example:

These sites, which showed up when I searched around for recipes, are in for some trouble. Users don't really get recipes, they get to give all of their personal info, sign up for some offers, get spammed and then they may get a free cookbook. Not a good experience.

Arbitrage sites: The bane of Google's existence.

Real world example:

Sites like this are going to have trouble in the future. I did a search for Screensavers on Yahoo and got an ad for Pronto. When I clicked on it, it took me to a page showing Google search results for the same query. Pure arbitrage. I couldn't find them on Google. Clearly arbitrage is Google's first, and most important, target. And that's a negative.

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Malware sites: Of course they're on the list. Problem here is what is Google using to distinguish good software from bad software? Here are more guidelines for software publishers to read and follow.

eBook sites "that show frequent ads": 
Scrape together a bunch of content, wrap it all with tons of ads and make a good site? Not anymore. Here's where unoriginal content gets hit.

Get rich quick sites:
(But I love pyramids!) Anytime making money is "Guaranteed" you know the business, and the site, are garbage. We should see the end of these sites on Google very soon.

Comparison shopping sites:
This was a bit of a surprise but makes sense. Google really wants to stop arbitrage and this is an arbitrage play. Pricegrabber, Shopping.com and some of the big guys might be able to make it. If you're in this business and want to protect yourself, offer original, unique value to your users. That could be reviews, warranty info, user opinions and more. If you don't, you could see your minimum bids rising soon.

Travel aggregators:
This is another arbitrage victim. Follow the same advice I gave to your buddy above. One example is Travelocity -- is it in trouble? Probably not. But others trying to get into the space will have a tough time getting a foothold. What's the key to getting up and staying up? Original content, relevant results based on the search and some sort of value given to the user.

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Okay, what about the rest of us who don't fall into those categories? I'm sure lots of you are saying "I'm not one of those, and I still have a bad quality score." Here's what you need to do: Make your site better. Notice I didn't say make your landing page better. There's a reason for that. Slowly word has been spreading that Google is not doing an evaluation of your landing page, they are doing an evaluation of the entire domain your page lives on! Whoa. So if you have a 2,000 page site about mortgages and you dedicate one page to car loans, no matter how good that one page is, don't expect to get a high quality score when it comes to your relevance to car loans. To Google, your site is about mortgages. So what specifically should you do? Revert to your SEO strategy and rebuild. Here's how:

Cover the basics: Conduct your link exchanges with relevant websites. Make sure your titles, meta tags and descriptions are all well put together.

Choose a topic and stick to it: Each domain should focus on one thing. Don't try to cover too many products or topics on one site. We can't all be Wikipedia.

Add a site map: Make it easy for Google to find your pages and content. Use the Sitemap Generator that Google recommends.

Page rank: If you have a few sites to choose from, choose the site that has the best Google page rank. Chances are that if the natural search algorithm likes it, so will the quality score.

Add a blog: A blog does many things. It keeps a dialogue open with your users, it gives you the original content Google is looking for and it gives you an easy way to update your site often. All of those are positives in Google's eyes.

Make a good site: At the end of the day this is the best advice. Google wants to show users quality sites, whether through natural search clicks or paid clicks. Your best defense is building a large, well-thought-out website and sending your paid clicks to the most relevant page on that site for that click. The days of the quick one-off landing page are over. Are you ready?


Dave McCarthy, is a partner at
Tightrope Interactive. Read full bio.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Nagendra Sastry

2008, February 11

Good article that opens the eyes & ears of advertisers as well as site owners. However, does this mean some of the relevant (not as defined by Google, but appropriate for the user) URLs will get ignored?

Commenter: Karen McNamara

2008, February 08

Excellent advice. It makes a lot of sense honestly and if I put my consumer hat on it's exactly what I'd expect when searching the web. We all want what we want, when we want it. Google is just finding better ways to deliver it.

Commenter: edgar baudin

2008, February 08

Very clear and informative. Some strategies SEM/O to be redefined, Google sets the rules...

Commenter: RIch Ofstun

2008, February 08

Your target efficiency/composition can be greatly effected by which social network you buy into. For example, there are private label communities that are very targeted since they represent a narrowly defined set of users. The problem is that most of them aren't set-up to accept advertising.

Commenter: Donna Keller

2008, February 08

Thanks for your article Dave. Very informative. I guess the info was right there in front of us the whole time. We were just hoping it wouldn't come to this! Time for some changes.