I ignored quality score for a year.

Quality score has sparked more discussion, thought and analysis than any other single aspect of AdWords. The overwhelming firehose of noise about it makes you feel like it must be important.

I used to think it was vital, but in the year I’ve ignored QS and focussed on other metrics:

  • Our ads have been clicked more often.
  • Our landing pages are better at turning visitors into leads.
  • Our clients are getting superior leads from their AdWords spend.

Quality score is no longer a useful metric for managing or optimising an AdWords campaign.

  1. It's a blunt instrument.
  2. It's a terrible feedback mechanism.
  3. Nobody knows the QS rules.
  4. It's a poor proxy for how well AdWords serves the business goals.
  5. Obsessing about QS distracts you from more important work.

Quality score is a blunt instrument.

Google confirms this with their definition of quality score.

Quality Score is intended to give you a general sense of the quality of your ads. [It] is an estimate of the quality of your ads and the landing pages triggered by them.

Quality score comes as a number between 1 and 10. 1 is terrible, 10 is great.

There is no way to know how much greater a QS 10 keyword is than a QS 9 keyword. There is no way to know how much worse a QS 2 keyword is than a QS 3 keyword.

So in practice the already blunt instrument gets blunted even more. QS gets dumbed down from a 1 to 10 scale to a 1 to 3 scale something like:

  • QS 1 to QS 3 means you're in trouble.
  • QS 4 to QS 6 means attention required, unless it's a newish campaign.
  • QS 7 to QS 10 means you're OK.

Quality score is a terrible feedback mechanism.

You need a feedback mechanism to help connect the things you do to your campaign to changes you see in the results.

A useful feedback mechanism:

  • Is fast enough so you can tie action to results.
  • Is consistent. The same action should produce the same response every time.
  • Allows for attribution. You must be able to tie the thing that happened to the thing you did.

Think about learning to drive…

My dad took me to an empty parking lot the night I got my learner’s licence. He made me crawl the family car around for an hour. He wanted me to get a feel for how it responded to the steering wheel.

The steering wheel has a great feedback mechanism.

  • The car responds fast enough so you know there is a link between turning the wheel and changing direction.
  • It’s consistent. Turn the wheel left and the car turns left, turn it hard and the car turns sharply, turn it gently and the car turns slower - every time.
  • It allows for attribution. Only turning the steering wheel makes the car turn. You don’t get a change in direction when you switch the headlights on, open the window or change gear.

Change a headline and you can see if it improves CTR. Raise your bids and watch the average position go up. Change the landing page and measure the change in conversions. These metrics are good feedback mechanisms.

Quality score doesn’t even come close to being a good feedback mechanism for driving AdWords.

  • It’s slow. Changes can take months.
  • It’s inconsistent. Sometimes keywords with great CTR and high conversion rates have rubbish quality scores. Sometimes the singular and plural versions of the same keyword have wildly different quality score.
  • It defies attribution. Why did your QS on a keyword change from 7 to 8? Was it because your clickthrough rate improved from 1.5% to 7% over the same period? Was it because your page conversion rate went up by 3% over the same period? Was it because you changed your ad copy? Nobody knows.

You’re playing a game without knowing the rules.

Google doesn’t tell anyone what the quality score rules are. All they've revealed is that they calculate QS using a combination of:

  • landing page experience,
  • ad relevance,
  • and expected clickthrough rate.

You'll agree with me that those are pretty vague criteria.

Google doesn’t tell you:

  • How they decide that a landing page experience is good or bad.
  • How they measure ad relevance.
  • What the expected clickthrough rate is for your ad at different positions.

And even if they did, they don't tell you what weight they give to each of those factors. Is a perfect landing page good enough to compensate for lower ad relevance? Will a fantastic clickthrough rate offset a lower than usual conversion rate?

Nobody outside Google knows the answers.

Lots of very smart people have spent lots of time trying to reverse engineer the formula. We have a general idea of what Google looks for. But that's it. It's a broad understanding that takes it from guess to slightly educated guess.

The only way to win a game where you're guessing the rules is through luck. I think relying on luck is a very risky AdWords strategy.

Quality score is a poor proxy for how well AdWords meets business goals.

A proxy is an indirect way of measuring something you'd like to measure but can't, or can't easily.

For example, body mass index (BMI) is used as a proxy to measure true body fat percentage.

Measuring true body fat is difficult. You need special equipment and training. It's uncomfortable. Measuring BMI is simple. All you need is a tape measure, a scale and the BMI chart.

BMI is well correlated to body fat percentage for enough of the population that it's useful as a proxy.

Quality score is a poor proxy because:

  • It only measures the parts of the process that Google can track. It can’t account for how well your AdWords leads fit your business. It can’t measure the value of today’s sales or the value of future sales.

  • The correlation between quality score and the business value of an AdWords campaign is so weak that it might as well be non-existent.

The good news is that you can measure how AdWords meets the business's goals directly. You don’t need a proxy.

  • You can measure how well your adverts are doing by measuring impressions, clicks, cost per click etc.
  • You can measure how well your website and landing pages are doing by looking at conversion rate, number of leads, cost per lead etc.
  • You can track how many of those leads were a good fit for your business, how many turned into sales today, how many are candidates for future marketing efforts, how many enquiries turn into sales down the road etc.

And, finally, obsessing about quality score is a distraction.

You don’t have unlimited tinkering time. You have to prioritise the things you work on. Focussing effort on activities that contribute to the business goals is never wasted.

You could spend your time:

  • Improving the clickthrough rate by polishing ad copy.
  • Getting more conversions by speeding up your site or making your forms work better.
  • Weeding out the wrong searches using the search terms report.
  • Moving budget from poor performing campaigns, keywords, ads, etc to better performers.
  • Looking for more opportunities to reach potential customers.
  • Etc…

These, and anything else you do to get AdWords closer to meeting the business goals, will eventually improve quality score as a byproduct.

So what use is quality score?

I use quality score like the oil warning light on the dashboard.

You don’t dismantle the dashboard to repair the oil light if it flashes. The light doesn’t need fixing, it’s there to warn us that some other part of the car needs attention.

I don't expect the warning light to tell me that the sump fell off, or the head gasket blew or where the oil leak is. All I expect is that it'll warn me in time.

I've set up a warning system that tells me if quality score drops to 3 or lower. But other than that I ignore it.

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I ignored quality score for a year.

I used to think quality score was vital, but in the year I’ve ignored QS and focussed on other metrics: - our ads have been clicked more often. - Our landing pages are better at turning visitors into leads. - Our clients are getting superior leads from their AdWords spend.