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What is: Quality Score

Mike Peters, 05-25-2007
Quality Score is a concept adapted by all major search engines, whereby the landing page URL you specify when buying advertising, is ranked a score based on the relevance of the page.

There has been a lot of controversy in the blogosphere with hundreds of Pay Per Click advertisers reporting "murder by Google" with the introduction of the Quality Score.

With such a negative reaction by advertisers, you might wonder why did Google (and Yahoo, MSN) introduce the quality score concept in the first place?

In short - They had no choice.

To understand this you have to go back 13 years ago when the Internet was still in its infancy and search engines were just getting started.

Brief History of Search

Yahoo and Galaxy (both launched 1994), were two of the first widely distributed search engines. Back in those days, search engines were nothing more than human edited Internet directories. To get listed, you would submit your site and then wait for a human editor to review it and place your site under the relevant category.

Users could search similar to how they search Yahoo/Google/MSN today, but results would only include sites that have been manually submitted, reviewed and approved by editors.

As the Internet continued to grow exponentially, the human review model broke down. AltaVista (launched 1995) was the first search engine to allow natural language inquires and advanced searching techniques, indexing all pages of the Internet automatically.

Google only came in to the picture in 1997, offering a unique way to rank pages based on the number of incoming links from other highly ranked category-related sites.

Spamming the Search Engines

By the year 1999, all major search engines followed in Google's footsteps, indexing all pages on the Internet and listing results based on "how popular" (PageRank) and "how relevant" (Keyword Density) pages were in relation to the searched keywords.

This was a huge paradigm shift, going from 100% human-approved directories in the days of 1995, to fully automated algorithmic search in 1999, completely eliminating the human element.

Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising for the masses was introduced in 2000 with the launch of Google AdWords. For the first time any business owner, regardless of budget or contacts, was able to display advertised links as part of the search results, driving highly qualified traffic to their business.

As soon as advertisers realized the immense profit potential driven by getting listed on top of the search results for popular keywords, black hat search engine marketing was born.

Black Hat Search Engine Optimization is the art of using techniques outside the guidelines issued by major search engines, to trick search engine algorithms into believing a certain page/site is highly relevant and should be positioned at the top of the search results, when in reality a human editor would have quickly delist that site or position it at the bottom of the results.

As of this writing - May 2007, Black Hat is very much alive and kicking. All major search engines are still relying on algorithms to determine what results should be displayed for each keyword and black hat SEO professionals continually come up with new ways to trick algorithms and get their pages listed at the top.

Quality Score Introduced

The Quality Score concept was conceived to combat Black Hat SEO, remove spam from search results, terminate poor performing AdSense sites and promote high performing campaigns, ultimately delivering (1) a better end-user experience (2) a better ROI to high performing campaigns and (3) increased profits to the search engine by requiring pages with low quality score to pay more for Pay Per Click advertising.

While the Quality Score rank is comprised of a few factors that are calculated automatically (keyword density in landing page etc), for the most part - the Quality Score is a rank given by a human editor who reviews your page, keyword and ad creative.

The Quality Score is an attempt to reach a "middle ground" between the 1994 days of 100% human-editors-driven directories and the last few years of full algorithmic search placement & categorization. It has become obvious that no single model can survive on its own.

The integration of algorithmic search with human editors reviewing and continually "teaching" the search engines core what's right and wrong, is the best way to deliver both the volume (search coverage) and quality (relevancy) users are expecting to find.

The short term effect of Quality Score -

* Google's share experienced a sharp increase in conjunction with profits sky rocketing with the introduction of the Quality Score in August 2005.


* Advertisers complaining about the Quality Score killing their profitability and often taking advertisers completely out of business.

The long term effect of Quality Score -

* Less spam in search results. Yes - I do believe this goal will be achieved. While black hat SEO will continue to exist, having human editors will greatly shorten the length of time "spammy results" are visible before being taken off, thereby significantly reducing the profit to the spammer and ultimately rendering the entire exercise not worthwhile.

* Advertisers will be forced to create more relevant pages that would be considered "quality content" by both a human editor (user experience) as well as a search-engine bot (link popularity, trustrank)

It is clear that the pros outweigh the cons and quality score is here to stay.

As a pay per click advertiser you have two choices - Adapt or Die.

Leave your 2006 campaigns untouched or continue to use "old days" techniques disregarding the presence of the quality score and you will experience rising costs per click until you will be priced out of your market.

Fun Experiment - Is the Quality Score Real?

As part of our studies on Quality Score Optimization, we ran several tests to identify how one could significantly improve a site's quality score, thereby reducing PPC costs (more about this in future posts).

One of the early experiments we conducted was a series of tests designed to prove our theory of quality score being comprised of mostly a human element.

Step 1: Setup a new PPC AdGroup and new PPC campaign. For best results use popular keywords to describe the AdGroup and Campaign. We selected: Britney Spears

Step 2:
Create a new ad creative, relevant to the adgroup and campaign. We went with: Britney Spears, Latest News about Britney Spears + Hot Pictures

Step 3: Enter a single keyword for this campaign in quotes that is unlikely to be searched by anyone. We do NOT want any user to accidently type these keywords. We selected: "euranima". Set the keyword to $10 per click and set a daily budget of $50

Step 4: Launch the campaign and start monitoring your website log files

Step 5: Within 9 hours, we had a single hit to the target landing page. A user coming from India. The IP address traced back to Google. Shortly after seeing this visit, the quality score for our campaign was updated to "poor"

Explanation: Google uses offshore employees to periodically monitor all search engine results and rank how relevant results are. These rankings are what determines your page quality score and based on our research, the quality scores are integrated into both sponsored search AND organic results.


This means that even if you don't rely on Pay Per Click advertising, how well you rank in the organic search engine results is also a function of your Quality Score. If you're going after any decent niche, a human editor will eventually review your website and rank it.
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