Google Looking for Smooth Landings

[Editor’s Note: Last week SearchLine covered Yahoo’s planned transition to a “quality index” for pay-per-click ads, intended to increase both relevance for users and its own ad income by serving up keyword ads that have the best clickthrough records. It will be new to Yahoo!, but search marketers have been contending with quality rankings of their Google ads since last August. In January, we wrote about a new elaboration: the addition of landing-page quality to that score. We reprint it now, on the assumption that the major search engines are engaged in a pro-league game of “Follow the Leader”.]

As if online marketers didn’t have enough to think about, in early December 2005 Google snuck a lump of cyber-coal into their stockings in the form of an announcement that it was adding something new to its “Quality Score” measure: an evaluation of advertisers’ search ad landing pages.

Google Quality Score is a measure the search engine introduced in August 2005 in an effort to increase the relevance of paid search ads linked to keywords. While the specifics workings aren’t known outside the Googleplex compound—to discourage gaming the system—the quality score involves evaluating the text of search ads and their clickthrough rate to determine relevance to a search term. The lower an ad’s quality score, the higher the minimum bid that advertiser must place in order to advertise against a keyword. In theory, that should work to keep the relevance of paid search ads fairly high on Google—even though it may also impose a financial penalty on first-time advertisers who don’t have a click history to be graded on.

The new quality score takes a look not only at the text of the ads and their performance but at the content and layout of the landing pages those ads send users to.

A posting about the change in Google’s official “Inside AdWords” blog says it was made to improve user experience and retain their trust in the value of a Google search, including the paid search ads. “Have you ever searched on a keyword, found an ad that seemed to be exactly what you wanted, and then clicked on it only to find a site that had little to do with what you were searching for?” the note said. “It’s not a great experience.”

Indeed it’s not, says Jim Hedger, a search engine optimization (SEO) expert with StepForth Placement Inc. And he doesn’t doubt that improving the user experience is one driver behind factoring landing pages into the Google Quality Score.

But in addition to an abiding interest in elevating usability, Hedger says, Google’s new focus on landing pages seems to be going after a specific group: unscrupulous Web site publishers who are trying to win revenue or rankings from Google. Many of these are affiliate marketers looking for a direct payback from Google’s ad program by offering pay-per-click ads on their own sites; some are “black-hat” SEO exponents who set up virtually useless Web pages with links that elevate the Google rankings of their customers– and of their own company.

“The real targets here are the people who are creating Web sites that are either selling AdSense ads that refer people to their own products, or people who are working through affiliate marketing programs,” Hedger says. “These groups electronically create a number of landing pages, one to cover every keyword, and they’re all the same low-quality pre-generated page.”

How does Google check the quality of landing pages? Through a mixture of human automated means and plain old customer feedback. The company employs an AdWords Quality Team to go out and manually check ads, landing pages, links, etc. Since that’s such an overwhelming job given the size of the known Web, Google also employs spiders to go out and check algorithmically for the tell-tale signs of computer-generated pages. Finally, they do listen to user complaints about AdWords ads that don’t deliver what they promise. When the team, the spiders or the users turn up a possible bogey, Google inspects it thoroughly and then either leaves it alone or removes the ad and send a note to the Webmaster explaining their action.

So the addition of search ad landing pages to Google’s quality evaluation isn’t primarily designed to pick on legitimate advertisers who just haven’t had time to optimize their landing pages for specific products or services offered in their ads. As Hedger explains, there will always be marketers whose Web sites, for one reason or another, are really just empty storefronts for half the year. (Although why they would be bidding on search ads does remain a question.)

Google may be going after bigger, more nefarious fish, but that doesn’t mean that marketers without relevant, well-optimized landing pages won’t still get caught in Google’s net and seeing their minimum AdWords bids raised for a low Google Quality Score.

The best defense is to adopt some basic best practices for landing pages. Hedger says. Perhaps the most important of these is the number of clicks it takes a user to get from landing page to sale: Don’t make a visitor wade through pages to buy the product or accomplish whatever other conversion you’re looking for. Give them a checkout counter very close to where they land in your site.

That’s the kind of metric Google will be using to evaluate landing pages for AdWords, ads. “Using Google Analytics, they will be able to see how long an individual spent on a certain document, where they exited, what the bounce rates are, what the path through a set of documents or a domain might be, and whether the user followed a logical path or jumped back and forth,” Hedger says. “Google will be using analytics to measure a number of these user behaviors and applying them to a determination of the success or failure of an AdWords campaign. So again, user experience expressed in ease of use is going to be an important factor in how those pages score for quality.”

It’s one more sign—along with changes in its search algorithm, the introduction of the quality score itself, and moves to examine the nature and relevance of links that contribute to page rankings—that Google is dead serious about achieving high marks for user experience. Advertising is everything to Google (at least for the moment, while they test other revenue streams beyond the click) and they’re determined to guard the integrity of that business with every tool at their disposal.

Making its main product, advertising, as good as it can be may be all the more important to Google because the company sees the need to adjust it in some big ways in the future. The deal the company made to stay on as AOL’s search provider also involved an agreement that AOL will get to sell graphical ads onto Google pages—a big change. And burgeoning technology may mean video on landing pages is not far off.

“Advertising is Google’s prize pony—it’s where they’re making 95% of their income,” says Hedger. “So I think Google sees it as important to improve many aspects of the user experience, knowing that they’re going to be forced to make minor compromises in the future.”

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