A Gaggle of Google Updates

(SearchLine) Those marketers who are up for a good algorithm chase should lace up their Adidas: Google’s on the move again.

Last week SearchLine wrote about some changes Google was instituting for its registered users (“Google Gets Personal: Should You Care?”), giving them the option to personalize search results based on the Websites they have visited most often in the past and the type of content on their custom home page. The consensus view of search marketing professionals seemed to be that while interesting for the long-term future of search, this wasn’t a development that marketers needed to pay special attention to in strategizing their SEM campaigns.

But adding the option of a personal slant to search results wasnít the only enhancement Google has introduced. In fact, over the last month, Google has sent out into the world a collection of changes to the way it ranks and delivers both organic and paid listings. Here’s a run-down of the changes, together with some industry comment on their impact.

On the pay-per-click side, Google instituted a pair of changes over the last two weeks that may have some impact on keyword pricing, bidding, and whether ad campaigns get rendered at all. The basic change came in the way Google calculates the quality score for PPC ads delivered against keywords. The score itself helps determine the minimum bid level for keywords. Ads with a higher quality score get rewarded with a lower bid floor, so that it costs less for them to be eligible to be delivered against a keyword. If they are served, that high score may also get them higher placement on the results page and thus a better return on their ad spend.

The quality score has also been put to other uses beside bid-setting. For example, last summer Google started taking a more detailed look at landing pages primarily as a way to cut back on the problem of search arbitrage and “Made for AdSense” sites that did nothing but ingest cheap clickthrough traffic and send it out through more expansive ads.

As to what exactly goes into the formula for the Google quality score, you might as well sky down to Atlanta and ask the Coke folks for the family recipe. Google itself will only say that the score is arrived at using some combination of the keywordís clickthrough rate for a paid listing, the relevance of the ad text, the keyword’s historical performance on Google, and the value or relevance of the landing page.

This latest update to the Google quality score tweaks some of these factors in some instances. The most important change may be that keyword ads that have little or no historical data — mostly terms in the long tail — will get the benefit of the doubt, so to speak. In the past, Google has tended to assume the worst for these new campaigns or little-used keywords and assign them high minimum bids; now the algorithm has been set to be more lenient in a number of these cases.

The change, which went live last week, should therefore have the effect of reactivating some keywords that were formerly deemed “inactive for search” because their minimum bids were above the bid ceilings set by advertisers in budgeting their campaigns. In some cases, marketers may want those tail terms reactivated, particularly at lower bid prices. But in others, the keywords may have been inactive for so long that some marketers may have forgotten theyíre even included in their campaigns. Advertisers who’ve accumulated a large number of those dormant terms may need to reexamine their keyword lists postupdate and make sure that the terms they’re paying for are ones they really want, no matter how low the bid floors may be.

And Google execs said in press reports that some AdWords marketers might see minimum bids go up as a by-blow of the Google quality score update. Many search marketers watch their cost per click obsessively and don’t need to be told to look for that type of change, but small advertisers managing their own AdWords accounts should monitor their click prices carefully over the next few weeks, and the effects of the update spread outward.

Interestingly, Google’s other recent AdWords enhancement will help them do just that. Marketers will be able to see an estimate of their adís Google quality score in the AdWords reports. The evaluations will be in general terms only on a three-point scale, so advertisers will have to settle for knowing that Google thinks their ad is “OK,” “Great,” or “Poor.” But that’s more than Google has revealed in the past, when marketers had to infer how Google was estimating the quality of their ads based on where and how often the search engine was delivering them. And the information will come with Google’s notion of the minimum bid needed to have that keyword rank in the ad network. (Advertisers also need to go in and manually set their AdWords reports to display this data.)

The addition of a quality score column to AdWords reporting went live about a week before the score update did, so observers have assumed that one of Google’s motives was to quell some of the complaints from marketers whose bid minimums went up after the change. Another fact that did not go unremarked was that Yahoo!’s new Panama platform also offers more transparency into how quality affects ad delivery and position using a five-bar index.

Why change the Google quality score again, for the third time since its introduction in 2005? Google frames the move in terms of improving the relevance of ads to consumer searches. “These changes should make it easier for high-quality ads to enter the auction while also discouraging low-quality ads,” the company wrote in a Feb. 14 post on its Inside AdWords blog. “We expect that the higher minimum bids for low-quality ads will reduce the number of low-quality ads we show to our users.”

“If I put on my corporate good-guy hat, Iíd say itís all about increasing relevancy,” says John Tawadros, chief operating officer of search marketing firm iProspect. “Just because people have deep pockets doesnít mean they should be pushing ads to a user.”

But on the less altruistic tip, “it’s a nice way to increase bids,” Tawadros says. Ads that were previously deactivated will now produce revenue for Google, albeit at a lower minimum price. What’s more, new advertisers without a Google history will encounter lower price barriers for their first campaigns with the search engine.

“If I’m a new advertiser coming on board, I have very little history that can apply to my [Google] quality score,” Tawadros says. “That has meant I’ve had to pay more out of the gate. We’ve seen that as a challenge to new Google advertisers: It’s been incredibly cost-prohibitive to get started, and purely based on the quality score.”

To take advantage of the Google changes, Tawadros recommends that small or first-time marketers start with campaigns built on highly specific terms that will draw interested visitors who wonít hit the back button when they reach the landing page. Then, when those successful clickthroughs have built up a solid quality history, they can broaden their SEM campaigns to incorporate more general (but still relevant) keywords that might cast a wider net without posing as much risk to their quality score.

Meanwhile, search marketers who optimize their sites to raise their organic search rankings may need to be aware of changes Google has recently made in how it regards inbound links, an important contributor to page rank. Just like the apparent link between arbitrage and landing page quality, this revision was made to put a crimp in a long-time nuisance known as Googlebombing. That’s the tactic–on many search engines, not just Google–of getting large numbers of incoming Web links to a site using the same anchor text in the link, so that a search for that text will bring up the target site. It’s how the official George W. Bush site started turning up a few years ago in searches for the phrase “miserable failure” and John Kerry’s site for the word “waffles.”

While these link-bombs are relatively infrequent and occur on rarely searched phrases, they’ve begun to mount up. “Over time, we’ve seen more people assume that they are Google’s opinion, or that Google has hand-coded the results for these Googlebombed queries,” senior engineer Matt Cutts said in a Jan. 25 post on the Google Webmaster Central blog. To minimize the problem, he said, Google had built an automatic fix for link-bombs into the algorithm. At press time, a Google search for “miserable failure” no longer produces links to either the Bush or White House sites among the top results but instead brings up a Wikipedia explanation of link-bombing.

But the Google link fix may do more than keep some daylight between polarizing political figures and their online critics. According to Cindy Krum, SEO analyst with Blue Moon Works, the change may also have an effect on the use of paid links to raise a Website’s page rank on Google and make it appear higher in natural results.

Specifically, she says it will eliminate the benefit from, and may actually produce a penalty for, the purchase of site-wide links, also known as run-of-site links.

Many Web operators buying links from text link brokers have opted for the site-wide product, in which a 500-page Website inserts a link with the exact same anchor text on each of its pages. That’s a much more efficient buy than going out and purchasing one link on 500 separate sites. But Krum says research by her firm has shown that the January changes to Google’s link-analysis algorithm have all but done away with the benefit of more than one single per site using the same anchor text.

“The new update prevent inbound site-wide links from affecting search results more than a single link from a site would,” she says. Google has “been trying for a few years to get site-wide links to produce diminishing returns, but now they’re just saying no. Even if every page on a site links to your site, if they all use the same text, you get credit for one link.”

Google’s official stance is against link-buying of any kind, Krum says, and the company maintains that they don’t count purchased links in their rankings. “But they really do, because they don’t have an efficient way of weeding them out,” she says. “I think this is really Google’s way of sorting out a large number of paid links. They want to get away with rocking the boat without calling attention to themselves.”

And it will affect the search marketing plans for operators who rely heavily on those run-of-site paid links. While linking is a legitimate way to increase the ranking of a site and its pages, “it’s really hard work, and there aren’t any quick fixes,” says Krum. “You have to get links from quality sites without simply exchanging money: You have to deserve the links. I think that’s what Google wants to persuade optimizers to do.”

Just as with the quality score, Google has paired this change with increased visibility into its workings. In this case, it has replaced an old link analysis tool that was patently underreporting inbound links to a Web page with one that’s much more accurate and useful. Industry experts have known for some time that Google’s old link lookup tool was counting only a sampling (Google actually called it a “subsampling”–how small is that?) of a page’s links; word had it that Google thought giving operators a full look at their links would encourage some of them to game the ranking system.

But the new tool, available at the Google Webmaster Central site, will give site optimizers a much more complete view of whoís backlinking to their content. Sites that before turned up only a thousand links using the old lookup tool may now find that theyíve got tens of thousands of links.

If not, Google suggests, they may want to ask themselves why not. “We want to provide as much information as we can to help Webmasters understand how their sites perform and how to improve their results,” a Feb. 5 post on the official Google blog said.

Just remember that under the new rules, links (paid or unpaid) from five sites using different anchor text are better than 50,000 identical links from the same site.

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