Quality score is a complex metric because it is a basic but fundamental component of ad rank.
Optimizing for quality score is a best practice, except when it isn’t. A high quality score is a sign of account health, except when it isn’t. Like any other paid search “best practice,” it is only a best practice when it works in your favor.
Because quality score is a fundamental element of an account and has been widely written about, it is a focal point for many advertisers. While some of that is fair, some of the attention it receives is unnecessary.
More than a few people have reached out and asked how quality score can be improved in their account. My first inclination is to suggest they first ensure that a quality score improvement is going to help drive them closer to the business goals they hope to achieve.
The reality is that spending a lot of time and capital on increasing quality score doesn’t always pay off, as you will soon see.
Tie your account goals to business goals
To determine if something is “working,” you have to know whether or not it is contributing toward your goals. This is where things can get a little sticky.
Sometimes when I speak with people, increasing their quality score is their goal. If that’s the case, there may be a good reason — but I’d ask the account owner to dig into:
- What they ultimately hope to achieve with their AdWords account.
- Why it is that they want to increase quality score. Typically, the resulting answer to this question is something along the lines of “Because it’s a best practice.” Do you see where I’m going with this? I think this is the human version of Excel’s circular reference.
So let’s back up. Let’s step outside of the pay-per-click (PPC) account for a second and talk about business goals. Once those are written down, then we will write down PPC goals that support each of those.
Business goals are almost always something like: generate X number of leads at an acceptable cost, generate sales at X percent return on investment (ROI) or calculating return on ad spend (ROAS), and contribute to $X in revenue.
Quality score could possibly support one of the PPC goals, but there’s almost never a situation where it is a goal on its own because there is almost never a situation where it is a direct link to a corporate goal. I know. I said it. And I mean it! (Honestly, I can’t think of a single one.)
What you can learn from quality score
There are a lot of great insights that can be learned from quality score, most obviously:
- Landing page experience.
- Expected click-through rate.
Each item listed is important, even at the surface level, but, there’s more than meets the eye with these metrics. If your quality score is suffering due to relevance and your click-through rate still seems to suffer, there could be a deeper issue at play.
For example, it could be that the keywords you’ve chosen are too broad or don’t show enough intent and are being matched with queries that aren’t really the best fit.
This is pretty easy to dig into: Just look into the search terms report and make sure the terms are a good fit for your products and services. If there are just a few misses, it could be solved with negatives, but if the problem is widespread, you may want to rethink your keyword strategy.
When quality score matters
Quality score is an important metric, and it should still be evaluated as a potential optimization opportunity. For example, if one of your highest conversion-generating keywords has a low quality score, it would be reasonable to assume improving the quality score could improve the average cost per acquisition (CPA) on a high volume of conversions. That would be well worth your while!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you might find quality score so low it is impossible for a keyword to get any traction. It can be worthwhile to focus efforts on those terms, which could result in expanded reach.
In addition, if you find there seems to be a quality score issue at scale (click-through rate, for instance), that might indicate an area of opportunity that could have a wide-reaching positive impact without a high level of effort.
There are times quality score optimizations can have a real, substantial impact, it just isn’t safe to assume that is always the case.
When quality score can be detrimental
Quality score is pretty well refined, too. The search engines have spent a lot of time improving quality score, the supporting factors and providing insight into areas in which advertisers can improve.
However, that said, it isn’t perfect. Although the cues quality score looks for are good indicators, there are times they can be counterintuitive. While you may be marching toward an increase in quality score, you could be marching away from more important performance metrics.
There are a few ways this can happen, even with the best of intentions. Here’s one: Ads with dynamic keyword insertion (DKI) often show increases in click-through rate over those ads that don’t have DKI, but that doesn’t always mean the ad is better quality.
Although the click-through rate (CTR) may increase, conversions may not. At that point, if you were basing your performance purely on CTR and quality score, it would be considered a win. However, if you were basing your results on performance against business goals, an increased cost per lead with no increase in conversions wouldn’t be considered a win.
This is just one example of many where making an increase in quality score your primary goal can come to the detriment of more important performance indicators.
Should that scare you away from making quality score optimizations when needed? No! It should only serve to illustrate why quality score shouldn’t be the primary account goal.
When optimizing for quality score isn’t the best use of time
There are times quality score optimizations just aren’t likely to have a worthwhile impact on your keyword’s performance. For example, if your keyword meets any of the following criteria, quality score optimizations aren’t likely to have a big impact:
- If the keyword is low-volume for any reason aside from quality score.
- If the keyword is already getting a decent amount of traffic that doesn’t convert well. There may be other optimizations that could help solve this, but quality score isn’t likely the best starting point.
- The keyword already has a relatively high quality score, even if not a full 10.
To optimize or not to optimize
The goal of this post wasn’t to suggest no one should ever optimize for quality score — in fact, you should! But, at some point, you will likely have to prioritize some account optimization efforts over others, and your quality score optimizations should be prioritized based on their likelihood to impact your account and business goals.
As we’ve seen from my examples above, there are times optimizing for quality score can come at the expense of other key performance indicators, which becomes an unjustifiable risk.
The most important thing is to always benchmark your performance against relevance, landing page experience and expected click-through rate as they apply to your business. Any optimization made to improve quality score should do just that, but without taking away from your primary goal.
Complex products and long buying cycles make search engine optimization for B2B sites different than for B2C.
The difference, however, is not in the specific techniques, but in the way SEO and other marketing tactics are integrated to help a B2B ecommerce company perform well in search engines. For B2C, SEO can perform as a standalone channel. But for B2B it is part of several marketing tactics working together.
“If you look at the SEO side of this, the fundamentals are all just exactly the same” as those for business-to-consumer SEO, said Jon Quinton, CEO of Overdrive Digital, a marketing firm, during a November 2016 SEMrush webinar.
“You have to have a site that is technically sound. You have to be relevant to the search queries that people are putting in. You have to have a certain degree of popularity and authority in order to rank, but … the approach [for B2B] …. is very different and often needs to be very different.”
Even seemingly mundane products can be relatively more complex to find, choose, and manage in the B2B channel.
For example, imagine a brick-and-mortar cowboy boot retailer with 20 stores in the Western United States. The company wants to order custom shopping bags for its stores, but it cannot just go out and order the first bags it finds.
The retailer will need to select finishes like matte, gloss, foil, or laminate; choose printing techniques; and even decide whether the extra $432 in setup fees each time it orders is worth it for two-sided printing.
It will also be important to know the supplier’s lead times are and how much the bags will cost.
This level of complexity can make it difficult to simply search for shopping bags on Google and find a good source in even the top 20 or more results.
The B2B purchase process may require a consensus of several individuals.
Let’s continue with the example of a cowboy boot retailer looking online for custom printed shopping bags.
Unless the retail business is very small, it is likely that at least four individuals or groups will be involved in the buying decision.
First, there will be a person tasked with the initial research. This person may work in the purchasing department or even the marketing department and probably has a title like “assistant,” “specialist,” or “coordinator.”
Next, there will likely be a graphic designer who will want input on bag color, material, logo options, and graphic layout.
A brand manager, art director, or marketing director will need to approve everything the graphic designer selected, and someone from the operations group will weigh in on whether or not the bags are feasible. Will they hold large boot boxes? Do they fit under the counters?
Along the way, each of these folks will presumably go to Google or Bing and search for shopping bags. None of them will use the same exact keyword phrase.
Longer Buying Cycle
Given the complexity of options and the number of folks involved, don’t be surprised if it takes weeks for a B2B buyer to actually make a purchase, even when she is just buying shopping bags.
To be fair, this shopping bag example is hypothetical. Some B2B ecommerce purchases will be fast and easy. But others might be even more complex than shopping bags.
These complex purchases are going to require more work than simply attracting someone’s attention for a single query or a couple of keywords. What’s more, some B2B searches are dominated by third parties.
“There was a time when ranking number one for a keyword was a victory wholly worth pursuing — a time when you could build a list of keywords, craft 300-word blog posts, and your site would drive new business. That is no longer the case,” wrote Directive Consulting CEO, Garrett Mehrguth.
“In 2017, we have a different search engine, and it’s critically important that B2B companies understand this….If your B2B SEO strategy is based around ranking your own website instead of positioning your brand, you’re missing the bigger picture. The reality is that your own website is no longer the best answer in Google’s mind for the keywords that are lowest in the funnel. Google favors independent websites that allow visitors to compare and review their options (you can thank Yelp for this).”
Thus B2B ecommerce SEO may work best when it is integrated with the disciplines of search engine advertising, public relations, and content marketing. The goal is not to simply rank for a single keyword or even a group of keywords, but to surround those keywords with your brand.
This can take a few forms.
Search engine advertising. Purchase pay-per-click ads for the keywords your B2B ecommerce business is targeting for organic SEO. If you win the organic ranking, great. If not, you can still show the assistant, graphic designer, brand manager, and operations manager your products — no matter where they happen to be in the buying cycle. Also, use retargeting to follow B2B buyers.
Encourage reviews. Public relations and influencer marketing may help your B2B products earn reviews on popular sites. A third-party article describing how your custom shopping bags improved customer loyalty may appear much higher in search results than your own content and can still contribute to your sales.
Develop content for the entire buying process. Create useful articles and videos to address questions your prospects will have at each phrase of the buying cycle. This means helping the assistant who does the initial research organize options, helping the graphic designer, and even providing information for the folks in operations.
Ultimately, B2B ecommerce SEO may work best when you supplement your organic keywords with ads, influencers, and content.