Getting Quality Score Right From The Start

by Craig Danuloff

I’ve been at SMX Advanced in London for the last few days, in part talking about quality score. The one recurring question I heard was about the best way to scale a new account in a way that would maximize quality score.

The worst way to do it, which seems to be the default method, is to just drop thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of keywords into new accounts and just turn them on. This generally produces really poor results, and may create damage to the account from which it might never recover.

The reason why you don’t want to do this will be clear after we discuss the right way to build and scale a new account.

Starting On The Right Foot

The ideal way to build a new account is to add a small number of initial keywords, allow them to earn good or great quality scores and for those scores to stabilize, and to then add another batch of keywords, allow those to earn good or great quality scores and to stabilize, and then keep repeating this process until the entire initial account build and expansion is complete.

The reason this iterative approach is best, is that it allows your account to develop a history – a positive history – across all the CTR measures that quality score depends on. You want to build this history slowly and carefully, building a base strong enough to eventually support your entire account.

For a brand new account, with a domain that has never been advertised on AdWords before, Google has no existing history or reputation on which to determine initial quality scores. In this case they will look at the performance history and experience that other advertisers have had with the keywords you choose (assuming you’re not the first advertiser to ever bid on those terms) but they will be cautious given your lack of account history, ad copy history, display URL history, etc. and so keywords will very often start with extremely low quality scores – 2s, 4s, and 5s, are common.

But actual performance is monitored closely. If these keywords can show over the course of their first few hundred and thousand impressions, that they can earn competitive click-through rates as compared to other advertisers, the quality scores will rise quickly. This solid performance starts building a reputation for the account by way of a lifetime account CTR history, a performance history for ad copy, a performance history for the display URLs those ads are using, as well as demonstrating whatever geographical performance patterns may be typical in your case.

In each case, a fact-based history is better than an unknown. AdWords will use this more certain base, and hopefully track record of success, to base each quality score recalculation – which of course happens every time a keyword enters a search auction.

Given the importance of this first layer of base, it should include only your strongest keywords. Brand keywords are the best bet IF you have a recognizable brand that will earn typical ‘brand-level’ CTRs of 10% or higher. If your brand is an unknown and will gain low search volumes and potentially low click-through rates then you may not want to start with your brand, or at least include only a few core versions of it and instead go with a set of ‘short tail’ keywords that have a better chance of high CTR.

If you’ve run a version of this account before, or worked with similar keywords for another advertiser, leverage that experience to choose a strong set of high CTR keywords to launch your account. Don’t start with broad ‘head’ keywords that include category names and the like, because they tend to not earn good CTRs. Specific keywords where you’ve got some special attractiveness – a feature, a better offer, unique content like reviews or something you can promise in the ad copy to really drive great CTR. Put your best foot forward.

I would probably start with between 20 to 50 keywords, and lean to the low side of that range if possible. This sounds like an impossibly low number of keywords when your goal is to build an account with hundreds of thousands or millions of keywords. But even the largest skyscrapers start with relatively small foundations. We’ll discuss scaling in a moment, but the risk to focus on here is a poor start that will permanently cripple the account forever. If you can’t come up with that number of high CTR keywords and quickly earn quality scores of 7 or higher, maybe AdWords isn’t for you or this business.

Next Steps

If you pick the right starting set of keywords, build the account on a sound organization and write good ad copy, you should see quality scores increase by the day and hit 7 or higher within a week. Impression volume is probably more important than time, and keep 1000 impressions per keyword in your head as the target volume to achieve.

Any keywords that stabilize at quality scores below 7 should be improved. Better ad copy, smaller ad groups, and a long hard look in the mirror where you ask yourself if you really deserve to bid on that keyword are in order. Don’t make changes before you have statistically significant data, but when you do don’t delay. Pause any keywords that can’t achieve at least 7s in this early stage.

Now you’re ready to add more keywords. Add enough keywords to double your impressions-per-week. Normally many of the keywords in the initial batch will be relatively high volume, so often this next set will include more than a doubling of the keyword count. The point is to not overwhem your base – if you’ve shown strong performance on 50,000 impressions-a-week worth of keywords, and earned good histories in all the CTR measures mentioned above, adding 1M impressions-a-week worth of keywords in one new batch will overwhelm the account. The base wouldn’t be strong enough to hold it. Doubling the impression count is reasonable. The numbers don’t have to be exact, just get as close as you can.

Watch your new batch of keywords closely. They may start at lower than optimal quality scores too, but should climb at least as fast as the first set, and probably faster. When the second set has achieved about 1000 impressions for most of the keywords and demonstrated the ability to earn quality scores 7 or higher in nearly or every case, you can move on to batch #3.

Building Your Skyscraper

You can feel comfortable doubling the average number of impressions-per-week with every new set of keywords added to the account. At this pace your history will provide a strong base to help the new keywords leverage your past success and the new set are unlikely to weaken the base even if they contain some poor performers.

Use this time and opportunity however to be a harsh judge of performance and work to improve or pause any isolated keywords that get stuck with low quality scores. It’s better to work on them now while they’ve got your attention and haven’t started dropping your average performance over long periods of time. A zero tolerance policy for any keyword that can’t get above a 6 – unless it has a strong business advantage (like being highly profitable despite the poor quality score) – is recommended.

At some point, you could probably increase the pace of additions if you’re working toward a particularly huge account. After 250,000 keywords are in and have earned good stable quality scores, a new crop with 2x or possibly 3x the impression volume could work. You’ve got to weigh the risk of weakening your patiently built base with the business expediance of getting the full account running.

Creating History and Reputation

This process is about building up a history in the signals that drive quality score. You can’t swagger into town as an unknown and expect the powers-that-be to trust you as you start doing big business in forty locations on your first day. Better to start small, show them you know what you’re doing, and scale on top of the initial reputation you develop.

Metaphors aside, you need an account CTR history that suggests that you know how to buy keywords and write text ads. Note that if AdWords ads have been pointed at your root domain in the past even from another account, there will be some historical residue to overcome. Beyond the account history there is history to build for every visible target URL, for all the geographies where you’ll market, and with each keyword, ad copy, combination thereof, and even search queries. Slow. And. Steady. Wins. The. Race.

Revising History

All of the above is great, if you’ve got a brand new AdWords account. If that horse has already left the barn, then you need to apply these same principles in a different way. That’s not necessarily easy depending on the history the account has, so we’ll cover that topic in a blog post here next week.

Quality Score in High Resolution

This post is based on material from Quality Score in High Resolution, a new book that details the workings and secrets of AdWords quality score. Learn more and order your copy today.

Craig has put together the definative book that will help you to undertstand and improve your quality scores. This is a must read book for anyone concerned about their AdWords’s performance.”
- Brad Geddes, Certified Knowledge

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  • Murraykester

    You talk about accounts with 250k keywords but from my experience adwords won’t allow more than 50k keywords per account even if I ask for more.

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