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Friday, December 8, 2023

AdWords Quality Score: Can Your Business Model Be Banned?

Search - A Column From Search Engine Land

Let’s get this uncomfortable truth out of the way up front: Google’s actions, manifested through a variety of methodologies to rank (and sometimes ban) listings and content, have regularly irritated, angered, and alienated some webmasters, website owners, and advertisers.

The outcry is more vociferous if you can give an initiative, a cute name, and get the mainstream press to catch wind of the story (like the infamous “Florida” update to the organic rankings algorithm). Perhaps this is why Google has become more expert in timing its enforcement episodes and in trying to make them less episodic. Without a sad name like “Cold November Rain,” or “Seasonal Affective Re-Ordering Strategy,” maybe the latest Google AdWords website quality guideline updates will go largely unnoticed.

The fact that search is such a vital daily activity has put Google into the prominent global position it is today. But the fact that search can be discussed at a deep technical level — and so can other Google products, like Google Earth, Docs, Mail, etc. — distracts from the purpose of creating the search technology in the first place.

Google as consumer advocate

In its field of expertise — and as it happens, that field grew to a position of dominance exceeding most observers’ expectations — Google has always positioned itself as a consumer advocate. Its job has been to act as an editorial filter not so dissimilar to smaller scale editorial organizations such as Consumer Reports or Zagat’s. The difference is only that they rank things like search results, and that they do so in a context of massive scalability, massive computational challenges, and many more constituencies to juggle. Because Google has generally done a very good job of this, they remain the global consumer favorite at what they do.

From the early days, they’ve also carried out that role with a certain degree of cockiness. Right down to the “I Feel Lucky” button, which implies that the first search result is often exactly the one you are looking for. Google can continue to be cocky about this type of thing because their competitors never outdid them on the one thing they are all supposed to have been trying to do: show the most relevant result.

I hope this puts questions like “Who are they to decide whether I can or cannot…” into perspective. They are Google, always have been, and as consumer advocates and a sophisticated type of editorial filter, they can, and they will, make arbitrary decisions. These decisions are less capricious, however, insofar as (a) they are based on real consumer feedback and input; (b) are consistently executed by means of consistent editorial standards, or a scoring mechanism that speaks to relevancy, quality, appropriateness, etc.

A secondary function Google performs is to keep the playing field level among all advertisers and site owners vying for search visibility generally. “Level” may be a particularly ill-chosen adjective, but I can’t think of a better one for now. Google is, for sure, actively involved in “playing field management.”

Also, Google is a for-profit business.

Moving on.

Website quality guidelines: more disclosure

Google recently added clarity to their Landing Page Quality Guidelines, including some types of websites that “may merit a low landing page quality score.” The explicit nature of the explanations were, to me, eye-opening. The fact that Google has been doing this for some time is no surprise.

Recall that overall, landing page quality is part of quality-based bidding, which is now about two years old. Assessment of landing page quality is eighteen months old. These mechanisms have been rolled out in stages and continue to escape many advertisers unless they have been paying close attention. The 1,000-strong crowd at SES New York this year attending a session on this topic, and the capacity-filled room for a similar session in San Jose, are evidence of the hunger advertisers now have for information on this topic. It appears that many believe that due to its complexity, “paid search is the new SEO,” in the sense that there are more emerging unknowns and algorithmic quirks. I don’t think it’s quite as spooky or mysterious as all that, because (see above) a good chunk of this is actually a kind of parallel “editorial oversight” function to kick out the worst kinds of businesses (or at least to disincentivize them from advertising). The landing page and website quality issue is, let’s say, only semi-algorithmic, and separate from some of the “other relevancy factors,” CTR, and bids that, for the most part, still drive the ad auction.

Advertisers and observers of the space have tended to be incredulous when I have mentioned case studies of low quality scores that are attributable not to low CTR’s, not to poor relevancy, and not even to a poorly-constructed landing page, but rather, to your whole business model falling into a “Google basically doesn’t like you” category. I basically said this much, in some cases: try as we might to take steps to improve relevancy, landing pages, CTR’s, and so forth, for some of these types of business, we saw no movement on the extremely low quality scores, and thus those businesses seem to have no hope of advertising through this channel. Google takes a dim view of certain types of “data collection” sites, for example, and that’s that.

What I was saying was essentially this: Google could ban you from advertising basically if it just doesn’t like your business model. Here, we’re not talking about discretionary powers to ban pharmaceutical, fireworks, weapons, or other restricted or legally-suspect lines of business; we’re talking about other things that consumers (but notably, Google, independently of consumers, amplifying that ostensible consumer stance) dislike in a very broad sense of how offers are constructed and how consumers are treated.

Some, especially those stung by very low quality scores, found it difficult to believe this. Google doesn’t like my “business model,” so they can ban me? And what about the uncertainty of it all? Do they or don’t they hate me? Based on that uncertainty, Google had explored whether and how it should communicate directly with such site owners. But as an interim measure, they’ve publicly published a list of the business models and website types that will find it difficult to break through the quality score maze. (In other words, sites that will be arbitrarily penalized or banned, but this act will be manifested in high minimum bids and expressed as Poor quality scores on most or all keywords.)

It’s a bit more shocking to read the FAQ directly because that page actually has headings saying things like “Business Models to Avoid.” You might want to take a screen shot of that. I don’t imagine that will stay up forever.

On the list? You may have to take your advertising business elsewhere.

Please don’t shoot the messenger.


The primary business models rejected by Google have been fairly well-known to us, although their record in addressing the banning process fairly and evenly has been mixed. The system gathers more data all the time to improve the automated nature of quality scoring, but in many cases you’d have to wait for some negative feedback to get through to Google directly until you, as a user, no longer saw the arbitrage or malware offer via an advertisement near results on Google Search.

The secondary list Google has now published will be surprising to a lot of people. It raises the specter of potentially sweeping and arbitrary measures against perfectly acceptable lines of business. A few comments on these:

  • eBook sites that show frequent ads. I’m sure this is code for some much more specific pet peeve or prohibition, but it looks so broad. You can say what you like about eBooks based on your own personal stereotype of what an eBook is — cheesy, misleading, aggressive, low quality, etc. — but that is surely case by case. I sell eBooks. I buy eBooks. Sometimes, a so-called “eBook” is called a “white paper” and is part of a rather respectable tradition of document publishing. Recently, we decided that one of our Page Zero publications, Mastering Panama, would not come out as an eBook, but would be sold instead as a print-on-demand bound document through CafePress. We receive inquiries from all around the world (yesterday, a request from an Italian subscriber) as to whether the material will be available in digital format. People often want eBooks. Adobe, for one, kind of hopes that continues. You know, I think I get it — there are goofy eBooks about seducing women/men and about how to build a rocket ship out of snow peas… you’ve seen the ads. The ads show up all over creation; especially in GMail. I think they are probably effective, but for some reason they are very polarizing. So… I get it, but in a larger sense I’m not sure I get it.
  • ‘Get rich quick’ sites. Here again, I think I get it. These things are cheesy, misleading, and prey on folks. But the definition is tough to nail. What’s getting rich quick? Slow? Seymour Schulich just wrote a book about how he became a billionaire in the gold mining business. To me, he got rich pretty fast. Ask me whether that makes me more likely or less likely to buy his book. So, Google, don’t be surprised in the next edition of some respectable-ish-get-rich dude’s Insider Circle Newsletter (or whatnot) that you get slammed for being “Muffy and Buffy with your Stanford degree in English telling good folks how to run their business.” Personally, I have never met anyone at Google named Muffy or Buffy, and am eager to hear more about the definitions of “get,” “rich,” and “quick.”
  • Comparison shopping sites. Here, the sense is that these are generally arbitrage under the guise of comparison shopping, or they are unnecessary extra clicks that consumers are no longer interested in wasting. Still, seems like a potentially arbitrary measure, potentially directed at direct competitors of Google’s.
  • Travel aggregators. Depending on how it’s implemented, this one could be a real shocker. Nearly everyone in the travel business is some kind of consolidator or aggregator. What does it mean? For the majority, I sincerely hope it means nothing. But clearly you’ll need to figure out how to differentiate your offerings and content, and show proof that you’re not just another layer spamming the AdWords system trying to eke out an arbitrage-style profit.

How do advertisers feel?

For the most part, the advertisers I talked with this week support Google’s moves in general, and the transparency of publishing specific guidelines. One said “these [bad] sites compete against me, which makes it more expensive.”

Putting on their own user hats, advertisers also tended to support Google’s direction. One told me:

“Personally, I hate ‘spammer’ type sites. I don’t click on ads all that much and instead stick to natural listings, but am equally angry when I get misdirected to crappy sites. Ideally, when I search I want to find what I am looking for in one click. Google to desired site. End of story.”

What should businesses do?

After getting past the process of defining the words “should,” “business,” and “do,” I feel less than compelled to preach.

For immediately-affected businesses doing shady, nasty stuff, in some sense you already know you’re bad guys. Google treats you as such, and has no advice for you, and neither do I. You’ll keep at it, I’m sure.

For those somehow caught in the net unfairly, I believe that there has to be a process of figuring out how you can offer more unique content, disclosure, or other consumer-friendly features to your mix. Is the difference between some affiliates and some authorized resellers largely semantic, in many cases? Of course. So study success stories and get yourself out of that “affiliate” pigeonhole. In some cases, a Google rep might even be willing to advise. Certainly that’s the kind of strategic advice my clients pay me for.

For anyone in a line of business that even vaguely competes with Google’s, the much broader question will be, is Google going to subtly or not-so-subtly raise prices on you or outright ban you down the road? If I were the strategist at (for argument’s sake) a company that competes with Google News, let’s say, I guess I’d be trying to work out how to take advantage of low click prices now, to acquire eyeballs at a better price. I’d also be working on diversifying business models so that Google could find no reasonable rationale to hurt me unduly from a paid or organic standpoint in all the different places I live. In keeping with the fly-below-the-radar ethos, I’d also probably work on a multi-brand strategy, instead of keeping everything under a single corporate banner.

If you’re a mainstream retailer you’ll probably find it’s business as usual.

But for others, long-term strategy is in order. Think about what probably just happened to some of the comparison shopping sites. You don’t want to be caught flat-footed. In short (although this is only short enough to go on a bumper sticker if you drive a Hummer), try diversification as a hedge against future arbitrary measures in a quality score world.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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