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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lack of Editorial Transparency a Nagging Concern with AdWords in a Quality Score World

Ah, beautiful white space. Sometimes nice if you're a search engine user. Not so great if you're an advertiser who has cluttered it up in the past to your benefit, and is now being asked to pay a higher minimum bid just to show up there. And maybe a bit weird if all the other advertisers on that keyphrase are being asked to do the same.


It's one thing to describe roughly what I think is going on with Google AdWords' quality score algorithm, and what Google officially says about it. That info is roughly, more or less, out there.

That being said, when it comes to being slapped with minimum bids of $5.00 or even $10.00 on formerly successful keywords (not a common situation, but one that is still problematic to those legitimate businesses affected), you never know which part of the formula is affecting you, and how much of it is manual, human-based editorial decisions.

In the past, individual keywords weren't routinely disabled by editorial staff without any type of explanation.

Editorial Process 1.0 at Google was at least somewhat dependent on human policy enforcement of a variety of rules and guidelines. When an advertiser broke a rule, they were given an indication of what rule they broke.

Editorial Process 2.0 is more along the lines of "you should know what you did."

For queries like "Yahoo Campaign," I guess we know what we did (all of the advertisers who would probably like to show up for that): we offered to help marketers make their Yahoo campaigns better, and Google apparently doesn't like it, so there are zero ads eligible to show. There are three ads eligible to show for the query "Overture Campaign," far fewer than previously. You wonder just how much of this anticompetitive and just downright petty uses of quality score is going on.

We've noticed that although quality score issues are not widespread, some of them do seem to be triggered by certain definitions of privacy and data security that favor Google over identifiable competitors. For example, what if (I'm just saying what if) the advertiser uses a third-party pixel tracking solution so they can manage their keyword campaign to ROI objectives, but fails to disclose that in the manner that Google prefers? (Recall, if you use Google Conversion Tracker, you don't just put a pixel on the site, you have to let users see a full text link that says "Google Site Stats".) And what if (I'm just saying what if) that is actually hurting quality scores of AdWords advertisers? Wouldn't that bias the marketplace in favor of Google's conversion tracking solution, similar to the manner in which Google's differential display of ads from companies using Google Checkout would bias those advertisers towards using Google's payment solution? And you can look at a lot of similar Big Question Marks. Because Google speaks vaguely about their policies, and algorithmically (with some human input) assigns quality scores in a "mute" fashion, we're left to ask these questions.

It's one thing to offer incentives to customers to do more business with you. Quite another to bias an "auction" that has been billed as a reasonably fair and level playing field (with rules invented only to maintain the integrity of the auction).

By hiding behind an algorithm, instead of governing editorial matters with reasonably transparent policies, Google can avoid charges of anticompetitive behavior in their ad program.... for now. Depending on the extent of this type of bias, however, I wouldn't expect they could get away with it forever.

Now as Yahoo, too, moves towards eventual implementation of a multifaceted ad auction, they have some real dilemmas to sort through about how much to share with advertisers. If people find themselves losing ad rank based for unfathomable, mysterious reasons, the auction's legitimacy begins to decline. It's time to do some hard thinking about auction integrity and fair disclosure of as much information as feasible.

Somehow, in spite of the advantages to Google (and potentially Yahoo) of hiding the details of algorithms, more transparency needs to be injected into the editorial side of what leads to an extremely low quality score. For minimum bids of $5.00 and up, you'd think more than a boilerplate overview of the overall issue of quality would be warranted. What component or components of quality were primarily responsible for the very low score? If it's on the editorial, "forbidden fruit" side, shouldn't they try to write a note about what exactly the violation was? Or to cut down on the volume of notes, could there at least be a structured followup process?

You can check out what ads are eligible to show on any given search query, as I did in this instance, by running the Google Ad Preview tool. A handy little feature for marketers.

Edit: Shortly after first writing this I remembered that Google has new magnifying glass icons next to all keywords in an an account. When you drill down for further info on keyword status, sometimes it tells you that the keyword isn't showing specifically because it has a low quality score. From there, you're asked to read the boilerplate info. But this more specific information "by keyword" looks like it's architected in such a way that Google could add in more advice or comment that would be more specific to the reasons for low quality score in a particular case. Perhaps they're prepping the interface for just that.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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