Adwords quality score, explained for non-nerds

Ian Lurie

You may bid more than anyone else for the phrase ‘rubber duckies’ in Google Adwords. But that doesn’t guarantee you a top ranking.

Your quality score influences your position, too. You may, for example, be able to get a #1 Adwords ranking while bidding for the #2 spot.

Bizarre, I know. But here’s how it works:

A quick tour of the rankings

In case you don’t know, these are the sponsored or ‘pay per click’ (PPC) ads:

Adwords quality score, explained for non-nerds

Google's pay-per-click results, outlined in red

Like the ‘organic,’ unpaid rankings, PPC listings are all about keeping visitors happy. If I search for ‘bicycle tires’ and click the #1 PPC ad, I want to see a site about bicycle tires. In fact, I want to see the best site about bicycle tires. I don’t care if they’re paid ads.

So Google can’t make PPC ad position completely bid-driven. If the #1 PPC position went to the highest bidder 100% of the time, ads might end up pointing at totally crappy sites. That would make their users unhappy. And that would reduce their stock price. Not good.

Enter quality score.

Quality score

If you have an Adwords account, log in and go to the keywords listing. Click the little speech bubble icon next to the word ‘Eligible’ for one of your keywords. You’ll see something like this:

quality score

Quality score

The fraction you see (6/10 in the example above) is the keyword’s quality score for that ad.

Quality score factors

The quality score box on Adwords gives a nice hint to how Google measures PPC ad quality:

  • Landing page quality: Google actually goes and crawls the page to which your ad points. They want well-written, relevant pages. So, that landing page you just created that’s 100% images? Yeah. No. Make sure you have HTML text. A clear call to action and some decent writing wouldn’t kill you, either.
  • Landing page load time: I don’t have to beat this dead horse any more, do I? Faster pages do better in all rankings, paid and unpaid. If your landing page takes 15 seconds to load, you’re utterly killing yourself. Get your landing page load time under 2 seconds.
  • Keyword relevance: Are folks finding your ad useful? In other words, do they click your ad when they see it? This one’s all about clickthru rate, also known as CTR. You want to constantly improve your CTR. You definitely do not want to reduce it.

Quality score history

Google keeps a running tally for your keywords and ads. That’s why, when you start a new campaign, you may be stuck bidding $5/click just to get your ad displayed: You’ve got no campaign history. It’s a form of PPC sandbox: New stuff isn’t as trustworthy.

And yes, I think this is a nifty way to extract more money from hapless advertisers. I bow to Google’s insane genius.

More tomorrow

That’s enough for one day. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about all the lovely ways you can completely screw up your quality score.


I’m not a PPC nerd. At Portent, that’s Elizabeth’s job. But I do sometimes have to explain stuff, so I try to keep up-to-date.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Very clear and explanatory post. i look forward to tomorrows on how to screw it up lol. What would you class more important a clear call to action or decent content in the HTML text?

    1. They’re both awfully important. Truth is I think that CTR is the most important – the on-page stuff is likely a negative indicator, meaning if there is no on-page content, or if that content has no relevance to the ad, that can hurt your quality score.

  2. I’m curious as to the balance between quantity and quality on writing on a landing page. How much quality writing is enough?

    1. Exactly as much as is needed. No more, no less 🙂
      Seriously, Jon, there can never be ‘too much’ quality content on a landing page. There should be what’s necessary to explain the product and call to action.
      The real concern is that you not turn text into graphical text – that means there’s nothing for search engines to chew on.

  3. Came across this very simple explanation of Quality Score when searching for basic background on it (Google’s help pages are just a bit too confusing for newbies).
    Since you seem to be able to simplify this down quite well, I’d like to pose a question, which is at the heart of my searches right now: If I have a higher quality score for “blue widgets with propellers” than my chief competitor, will I out rank him in the ads 100% of the time?
    I just find it hard to believe that it is in the best interest of Google’s revenue streams in PPC to allow Quality Score to completely and totally nullify someone who is willing to pay more for a term. If the quality score was kind of close, say a 9 vs. a 6-7, I’m thinking Google would allow the higher bid to rank higher, at least SOME of the time, yes?

    1. Michael,
      You’re right, Quality Score is not the only factor that determines ad rank. Each advertiser’s set Maximum Cost-per-click will also play a role in the ad auction.
      So no, an advertising bidding on their keyword with a Quality Score of 6 or 7 will still be able to beat out a competitor with a Quality Score of 9 or 10, if their bid is high enough.
      But the bottom line is often Return on Investment. Focusing on raising your Quality Scores by optimizing landing pages is going to be more profitable in the long run than just trying to outbid competitors.
      And yeah, Google’s AdWords Learning Center can be wordy and tough to understand. I do like their page on landing page optimization though.

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