Demystifying Google Quality Score & the Click Thru Rate Factor

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I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about Quality Score (for search networks) lately. I usually don’t think much about quality score (QS) and over time, I got fed up with people who were obsessed with it. I suspected it was just people’s fascination with mysteries- Google algorithms cause a lot of discussion because they’re complicated and partly secret. But I figured, if you create ad groups that make sense and test good ads, QS takes care of itself.

PPC Account Average Quality Score

I had never thought of it, but it suddenly made a lot of sense to find the average quality score for all keywords in each of our client accounts. Quality score, if you get it from the Reporting Center, is on a 1-10 scale. I found that our average client had an average quality score of about 7.5. But they ranged from 6.1 to 8.2. I also profiled their total number of keywords, number of ad groups, avg CPC, what vertical they’re in, and average ad position.


The above is a scatter chart of a selection of the quality score and CPC of about 700 keywords across about ten of our PPC clients. As we’d expect, there’s an inverse relationship between QS and CPC.

Now, average quality score is just an indicator, and not perfect. You might use it to question if your account could be structured better or not. If you get more granular, if you increase CTR, you can lower CPC for the same ad position and increase ROI. Yes, there’s a balance between CTR and CR and Avg Sale- you can optimize for all by focusing on ROAS or ROI. But lower CPC also gets you more clicks and more impressions for the same budget. So when you consider all the factors, choosing a KPI is not as easy as it looks. Dealing with a suite of KPI’s could be too complicated.

Number of Keywords and Average Quality Score

You should also think about how many keywords you have. Every niche has a different number of relevant keywords, and within that, a different number of high ROI keywords. If you have too many keywords, your quality score may go down, because your offer is truly relevant to only so many search keywords, and CTR will decrease when you pass beyond some critical point of relevance. On the flip side, you could get a very high QS by using fewer keywords, but then are you missing out on important customers?

Average Quality Score and Your Bottom Line

And never forget- the most important keywords are the ones that perform the best for your KPI- the most profitable, the most volume-producing keywords… the quality score of these keywords is more important than the quality score of 100 long tail keywords, if the long tail ones don’t produce much ROI. So, take the average quality score for an account with a grain of salt.

Quality Score = CTR, Says AdWords Rep

Another interesting point I had clarified by one of our AdWords Dedicated Support reps was that though Quality Score is composed of multiple factors, far and away the most important one is CTR. He said:

In actuality, the CTR is really the largest component of Quality Score. If you increase the CTR, you will increase the Quality Score. It can be pretty tough to get scores of 9-10, but it is definitely possible. More often than not though, the keywords I see in accounts that have scores of 9-10 are branded keywords that have very high CTRs (sometimes 10-20-30%).

This is not surprising, when you think about it, that AdWords defines quality as the relevance that leads to clicks- that’s their bottom line- Google is still not fully devoted to your success- they only take you part way through the journey. You have to fight for the conversions and increased revenue. And they’re not wrong to do that- they’re not responsible for the effectiveness of your website usability, your offer, your copywriting and so on.

So, How Then Shall We Optimize?

The way to lower CPC via increasing QS is to increase CTR. And that brings us back to where I started with quality score- when you test ads, you need to balance CTR, CR, and Avg Sale optimization. Clicks alone are not your goal, and high CTR ads sometimes are low ROI ads.

When it comes to campaign and ad group structuring and how much of your keywords are in their ad group’s ads, that’s where you can increase CTR and QS without worrying. The more granularity you have at the campaign level, the more you can optimize by budgeting, but you can start something as an ad group and move it into its own campaign later- quite easily in fact with AdWords Editor. And it makes sense to prioritize this above ad testing, even though I believe in constant ad testing, because ad success can be limited by bad ad group structure.

Brian Carter is the Director of Search Engine Marketing for Fuel Interactive, an interactive marketing agency in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He is responsible for the SEO, PPC, SMM, and ORM programs at Fuel and its partner traditional agency Brandon Advertising & PR.

Brian Carter
Brian is author of The Like Economy: How Businesses Make Money With Facebook and Facebook Marketing: Leveraging Facebook's Features For Your Marketing Campaigns, How to... Read Full Bio
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  • Excellent article. Great to have more clarity out there that CTR is what matters and most of the rest of the QS stuff has minimal if any impact.

    I’ve done some similar analysis and mapping of Quality Score distributions that can be seen in this video and we have templates in ClickEquations to map anyone’s QS distribution with a single click – It’s very informative and actionable.

  • Relevance is what matters (e.g. good keyword matching, ad copy, landing page, offer, etc.) and will certainly take care of QS concerns as mentioned in the first paragraph. But (without knowing the intricacies of G’s QS algorithm) high CTR’s of the bait-and-switch varietal should kill your quality score as these ads will have high bounce-rates. I don’t buy the simplistic explanation given by the G rep that QS largely equates to CTR.

  • Great Article Brian. I really enjoy your writing style.

    CTR is HUGE in increasing quality score and reducing price but Great CTR and QS does not always = Great ROI.

    Once you identify a keyword that gives a good ROI is would be silly not to increase its quality score/reduce its CPC to allow for the highest ROI possible.

    Also increasing CTR improves the quality score for the display URL making other newly added keywords come in at better scores.

  • Robert: Got any examples of ‘high relevance’ and ‘low CTR’ keywords with a good quality score?

    And it’s not just G reps that say it largely equates to CTR, I was on a panel at SMX with Nick Fox, Business Product Director from Google on Quality Score and he very clearly confirmed this. He explained it as ‘wisdom of crowds’ if the crowd says quality, then it’s quality.

    Sort of impossible to understand the number of people who want to believe that all these little things – including relevance – that Google uses to give them clues before there is CTR, or on the very margins of the calculation – would be critical.

    What does Google really care about? They care about making money for Google. An ad that gets high CTR makes them the most money. This feeds into both AdRank and CPC – so QS is just a Yield Maximization Algo for Google. They run the ads with highest CTR, they make the most money? Does that make it easier to believe that CTR is effectively all that matters?

  • CTR is what matters. It is up to the landing page to capture the sale.

  • My landing page low CTR
    How to?

  • High CTR’s over the long-term infer relevance throughout the conversion funnel. High CTR’s over the short-term can mean bait-and-switch tactics; click fraud from China; etc. Google’s approach has always been to be highly relevant over the long-term. Users would stop trusting Google if they focused solely on short-term CTR’s.

  • QS is not purely about CTR…rob spears is right…keyword density and relevancy of the landing page is the biggest factor in determining QS.

    My ads have low search volume and a CTR of less than 2% yet most are QS9.

  • Let’s all test it out. Let’s all grab a larger spending AdWords account. Download the last 30 days of data/updating min & first page bids via AdWords Editor. Create a custom view to grab the top 100 keywords by clicks, copy/paste into excel – then let’s observe the relationship between quality score, CPC & CTR.

    If anyone is game, write a follow up post/request for anonymous data.



  • Google quality score is probably one of the most important metrics in adwords and also the most difficult to grasp since Google never reveals the algorithm behind it. One can get slapped with low quality score without even knowing why.

  • Brian,

    Great article – very well written. Surprised at some of the comments. There certainly are some keywords for which no advertiser on earth will ever achieve a high QS (due to user intent that is all over the map for certain keywords, including 1-word keywords). But, some of those keywords turn out to yield conversions at or below a target ROI or CPA for some of our clients, so we keep running them.

    QS can be a good proxy to look for any red flags in terms of ad group structure and matching ads to ad groups, but at the end of the day if you manage ppc campaigns the way they should be managed, QS pretty much takes care of itself and shouldn’t be a daily concern.

  • A higher QS is only acheived through, yet not entirely dependant on, CTR. I used to think that visible URL, actual URL, keywords in copy, landing page content and so on were primary factors. That is until I took on a car insurance agency as a client… Silly me! My issue with CTR is that “the” defining benchmark for CPC becomes horribly overweighted when you play against not only 4-600 other competitors, but also when the top players of those 4-600 have deep deep pockets.

    Click through rates plummet as competition rises. Google will counter that CTR+CPC=QS and that its averaged across the advertising stream making it a level playing field. This simply isn’t the case. Google is protecting their interests in maintaining relations with companies such as Progressive, eSurance, Geico…etc who routinely spend $1-200,000 each day (and at a loss in return) simply to own the market. We tried several times on clean accounts with different split tests, landing page variations, exact match, phrase match, broad match to no avail. The best we could do was .28% CTR and scores fell to 2s. I manage many campaigns and have quite a few QS9-10s for both phrases and singular keywords.

    I can only imagine what doctors, lawyers, banking and financial, legal and healthcare companies must be paying (at a loss) per click to remain at the top of the hill in adwords. IMHO some aspects of adwords straddle the line between fair and rigged, and is certainly exploited by the big players.

  • Just for clarification upon review. You can have a high CTR and get a good QS, however paying the highest bid per keyword will assure a high QS which is fine if you’re playing in a lower priced sandbox. In the above case, $35 per click is unrealistic which is what the insurance terms click levels are at right now.

  • The complexity of running PPC campaigns and the amount of money involved makes it prohibitive for smaller website owners to really find that sweet spot in advertising. I wish they made the whole system easier.

    • Matt

      Agreed. Surprised it hasn’t happened any sooner.

      Although, they are already testing a way to make it much easier. Advertisers will just fill out information about their business/industry, and Google will take care of the rest.

      It’s in some kind of alpha testing right now I believe. Don’t know if it’ll ever make it fully through, but it sounds right. The advertiser wouldn’t need to know anything about keywords and pay-per-click.


      • So, what you are saying is that Google will be effectively taking ad management out of the equation then? Wouldn’t this be counter to their business model? What happens to the GAPs and GACs?

  • A very insightful post. We have also analyzed the relationship between quality score and CTR for a range of clients across a range of PPC markets around the world. It is indeed clear that CTR is the most important driver of QS. In our analysis we also illustrate how a quality score is assigned based on the the CTR relative to the position a keyword is in. You can then establish a benchmark CTR per position for achieving a given quality score. For example a CTR of 12% may be required to achieve a QS of 10 in position 1, while a CTR of 5% may be enough to achieve the same QS in position 3. We show that this can differ dramatically in different PPC markets. See our blog below for details