Google’s Definition of Relevance in PPC? Clicks.


Relevance in search means a lot of things to a lot of people. Information retrieval scientists right down to the average user of a search engine might think there is quite a lot to determining what is “relevant” to any given user on any given query. There is. Although by no means scientific, SEOmoz’s annual reviewof what experts think are factors determining search ranking

So when organic search principles seemed to be seeping into paid search programs, many observers read a lot more into the terminology than really should be read, it seems.

Remembering back to the launch of AdWords Select in 2002, Google explicitly defined the AdRank formula as your Max Bid on a keyword multiplied by CTR. They referred to this as rewarding more relevant ads. Indeed, at times they displayed a green bar denoting “user interest.” What was relevance, or “user interest”? It was synonymous with “clicks.” More clicks, higher ad rank.

Enter Quality Score, circa 2005, and several updates of it since. A whole industry has arisen trying to deciphering it.

Some Google documentation refers to “relevance,” “the quality of the landing page,” “other relevance factors,” and so on.

But for years, key architects and managers of the AdWords product have quietly counseled people not to go overboard in interpreting these definitions.

Nick Fox, one of the leading pioneers in the AdWords program, used to remind us that the various other “relevance factors” were mostly “different cuts at” either predicting or reflecting the same measure of relevance… that being clicks, or CTR.

At SMX East last week, in our session on AdWords best practices, Fred Vallaeys flatly stated that by so-called “relevance,” Google basically means clicks.

It might sound really cool to try to divine how Google assesses information and scent, and user satisfaction all the purchase cycle, from ad impression, to click, to landing page, to further activity on site. It might be neat to guess at the semantics and other technology involved in “other relevance factors.” But in terms of the overall weighting in the vast majority of cases, as Vallaeys implied, these things might as well not exist. Google counts clicks. They may count them relative to the situation, normalize them for match type, etc. etc., but that’s what we mean by “relevance” here.

Another thing Vallaeys said (agreed on by many of us over the years) is that you shouldn’t be slavishly pursuing this click goal at all costs. You pick the ad, the segment, the bid, the match type, etc., that ultimately returns the best ROI for you. So in other words, Google rewards x, and you should be generally mindful of it, but ultimately pursue y.

“So why, then, do we devote so much time in these sessions to Quality Score, when so many other things are so much more important?,” asked an attendee.

“Because people want us to,” replied a panelist.

The truth about how to outperform the competition in the AdWords auction is not simple. But it’s also true that the “Quality Score industry” benefits from overcomplicating things and in many cases, misleading people about how Quality Score works. Also, like too many SEO’s, Quality Score pundits offer too much speculation about components of the formula, instead of sticking to what is known to be true.

Displayed Quality Score, like toolbar PageRank, has a seemingly endless capacity to bamboozle. It’s time to give it a rest, at least in the general marketing industry dialogue.

Knowing the ins and outs of the formula helps me quite a bit in my job, but I don’t think these lengthy dissections of it in public forums are as helpful as many speakers hope. I vow to pare back my treatment of QS in the future, and to focus on the most helpful tips and heuristic uses.

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