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It takes more than money to reach the top

To get the first spot on Google, Yahoo, or MSN, all it used to take was the highest bid. Today, even the experts aren't sure exactly what it's going to take.

Major search engines continue to update their pay-per click (PPC) infrastructures to increase the relevancy and quality of advertising, and to reduce the ranking for ads promoting link farms and other sites without original or meaningful content.

The benefits of these updates to search engines are threefold: they increase the relevancy of ads; increase revenue by generating more click-throughs; and put the top positions in back in the hands of search engines instead of high bidders.

Search engine users benefit by getting more relevant results when clicking ads. Marketers can also benefit since it is possible to gain the top position on search engines without being the highest bidder.

Google's Quality Score is the basis for measuring the quality and relevance of ads and determining the minimum bid and display order. This score is determined by the keyword's click-through rate (CTR) on Google, and the quality of your ad.
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Although search engines closely guard the way they define an ad's “quality,” they acknowledge the importance of five factors:

Keywords

To improve the quality of results, search engines are restricting keywords based on the relevance of ads. This is important because PPC campaigns are based on keywords. If any marketer can bid on any keyword, the results will be chaotic. A recent search for Eragon on Google netted two relevant ads. The same search on Yahoo netted several ads, including ads for fruit baskets and retirement savings. When Yahoo releases its PPC update in 2007, the unrelated ads disappear.

Ad creative

To improve the click-through rate of ads, search engines are rewarding well-written ads and penalizing poorly written ones. Search engines often depend on an ad's click-through rate to monitor the “quality” of creative. However, editors also review and rate ads (although the method of rating is unclear). Ad testing has become increasingly important since poor ads can penalize an advertiser by resulting in higher cost and lower ad placement. Since the “quality rating” of an ad is reset each time ads are tested, it had become more important to test ads efficiently.

Visible URL

The URL displayed with a PPC ad often is overlooked by marketers, even though it influences the quality and effectiveness of the ad. URLs that include the keyword are more effective than home page URLs. URLs that are deep within the site indicate that the ad links to a relevant and specific content page rather than a page that will require additional searching after click-through.

Click-through rate

Ads that aren't clicked on aren't profitable to search engines or desirable to site visitors. As a result, search engines are tuning their algorithms to identify and deactivate ads with low click-throughs as soon as possible. This means that ads have little time to prove their effectiveness. Marketers using Google currently receive notification when ads perform poorly. Ads with a low click-through rate are deactivated, and marketers are given two options to restore the ad: update their creative or increase their bid.

Landing page

The landing page for an ad (the page that users arrive on after clicking on an ad) is one of the most important factors in determining the quality of the ad. One of the most common complaints received by Google is that users are taken to advertising portal pages filled with more ads, instead of expected content. A common mistake made by marketers is to use their home page as the landing page for ads. This typically requires visitors begin a new search for desired content from the home page. As a result, users are more likely to return to their original search-engine results.

The best way to determine the Quality Score of an ad, according to Google, is to look at the minimum bid. The lower the minimum bid, the higher your keyword's Quality Score. You can find the minimum bid for active and inactive search keywords by generating a report for minimum bids in your reports tab.

Google realizes that raising minimum bids is an effective way to motivate advertisers who select inappropriate keywords, use poor creative, or offer poor landing pages.

“High minimum bids are our way of motivating advertisers to either improve their landing pages or to simply stop using AdWords for those pages,” according to the Inside AdWords crew. “Although it is counter-intuitive to some who hear it, we'd rather show one less ad than to show an ad which leads to a poor user experience - since long-term user trust in AdWords is of overarching importance.”

Recent articles by Troy Janisch

Troy Janisch: Getting the most from Google dayparts

Troy Janisch: Risks and returns: Building a search engine marketing portfolio

Troy Janisch: Search engine optimization: What's the word?

Troy Janisch: Big opportunities with small businesses

Troy Janisch: Express pay may be the way

Troy Janisch is president and founder of the Icon Interactive Group (www.iconinteractive.com), an industry leader helping companies integrate Internet and other Interactive media into sales channels, marketing strategies, and overall branding. He can be contacted by e-mail at tjanisch@iconinteractive.com.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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