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By Jennifer Slegg

Google’s pricing for AdWords includes a component that looks at the content of landing pages, and a recent change that has caused price increases is proving controversial in the search marketing community.

The landing page algorithm by Google AdWords has caused quite a bit of controversy amongst advertisers since it first arrived in advertiser’s AdWords accounts in December 2005. Since it launched, Google updated the landing page algorithm again in May 2006, often referred to as the April bid hike. However the latest July 10th update by Google has created quite a stir in the forums and the blogosphere for many reasons, particularly how it could impact advertisers making money through click arbitrage.

Before the landing page algorithm was launched, Google used to use click through rate (CTR) as a way to determine not only how quality the ad was, but also how good the overall experience for the visitor was. Unfortunately, advertisers who provided a poor user experiences on the landing page could also write a high quality ad—or a misleading one—to promote it, resulting in an ad with a high CTR but poor user experience.

So what exactly makes for a poor user experience on a landing page? Google seems to be targeting a range of things including such things as excessive advertising or landing pages with little or nothing else but advertising. But when I talked to Nick Fox, Senior Business Product Manager from Google on the new landing page controversy, it isn’t just the click arbitragers who are being targeted. He also specifically referred to market areas as well, including scams, work from home ads, and things that are “free but not really free.” So not only are they targeting the overall user experience on the landing page, but specifically the actual content on the landing page as well as how it relates to the ad itself.

They also seem to be targeting advertisers who are advertising something similar or identical to other advertisers. This could get into a dangerous game of Google being the one to determine which competitor is the best and which will be required to pay more in order for their ads to continue running. In a discussion on
DigitalPoint, a member posts that he asked for a landing page review, and the response from Google seems to imply that not only are they judging based upon his landing page, but also based upon what makes his service different from other site’s serivces, effectively picking and choosing the ones who get increased bids, and those who do not.

The AdWords team responded in part with “Thank you for calling in today. You wanted to know the status of your site quality review. I wanted to let you know that our specialist team concluded their review, and maintained the current status of your site. They explained that there are currently a number of people providing free, unfettered instant access to MLS listings. Our goal is to provide a user with the best possible results, and it is not clear from your site what makes your solution one of the best options for the end user”. However, the advertiser notes that Google obviously did not read his accompanying advertisement very well, since that was not what he was advertising. His advertisement was:
Before Google launched the latest incarnation of the landing page algorithm, Google had human evaluations of ads and their landing pages, to determine what people thought was a good user experience, and what made for a poor one. I asked Michael Mayzel from Google on how this tied in with the end result of the current landing page algorithm. “We first start with human evaluators and end user feedback to determine a sample of landing pages that provide a low quality user experience. We then build computer algorithmrithms to accurately detect similar types of pages, verify the accuracy, and then deploy those algorithmrithms to evaluate all advertiser pages,” Mayzel said.

From a business perspective, it obviously makes sense to determine the quality of a landing page by an algorithmrithm than by a human review, especially when dealing with the number of advertisements that Google has in their ad inventory. But an algorithm is never as good as a personal human review, so there is definitely a question of just how many advertisers really are being unfairly penalized by this new change. And unfortunately for affected advertisers, being penalized means they now have their ads disabled or are forced to pay $10 a click in order to keep their ads running. And all this when their landing page could have perfectly acceptable to a human reviewer.

Prior to the new landing page algorithm change, the Inside AdWords blog did state that the number of affected publishers would be small. And Fox reiterated what that blog said and that only a small number of advertisers were being affected by this change. He also said there has been a very low number of “false positives”, meaning that very few advertisers tripped this new landing page algorithm that really shouldn’t have. When it comes to landing page quality, Fox said it is “pretty black and white.”

Fox also stated that while the number of impacted advertisers were low, they also were a group of advertisers that tended to get a lot of impressions and spend a lot of money. It is an interesting business decision to target those advertisers who spend a lot of money, because there had been speculation that perhaps the landing page algorithm would only affect those advertisers who spend under a certain dollar figure per month. But this seems to not be the case, as I asked Fox if spending a certain dollar figure a month would result in an advertiser not being targeted with this new landing page algorithm, and the answer was no. All advertisers and their ads are being affected by this change the same, regardless of whether that advertisers is large or not.

There also is a review system in place for advertisers who feel they have been unfairly impacted with the new algorithm, but success seems to have been limited, at least when viewing advertiser feedback in various forums. Many have asked for reviews, only to be told that they need to improve. Of course, AdWords is not being very specific at what the landing page algorithm is looking for to determine quality.

When I asked for specifics on what could improve landing page quality or what exactly on the landing page was being evaluated, Fox was reluctant to answer. But landing pages are re-evaluated regularly (although Fox would not state just how regularly that is) so there is hope for those who want to make changes in an attempt to drop down their minimum bid prices.

Plenty of speculation abounds at what could be parts of the landing page equation that equals a quality landing page. A thread at WebmasterWorld had some interesting suggestions that an advertiser was given by an AdWords rep after the previous landing page algorithm update in May. The suggestions included an increased amount of content, a separate privacy policy page, a contact page, as well as quality links to external sites.

Overall, reaction to the new landing page algorithm is mixed. While Google does say that only a small number of advertisers are being affected by the new algorithm, there is still plenty of buzz in various webmaster forums about the change, who has been affected, and examples of what got hit with hefty minimum bid price increases. And one does have to wonder what the next landing page algorithm update will bring, or if something else will be thrown into the mix when it comes to determining the overall ad quality and bid price required from advertisers to keep ads and campaigns active in AdWords.