The Power of Visual Data

Data visualization means taking a set of data and representing it with visual modeling,in a way that makes it easier to understand and observe patterns.  In its simplest form, it can be a 2-dimensional chart or graph that represents a single dimension or a dataset. Or you can extrapolate complex representations as well. But what is the real value of modeling your data visually?

 

Socializing Data:
While attending a recent Digital Analytics Association symposium, there were a couple presentations on the importance of good visualization of data. They discussed how the data was better understood and more easily socialized within the organization, simply by making it more accessible. Then there are those infographics taking the Internet by storm, which provide a fun and easy way to demonstrate interesting statics and figures.

Clearly people love consuming charts and graphs more than reams of data.  But its more than simple enjoyment; by graphically modeling the data, you’ll often uncover important patterns that might have otherwise been missed.

Data VisualizationObserving Patterns:
A great example is the new flow visualization tool in Google Analytics (version 5).  It is now possible to observe how users and macro groups of users are flowing between pages. you can even apply flow visualization to a segments and compare how that one subset of users flows differently from others.

Imagine taking a segment and observing how they might flow through your site differently.  For example, try comparing the flow of visitors from Canada compared to the US.  Or more interestingly, consider segmenting around traffic you’ve tagged for different campaigns or marketing channels.  As you begin to observe the differences of flow between paid search (SEM), organic search (SEO),and social channels, you’ll really appreciate the power of this new resource.

Diagnosing Bottlenecks:
Another significant benefit of flow visualization is the ability to see non-symmetrical dropdown from one step to the next, along your flow, which may implicate a bottleneck that is negatively impacting conversions.

For example, imagine your you have 500 users enter your eCommerce catalog, 50 of them engage with the shopping cart, but only 1 of them continues on to the checkout form.  You might already know that industry standard would be for 2% of those 500 users (10 users) to complete a transaction and by contrast your number is very low.

By using flow visualization, you have relatively painlessly identified a bottleneck in your funnel that may have gone unrealized for years otherwise.  You’ll need to begin looking at usability and conversion optimization to correct the issue, but you’re well on your way to increasing return on ad spend and revenue generation by a considerable margin. If you’re able to increase your conversion rates and flow to industry standard, you may in fact increase your revenues by 10x!

Conclusion
Data visualization is a powerful tool for socializing and communicating data, observing patterns and diagnosing abnormalities.  Inforgraphics and executive dashboards are popular examples of how data can be better socialized through visualization and Google Analytics provides an excellent example of the power of visualization, to drive pattern recognition, diagnostics, and action.

Consider what else might be possible with data visualization of your data.  How might you be able to instigate action within an organization, uncover important patterns, or drive more sales, simply by presenting the data differently?

Claiming Your Online Identity

Defining and managing your identity online can be time consuming but considering how many of our social and professional relationships begin with a Google query, it probably makes sense for all of us to invest a little time pulling it all together and presenting the image to the World that we want displayed, rather than whatever just happens to show up on the Internet.

First, let me make a distinction. In SEO circles, there is a practice called ‘reputation management’ that generally involves creating numerous pages of external content that will rank for the given brand’s related searches.  All those external pages are intended to rank below the corporate website but before whatever negative reviews or remarks exist, hopefully pushing any negativity down to the 3rd or 4th page of results, where no one will notice.  In other words, it is a focused spamming effort on behalf of said brand, with the goal of manipulating search results.  Sometimes brands have no choice and have to engage in this level of online warfare. Pragmatism aside though, this is NOT what I am describing here.  Rather I am talking about a proactive and cooperative effort to help Google identify all of your identities and content online, in return for preferred placement of your content when people search for you.

Google implemented an important new feature, along with the release of Google+, that allows them to recognize social channels and owned content and properly attribute this to the brand or individual.  The implementation takes advantage of a new semantic tagging attribute (@rel) in the HTML5 spec that specifies origination and authorship of content.  If you create a Google profile and link your content and social identities using these tags, you can essentially let Google know which content is really you.  In a recent presentation, Matt Cutts (Google) called this new ability “author rank”, and if you’ve been following their recent talk about quality signals, you know that authenticity of content is a big deal in recent algorithmic updates. In fact, they’re not only giving preferred placement to authenticated content for brand and name searches, they’re even displaying the photo of the author in many cases, to help set these aside as authenticated content, from reputable authors.

Okay, sounds good so far right?  Now we just need to work on the confusing mess that is our social network and tie it all together in some meaningful way.  After a bit of homework and practice on my online identity, I distilled down what I feel is a best practice approach.  First, I created a simple website for myself under my namesake URL and created links to all of my social accounts from this location.  NealCabage.com is my literally my homepage now. Next, I linked all my enlogica articles back to my homepage.  And of course enlogica has a couple of its own social accounts to facilitate outreach and easier content socialization. So its important to keep the social accounts owned by the blog separate from those attributed to my own personal identity.  So whereas I link to the blog’s social sites on the sidebar of the blog, I keep all my personal social media accounts separate and only link to them from my own personal homepage.  Once all of that is clear, I create a Google profile page for my own personal identity link all the personal identities together.  Iterative.ly should probably also do this for its own identity, separate from my own.

Sync Up Your Online Profile

Now let’s get a little more specific about how its actually implemented and the use of authorship tagging. On my homepage, each of my social account links contains the new attribute: @rel=”me”. The homepage should have proper authenticity to make such a claim since you already liked to it from your Google profile account.  Next, on the blog that you are reading now (for example), I placed a small author block at the bottom of each article that provides a link to my homepage. This links back to my personal homepage, with the attribute: rel=”author”.  Just like the @rel=”me” helped Google to identify my social profiles, @rel=”author” will help it to recognize any content that I have created and authenticate it.

Since I know this can be a little confusing, here’s the same information in enumerated form:

1. Create Google profile (profiles.google.com)
1a Link to your website and all social accounts
1b Link to any blogs or online magazines that you contribute to
2. On your blog, provide a link on each article page back to your home base site.  Include rel=”author”
3. On your homepage, link to all of your social accounts.  Include rel=”me”

Connecting Accounts to Google Profile

The final step is to validate that everything is setup correctly. Google provides a tool for you to use. Unfortunately at the time of this writing, the tool is giving me an error for using the @rel=”me” attributes on my social account links from my homepage. This appears to be a bug however; even Matt Cutts blog is getting the same error for the same reason.

Anyway, despite that hiccup, if everything was done properly, you will soon start to see that your homepage, social accounts, and your content begin to dominate the search results for terms related to your name or brand.  You may even begin to notice for profile picture next to your content.

There you have it.  My homepage, my social accounts, and my blog contributions are all accounted for and properly attributed and validated.  Now hopefully with a little time, Google begins to treat my identities with a positive bias for searches related to my personal ‘brand’.

AdSense Monetization Tricks

If you’ve run a content website, there’s a good chance you’ve used AdSense.  Google created the AdSense network as an extension of their popular AdWords advertising platform, enabling them to sell ad units on websites all over the Internet, not just their own search property.  Getting started and generating revenue with AdSense is relatively easy, but there are a few subtleties that exist and can impact how much you earn with AdSense, that might not be obvious to the casual user, or to someone who isn’t familiar with how the AdWords product works.  In a recent post I already discussed the fundamentals of AdSense optimization, so in this post I’m going to explore a few of the finer points worth considering:

1. Placement Reports – In AdWords, if an advertiser has opted into the Display Network, they will have access to a Placement Report, which tells them the websites their ads appears on, and how they performed.  With Conversion Tracking enabled, an advertiser can determine Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) quite specifically, for each site and can remove sites that are not performing.  Conversely, they can also choose to sponsor and target a site directly, if they find it is doing well. They would do so by setting a cost per click higher than any other competing ads to essential get a “road block” setup and dominate the ad units of your site section or page. Think about the implications of this for a moment if you own a publishing website.

While the majority of small spenders will never even look at this report, many of the top spending brands will, and they could very well sponsor your site.  If they do this, your get a significantly higher eCPM than you would without it.  So it is worth considering how to brand and effectively position your site to be appealing as a sponsored site. Think in terms of appealing to their target demographic and beginning to align your content better with what would appeal to them.  Also, sculpt your content message in this direction.

2. Targetable Channels – Did you know you can show up in a directory that AdWords advertisers can browse while looking for sites to target?  When you create a new channels in AdSense thematically, you can begin to see which themes are generating the most revenue for you.  But you can also opt in for these channels to appear in the AdWords Placement Tool. Below you can see the dialog box that appears when I setup a new channel.  Be sure to check the box at the bottom to enable targeting. Now, when an AdWords advertiser begins looking for sites to target, your channels will appear here for them to select from.  Because targeting requires higher CPC bids, receiving these channel selections effectively means recruiting higher paying advertisers.

2. Device Targeting – By default an AdWords advertisement will not be limited by device, though it is possible to limit these based upon effectiveness or compatibility.  Now think about how this might effect you as a publisher, if you don’t have a mobile-friendly version of your site?  If you don’t have a mobile-friendly version of the site, you could be un-targeted for certain content, and if a big enough portion of your viewers are mobile, this could really hurt your eCPMs!  Every vertical is different but if you’re in an entertainment vertical for example, mobile would be a pretty big deal for you.  Anyway, the point here is to consider what could harm you and account for it.  Device targeting is an obvious vulnerability for many website owners.

3. Rich Media Targeting – AdWords allows advertisers to upload videos, Flash and other types of rich media. This is separate from the traditional text only or text / images ad types.  Many older sites will be set to only allow text or images, but not rich media.  Consider that rich media will have higher placement cost than test or images in many cases and so you should seek to provide this option when you can. You can also stand out from the crown in the Placement tool by allowing Rich Media, for those who are seeking to buy media for a Rich Media campaign.

4. Ad Unit Positioning – I’ve already discussed this in-depth on another blog post, but the position of your ad units on the page can have a substantial impact on your eCPMs.  Place any ad “below the fold” will have a negative impact, as will placing an ad in that fits nicely into your sidebar, in a place that is obscured by other features or sidebar info. It is better to place image banners in the top and left of the site, and ideally below your navigation bar.  Text ads are ideally embedded inline with your content, with similar coloring so that it is not ignored by the reading/scanning eye.

5. Smart Pricing – And finally, have you heard of Smart Pricing?  Its probably something most AdSense users are aware of but it is a significant factor on the AdWords side of the market place.  Basically, SmartPricing watches out for the performance of an AdWord ad on the Display Network. It tracks the click from an ad on your site is determined to be less likely to convert into an actionable event (conversion) then AdWords will lower the prevailing CTR cost for that ad unit on your site.  This can have implications in how you design your site.  There are many Made For AdSense (MFA) sites out there that are essentially just junk content surrounded AdSense ads.  Because there is no value in the content, users are more likely to click to leave and thus higher CTRs. But that doesn’t mean these are prospects who are about to take action toward a goal, they just want to leave.  So, think about what you can do to better prepare a reader to purchase or take action if they click on your ad.  Don’t think in terms of simply getting them to click.  Otherwise, in the long term, you’ll just damage your eCPMs and won’t be making much money anyway.

Digging Deeper With Analytics

Google Analytics suffers from a perception problem.  It is the most commonly used website analytics package most likely because it is free and easy to use .  But few are compelled to truly discover what is possible with Analytics.  Whatever the reason, there is a lot of power under the surface that I think many could benefit from.  So without further ado, here are the “power features” of Google Analytics:

 

i. Profiles & Filters – In Analytics, a filter (or combination of filters) can be created to show only a certain subset of data, and this can be mapped to a profile.  Each user account can have up to 50 profiles, so this provides a sort of “view” of the larger application that you can use if you find yourself often needing to looking at certain subsets of data.  For example, what if you wanted to only look at your Canada traffic, separate from US, or Mobile compared to desktop? You could easily track these in separate profiles and make it possible to easily drill down into the reports to only reflect those subsets of users.

Below is a diagram illustrating the structure of an Analytics account:Analytics Structure

ii. Goals & Funnels – One of the real power features is the ability to specify goals and track visual conversion funnels based upon the progression from a landing page to the specified goal.  When you create a goal, you enable Analytics to determine the efficacy of any ad or form on your site.  Combine that with proper campaign tagging and you’ll be able to track through which campaigns are converting better than others.  Or even better, combine it with the pass-through of cost data from AdWords, and now you can see your exact customer acquisition costs and ROI.  Goals don’t necessarily need to be purchase or signup oriented either, though this is obvious the main use for them.  You could however also setup goals to track how long someone spends on your site, or how many pages they read.  This is the beginning of real accountability in your analytics data, as you begin to think about all of the goals you could set and test for.Converison Funnel

iii. Site Search - When you setup a profile for a website, you also have the opportunity to setup search tracking.  You just need to specify the search query parameter during setup, and Analytics will begin tracking for you, what everyone has searched for.  This can be tremendously valuable information as you try to determine what products you should be carrying, or what aspects of the site perhaps are difficult to locate.  To have that facility built in to Analytics is fantastic.

iv. Tagging – If you currently run advertising campaigns and want to track the results from the campaigns, Google Analytics provides a set of tags that you can add as query string parameters when specifying the destination URL of your campaign.  By adding these tags, Analytics will be able to track and properly attribute use trends and conversions, for the proper campaigns.  Again similar to Site search – these are things that can be accomplished outside of Analytics, but it sure is convenient that its already built in right there!   And what if you’re using Google AdWords for some of your advertising campaigns?  Provided you have integrated Google AdWords and Analytics products together, you simply need to toggle on the auto tagging option in AdWords, and the system will take care of munging URLs with proper tags behind the scenes.  And don’t worry if you’re not a techie and aren’t comfortable tagging your own URLs – Google has provided a tool to do this for you, if needed.

Analytics Tagging Parameters

v. eCommerce  – The eCommerce tracking is really pretty powerful.  On each checkout page, you just need to add a little javascript to create a transaction object and add each item that was purchased to the object.  Later, you’ll then be able to breakdown items sold compared to transactions and overlay this data with your goals and funnels.
eCommerce Report

vi. Event Tracking - This is the part where I get really excited!  Imagine you have a sophisticated AJAX or Flash application that constitutes numerous “virtual page views” that you’d like to track, even though the page does not refresh.  Doable.  Using a couple simple Javascript API calls, you can record a virtual page or an event and can run reports on the data just like other page data.  You could probably even do the same with your video, by pushing an event every few seconds to track just how deep into the play people are going.  Or, track the download of a static file such as a PDF, or outbound click to another site, using a JavaScript onClick event to report the event to Analytics.  This really opens the doors to possibilities for better client-side interface tracking.

Analytics Event Tracking

vii. Custom Reports – There is a drag and drop tool for building custom reports that can later be accessed just like the predefined reports.  Imagine you are reporting custom fields or have some specified view that you want to create in a single report rather than needing to refer to several others.  It is all possible here.  And when you’re done, schedule the report to be sent to you via email each week while you’re at it.
Analytics Custom Reports

There really is so much more here once you start to dig into the minutia, particularly as you start to look at how to combine and factor these features in very custom patterns.  So many details are customizable as well, either through account settings or via the API.  So if you haven’t gotten to know Google Analytics at a deeper level yet, perhaps it is time.  Try digging just a little below the surface and see what you find!

Optimizing AdWords Campaigns

Assuming you are already running AdWords campaigns, you are probably looking for opportunities to improve your Return on Ad Spend (ROAS).  Since AdWords is a mature marketing channel now, you’re going to have to be efficient and run optimized accounts whenever possible, simply to stay profitable with your ads.  Fortunately, there are a few things you can do that will wildly improve your results, without necessarily requiring a great deal of time or effort.

 

Converison Funnel1. Integrate Analytics Reporting

First and foremost, have you integrated Analytics with your AdWords account yet?  By doing so, you allow data to flow between your AdWords and Analytics accounts, and open up many more opportunities to see helpful data that will drive your optimization efforts.  For example, setup conversion funnels that show precisely where in the conversion flow that users are leaving your site.  You’ll also be able to see certain truths about who is visiting your site, from when, and when and can factor these details back into your account.  The data that Analytics can provide is truly invaluable and should be considered a first step in any optimization effort.  So  get this setup now if you haven’t already done so!

Quality Score2. Mind Your Quality Score

Make sure your Quality Score for each keyword is ranking 7 or higher.  If you’re running ads with lower quality scores, you are undoubtedly paying considerably more than you need to and receiving less traffic for your budget to boot.  Remember that a quality score is multiplied by your CPC to determine your placement (CPC X QS).

To improve your quality score, make sure your AdGroups are tightly themed and kept relatively small.  Have a customized landing page for each AdGroup, and make sure the search phrase appears on that landing page.  In another article I go more in-depth into Quality Score, but this is the basic idea.  Keep your landing pages and ads highly relevant to the keywords you’re bidding for, and optimize your landing pages for conversions.

3. Precision Targeting

Google allows you to filter traffic to your ads by a number of criteria now, including location, language, and device.  Use these wisely to dramatically reduce the number of people who are exposed to your ad that shouldn’t be.  For example, don’t show your ad for local plumbing on a national basis, and don’t display ads for Spanish speaking legal services to a dominantly Mandarin speaking audience.  You may also want to not show ads for B2B services on mobile devices, since mobile is mostly a personal surfing device for off business hours.  But using targeting in a smart way, one could significantly improve their CTR, Quality Score, and consequently their CPC. This is an example of where those Analytics integrated reports can help drive decision making on how best to target your campaigns.

4. Dig Into Your Placements Reports

There are a number of seasoned AdWords professionals who will tell you to outright avoid the Display network.  But I’d also heard from a few people that Display worked exceptionally well for them; I even heard from one guy who specialized in only Display network advertising.  The truth is probably that it has a lot to do with what you’re selling and how you’re using it.  Keep in mind that display traffic is more passive and higher in the funnel than search traffic. You need to bid and message accordingly.

But equally, consider there is a lot of MFA (Made For AdSense) just content floating around out there that wont serve you well.  For this reason, it is imperative to regularly review your Display Network Placement Report, and see where your ads are showing up.  Use Placement exclusion tools to eliminate poor performing or bad-for-brand sites that you’re placing on. And similarly, you may even discover a few real gems that you’d like to do deeper sponsorships for.  You may even consider doing direct placement deals when you find them.

5. Schedule Your Spend (Day parting)

If you’ve setup conversion goals via your integrated Analytics tools in AdWords, then you’re going to be able to product a pretty nifty multi-line graph allowing you to compare visits to conversions on an hourly basis.  If you sift through this data closely enough, patterns are going to emerge.   You’ll begin to see certain hours when clicks convert better into sales.  You can then using a technique called Day Parting, and set different CPC bids based upon the hour, or pause your campaign accordingly.  This is the kind of granular precision you need to really control your custom acquisition costs, and is another example of where Analytics can drive decision making.

Day parting

6. Use Conversion Optimizer

If you have a mature campaign that has been running a while, then you might consider enabling the Conversion Optimizer tool.  Given enough historical data on your account (and assuming conversion tracking is enabled), Google can make predictions about the conversion of your ads in the future, relative to specified CPC, seasonality, etc, and it will adjust your bids accordingly, to maximize your Return on Ad Spend (ROAS).  Note – you need a minimum of 15 conversions in the past 30 days for Conversion Optimizer to be effective.

In summary, optimization is more about diligence with details than anything mysterious.  Use the Integrated Analytics features to expose more data and just spend some time with the data, looking to expose patterns and trends that you can optimize around.  Sometimes this means changing page flow when you expose a bottleneck in user flow, and other times, it simply means sculpting your AdWords bids to eliminate areas of waste.  In both cases, one just needs to get comfortable with the details and take action to improve upon them.  As laborious as it may sound, these steps are often the key to a profitable AdWords campaign.

Website Optimization Tips

Optimizing a site can mean many things.  If you’re an eCommerce site, probably means optimizing your landing page, hiding your navigation so as not to distract, and pushing visitors toward the goal of a transaction receipt page.  For small business and service professionals, it may mean getting someone to fill out a form.  Or if you’re a publishing site, it very well might mean something nearly opposite of those two focused goals – perhaps you actually do want visitors to traverse your navigation, discover and engage with your content or community.  No matter how you describe it though, these things all have one thought in common:  you’re looking to maximize the value of each visitor to your site.

Although this practice is typically referred to as Website Optimization, Landing Page Optimization (LPO) or Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO), it is part of much broader schools of thought.  Many universities now offer interdisciplinary programs called Human Computer Interaction (HCI) that combine the study of Psychology and Information Systems, to better understand how to create systems that do a better job of servicing and assisting the humans that the systems were built for.  Usability and User Experience are two more common terms now used in design circles, to describe how to improve a user’s interaction with a system or website.  In many ways, landing page optimization and conversion optimization are applied marketing concepts, as much as Usability and User Experience are applied design concepts; but they’re all drawing up HCI which simply seeks to create better interfaces that accomplish the goals of the system. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m focusing on the marketing prerogative, but many of these thoughts can be applied to overall system design and usability as well.

Improving Efficacy
So how does one maximize value from their visitor? For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume we’re talking about the easy to understand and quantify, eCommerce model.  With eCommerce, there’s typically a large spend on PPC and that spend is usually in pursuit of directly-quantifiable direct sales; not long-term fuzzier metric brand building. So our goal in this case would be to get users to our site for $1 and get as many of those visitors to buy something as possible, to increase average profits above the dollar we spent to acquire their attention.

Website Optimization
We’ll ignore the efficacy of the ads themselves for this conversion and focus purely on what happens after they arrive at the site.  Onsite, there are really two things that matter:

  • Focusing attention in the direction we want them to go.
  • Reinforcing trust and removing doubt and fear.
  • Keep attention focused and directed at the goal line (the receipt page).

If we keep those strategic goals in mind, the tactical implementation is relatively straight forward at a high level.  Obvious optimizations would be:

  • Remove the navigation bar on the landing page
  • Use very large submit buttons that are hard to miss
  • Use simple bullet points for details, not long-form text
  • Don’t present too many choices; match exactly the one product they searched for.
  • Use a headline that excites the user.
  • Use trust signals such as testimonials or credential logos on landing and checkout pages.
  • Minimize extra steps that could be hurdles to checkout such as the always-favorite required membership signup.
  • Remove barriers such the form that goes blank and requires refill if one piece of required information is wrong.
  • Don’t ask for more information checkout than is absolutely necessary.
  • For God sake, do NOT use Captchas!

Beyond those basics, there are a number of more subtle opportunities for optimization that simply require a “feel for the art” of it all, and proper domain knowledge, to match the culture of your users.  Catching their attention is key but authenticity and trust are also very important and cannot be sacrificed for a cheap thrill, or they’re not going to give you their credit card number.

Tactics that might work well would include using a larger checkout button with appropriate messaging.  Perhaps something exciting such as “Check it Out!” works for an entertainment product but a move conservative “Get Started” is more appropriate for insurance or financial institutions.  Color choices, images and titles work the same way.  Focus on finding a way to grab attention and infuse emotional excite, without compromising authenticity or trust.

Testing Methodology
As with any advice, there are many half truths in optimization.  What works well for many sites may not work for yours.  A lot of this comes down to culture and the issues f authenticity and trust I mentioned above.  For this reason, you may start with certain known principles as described above and broader usability heuristics, but the only way to truly know what works best for your own audience, is to test.

Testing in fact, is at the basis of most sophisticated online marketing operations today. We should start with a humility that we never absolutely know truth, we can only approximate it, and should always seek to evaluate truth through objective and empirical evaluation.  As such, most online markets today user an iterative approach to their online marketing and optimization strategies.  Continual testing and revision is baked into the on-going process.

To test your overall conversion funnel, you just need to setup goals and funnels in your analytics tools to be able to track and observe where bottlenecks are and results of changes. The efficacy of a specific landing page however, is better instrumented with a tool specifically designed to track changes of that one page, and track the goals against those changes.  There are tools such as Unbounce, Optimizely, and the free Google Website Optimizer (WSO) for that; WSO optimizer in particular is handy due to its one-click Google Analytics integration.

There are two types of tests that you might consider running for landing page optimization – an A/B test, or a Multivariate test.  An A/B test compares two or more separate pages, to determine which is more effective. This is a simple test to setup, requires less traffic, and is great for comparing entirely different versions of page layout.  If you instead want to focus on testing more subtle changes within a page such as title messaging, or button color, or featured image, a multivariate test would be appropriate.

A/B Testing
Using a tool such as Google Website Optimizer (WSO), you’d either setup redirection for the randomly served variants of yourA/B test, or you’d embed a few JavaScript hooks so that you can manage your variations from the WSO tool, if running a multivariate test.  Once setup, just wait for enough sample data to collect and let WSO do its thing.  Over time, you’ll see a percent-likely determination for which page is more successful. For example, “This page is 95% likely to outperform”.  Once you reach around 90-95%, WSO will determine the variant to be a “highly significant” improvement.  From there, you’ve confirmed which variant is more effective and can make your changes, as well as consider the next round of tests based on your findings.  This process can be repeated enlogica as you focus more and more on exactly what works.

For anyone new to optimization, I cannot stress enough, how important these methods are; you’re likely leaving a substantial amount of money on the table.  If you’ve never thought about optimization before, its quite likely that you can increase your Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) by 100% or more. I personally have had experiences in which small changes such as making a checkout but big, green and changing the messaging on it, with a single test, increased conversions by almost 40%.  So, while this form of methodical and detail-oriented optimization may not be the most sexy part of running your online business, it could easily be one of your most important!

Google Quality Score Demystified

Ah, quality score!  We’ve all probably had that experience of creating AdWord campaigns, spending hours teasing out our keyword lists into proper ad groups, and waiting for Google to start sending us traffic.  We check back the next day only to find the traffic did not come.  But what happened?   Provided that you didn’t violate Google’s TOS (think poker, pills, or porn), and provided you’ve accounted for the obvious possibilities such as potential traffic volume for your terms, and your competitive CPC (cost per click) bid, that only leaves one possibility – your quality score.

Beginning in 2005, Google started using a sliding scale to determine how valuable an ad is, both in terms of user experience and in terms of maximizing value of the website real estate used for the ads on Google.com and their search partner sites.  Rather than simply allowing the highest bidder to appear in the top position, they decided it was better for their own profits and brand, as well as the profits of their publisher partners (AdSense) to begin curating the ads a bit better.

As a result of applying quality score, ads that are deemed to be higher quality will rank better with a lower required CPC than ads with a lower quality score.  Ads are places and priced based upon “ad rank” which is essentially a multiplication of your Cost Per Click (or bid) x Quality Score.

The Quality Score is a rating (1-10) provided to each keyword in your AdGroup.  To see what the current quality score of your keyword is, roll over the speech icon on the static column of your keywords list.  You’ll see both the 1-10 score and a feedback on relevance and landing page quality.  Conversely, you can also add a column to your keywords list that will show the Quality Score inline for the report.

Quality Score

So what is Google looking for and encouraging with Quality Score?  

i. Relevancy – The basic premise is they want to see highly relevant ads for the key term you are bidding for.  This applies both to your ad text as well as the landing page you link to. So if you bid for the term “blue widgets in Los Angeles”, your ad text should be closely related to blue widgets and your landing page had better make it clear that you’re talking about blue widgets in Los Angeles as well.  This addresses the relevancy portion of quality score, but there are other implications too.

ii. Landing Page Optimization – Quality Score also is heavily weighted on other factors related to your landing page such as  ease of navigation, load time, and how many links (too many?) are on the page – usability issues.  The algorithm is now reportedly also looking to see if your landing page provides a mobile-friendly version since so many ads are showing on mobile phones now. So as unrelated as it might first appear, you’ll want to make sure you’ve spent a little time on the interface, loading time, and accessibility (mobile) aspects of your landing page, or it very well might be costing you money!

iii. Historical Performance – Another dynamic also considered when calculating quality score, is historical performance.  They’re looking particularly at the CTR of the ad for that particular keyphrase but also look at overall account performance.  This is a particularly frustrating one actually.  The burden of proof is automatically upon the advertiser  as you’re “guilty” until you prove yourself innocent, meaning that you’ll end up over spending for a month or so, while you work to establish enough CTR data to establish good history for the keyphrase.  I understand the goal here, sort of, but it makes test marketing tough and provides a clear advantage to bigger spenders and entrenched competitors.  I suppose the positive side however is that it allows Google to bias toward trustable relationships in order to ensure quality.  I suppose any small business would do the same.

So there you have it, these are all things known to effect conversion rates of ads and Google is essentially prodding users to follow better practices.  Perhaps their goal here is force advertisers to follow better practices in order to realize higher profits so they’ll spend more money on AdWords!  Or less skeptically, perhaps they want to provide a cohesive user experience such that even advertisements seem highly relevant and purposeful for the user, whenever a search begins with Google.  Or yet another possibility, perhaps they needed to improve overall profitability of AdWords ads in order to introduce the CPA (cost per acquisition) cost model that is preferred in lead generation.

Quality Score is an important part of campaign and bid management for Google AdWords today.  An effective AdWords campaign should be just as much about conversion optimization and optimizing relevancy, as it is about managing budget and ad spend…and historical performance .

Google Competes Directly With Advertisers

Anyone that has had a conversation with me about Google in the past few years is surely aware of my paranoia that they want a direct advertising relationship for all marketing that occurs on Google in the coming years.  In other words, affiliate marketers and lead generators should be weary of what Google is up to.  Even service resellers should be concerned.

I first observed Google’s attitude toward affiliate marketers in 2006. There were rumors in the discussion forums that they were penalizing sites with affiliate links from the obvious hubs such as CJ and LinkShare.  Then came the issue of bridge pages on the AdWords platform, which penalizes websites for reselling the same product that another website is already selling.  Then maybe a year ago i saw this for the first time when I Google’d for “mortgage rates”:



It seems I was not too far off with my assumption that Google wants those direction relationships. Hmm, so what happens if you follow this link?


It seems Google is already competing directly now (against leadgen resellers), in most major areas of finance.  Well, given that advertising is significantly less expensive for them, they automatically get top placement, and they can leverage significantly better commissions than others, I’d say its safe to say this is a tough position for a leadgen company to be in; how do you compete?

Now look a little closer at their title.  Notice it is “Google Advice”.  That is nice and broad and suggests a proclivity to review and comparison marketing of many other projects.  I’d be weary if I were Capterra, SoftwareAdvice.com, or NextAdvisor.com.  Too bad because I rather admired SoftweAdvice as a business model, in particular.

So perhaps Google wants to stay in the information and search space and won’t venture beyond that, right?  I recently came across a post on SEOBook talking about a new site that Google owns called Prizes.org, which they are promoting in top positions for the Making Money Online space.  And if that weren’t curious enough, the post points out the hippocracy that two sites owned by Google in this case are allowed in the same search terms, whereas generally it is not allowed per AdWords TOS. Can you spot the other one below?  Actually, at the time I took this snapshot, you can see Prizes.org and the Google Adwords Express ad at the top, but there is yet a third at for YouTube (also Google owned) on the right.


Google Dual Ads
Other things I have been noticing lately involve the local space.  Google recently launched local listings with a massive map and local search results that push down the traditional organic results “below the fold” on any local searches such as “Portland attorneys”.  This is heavily promoting their Google Places product, which is their answer to the Yellow Pages, that no one uses any more.

Local Search Results
Shortly after they introduced AdWords Express, intended to make it simpler for a small business (SMB) to list themselves.  And just last week they announced businesses no longer need to create their own Google Places listing for it to exist; they’ll create it for you.  And finally worth mentioning on this topic, I was in Portland over the Summer and observed a massive advertising push for Google Local (google.com/city/Portland).  It is a city guide with local deals similar to those of Group or LivingSocial.

Google's Portland Site

It seems to me they are in the process of creating the building blocks for a massive local search platform.  If I were a local search marketing firm, I’d be quaking in my boots right now!  Companies like eGumball should already be highly concerned at the announcement that Google Places no longer requires their services (they’re purely about NAP (name, address, place) citations now), and ReachLocal should be seeing the writing on the wall that their primary channel provider is about to become a direct competitor and introduce a massive local marketing platform in the coming year or so, by my guess.

And so where is all of this ultimately going?  I believe Google wants to have a direct relationship with businesses for all advertising and lead generation solutions.  They want to remove any middle men that they regard as polluting their marketplace and eating their lunch. Thus as an entrepreneur, I’d be inclined to avoid building a business around offering any sort of solutions that involve arbitraging or repackaging search solutions for my clients, as that is precisely who Google will compete against.  It will be interesting to see just how far they can get in closing the loop with online advertising dominance before the FTC inevitably steps in.