Relevance Is Relative -- Some Thoughts On Quality Score

As of last week, Google now tells advertisers how their ads' Quality Scores rate. Advertisers still won't know their precise Quality Score numbers, but they will get grades of "good," "mediocre," or "poor," as well as a sense of how that score is affecting their click cost. That's a huge change for Google, which is generally known to search insiders as an enormous black box.

But it's clear why Google would want to tell advertisers a bit more about their ads' quality. Quality, as Google has it, means relevance; delivering Quality Score grading is Google's gentle nudge that advertisers create more relevant ads. It's all part of Google's effort to make paid listings more helpful to searchers -- which ultimately brings the engine more click revenue.

And if Quality Score is making paid ads more relevant for searchers who are looking to shop, it's worth asking where the future of organic search really lies. I think the answer to that question is found in the two different types of searchers out there -- researchers and shoppers. Down the road, I see organic results as geared exclusively toward researchers. Paid search will be geared towards shoppers.



Organic rankings, after all, are designed in a way that suits researchers a great deal, but might not be the most informative way to guide a purchase. Organic rankings tell searchers which pages have the most to say on a given topic, which is exactly what researchers want to know.

But shoppers aren't looking for Web pages. Nor are they really looking for information. They're looking for the businessesthat offer the best value and the best customer experience. They want to know about things like price, shipping cost, customer satisfaction, and rewards programs. For that kind of information, it's far more valuable to match businesses to keywords than it is to match Web pages to keywords.

It's search's paid ads, not its organic results, that make those business/keyword matches. And it's search ads that provide additional shopper-relevant information -- the information that's not directly related to the search term, but that shoppers are looking to find. It's search ads that routinely add in information about special pricing, great selection, or free shipping.

In other words, while organic rankings are based on content relevance, paid search operates on purchase relevance. And for shoppers, purchase relevance has a whole lot more value.

Meanwhile, that purchase relevance only increases as Quality Score and other quality-ranking systems become smarter and more deeply entrenched. That's so, because quality ranking systems offer discounts for high click-through rates. An ad's click-through rate is largely a product of how purchase-relevant its copy really is -- so the engines are incentivizing advertisers to increase purchase relevance.

Which is why we're heading toward a search universe in which paid ads become significantly more relevant for shoppers than the organic listings ever will be. At the same time, organic rankings were never best-designed for product searches to begin with.

Given that, a logical next step would be for the search engines to divide the search results completely. Text-heavy pages that are likely to be research-helpful get pushed to the top of the organic results. Pages that are commerce-based get pushed down. This will make it easier for researchers to do real research, without being bombarded with commerce pages that won't offer them much information. It will also drive more purchase-focused searchers towards paid listings, as they won't get distracted by research-focused organic results.

Which would, of course, be a win for both engines and searchers. The searchers would get more relevant results, no matter what kind of search they're looking to run. The engines would get more clicks on ads, which would bring them more money. Advertisers would also get their ads clicked more often -- which means more business for them.

Just one clarification before I finish. I'm not suggesting that the engines will knock businesses out of search listings. I'm suggesting that the engines will ultimately look to knock commercepages down in the rankings; they'll keep content pages of all kinds higher up.

Take, whose home page has the No. 1 organic ranking in Google as I write. While has truly valuable articles that could be of value to a researcher, those articles don't live on the home page -- they live on a deeper page within the site. The home page is focused on driving visitors to fill out credit card applications, which is's business. In the new organic ranking I'm envisioning,'s articles could still hit the top Google organic listing -- but its current home page wouldn't.

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