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Google Quality Scores for Natural Search Optimization

Google made big waves in the paid search marketing industry when they began introducing a Quality Score which impacted cost and rankings of AdWords advertisements. Similar quality scoring methods are likely in use as ranking criteria for Google’s natural search results as well, and Google’s Webmaster Tools may hint at some of the criteria. Here are some details of that quality scoring criteria and some ways for you to improve rankings with it.

Google provides a very rough “formula” for their AdWords Quality Score:

Google AdWords Quality Score Formula

The Click-Through-Rate, or CTR is the percentage of users who click through the ad when it appears on a search results page for a particular keyword. The Ad Text Relevance is likely how apropos the text appearing in the ad’s title and description are in relation to the user’s keyword search. The keyword relevance is likely the keywords the advertiser purchased and how closely they match the user’s query (probably influenced by whether the advertiser set up the ad to match exactly or fuzzily). And, the landing page’s relevance is likely figured in comparison to the user’s keyword query as well — if the page includes the keyword terms, for instance.

Similar scoring criteria are likely already in use in Google’s ranking algorithms along with the 200+ other signals they use to rank pages. If the user’s keyword doesn’t match the page’s TITLE text or Meta Description, that’s very similar to the criteria they’re using to assess quality in the paid search ad text. Also, if the landing page doesn’t seem as relevant to the user’s query. These are factors which most search optimizers were already aware of.

But, how would Google likely compute a “quality score” for pages automatically, in order to mix that value in with the soup composed of PageRank, Indyrank, Spamscore, and other mysterious values they use to choose what page will appear first, second, third, etcetera in the SERPs?

Google’s Webmaster Tools interface strongly hints at one method that is likely at play.

Google Webmaster Tools Query Stats

Under the Statistics tab in Webmaster Tools, the Query stats page shows you the “Top search queries” and “Top search clicks” your site is receiving through Google search results. This can be narrowed down by the type of search users have conducted on Google, and by the Google engines for various countries. “Top search queries” show what the top keyword searches on Google have been which included one’s site pages in the results, and what position on the page they occupied. The most desirable position is number one, of course, because that indicates that your site was considered the most-relevant of all sites for a particular keyword search. Google’s default is to display only the first ten links for a user’s keyword search, so if your Query Stats show “Average top position” values between 1 and 10, one of your site’s pages was showing on the first page of Google’s search results for their respective queries.

Top Search Queries & Clicks
(click to enlarge)

The “Top search clicks” show what the top keyword searches were that resulted in click-throughs to your site’s pages. Just because your site ranked in the top page of search results for a keyword search doesn’t necessarily mean users clicked through to it. So, this metric shows which queries got you the most clicks.

By monitoring their users, Google can tell which links on Google search results pages the users have clicked upon, and they’re collecting that data for various uses. We can clearly see from the Webmaster Tools pages that Google is not only collecting such usage data, but they’re also associating the metrics with each website out there.

I believe they may likely be collecting a site’s Top Search Queries, and then comparing with the site’s Top Search Query Clicks in part to derive a query quality score. If a site doesn’t receive clickthroughs on the top queries it ranks highly for, it could be an indication of a quality problem. It would be easy for them to mathematically calculate a Top Search Query Click-Through Rate from this information, and to use that score as a factor for ranking pages. This metric could actually be done on a keyword by keyword basis as well, so that a separate score could be derived for all the top keywords for which a site is ranked. So, a site or page could have a really high score for one keyword and a really low score for another.

So, what’s the takeaway from this information?

Register with Webmaster Tools if you haven’t already, then login to view your Top Search Queries and Top Search Query Clicks and see if they match up. Unfortunately, Google’s only showing you up to 20 of each, while they likely track quite a few more than that. (I keep begging Google to provide webmasters with a bit more reporting in these interfaces!) If you don’t see click-throughs for the terms listed in your Top Search Queries, also check your separate web analytics metrics to see what your top search keywords are for Google.

Most web analytics packages worth their salt include a report of top search engine keywords. They grab this data from the referring URLs when users visit your site. When users click into your site from search engines, the referring URLs have the keywords that users submitted to find your page, and your analytics packages extract those. If your more extended analytics reports still don’t show that you’re getting clickthroughs for all the Top Search Queries that are listed in Google’s Webmaster Tools, it could be that you’ve got a quality problem.

One way to improve a quality problem of this sort would be to review your pages’ TITLE text and META Description text. Those are displayed in Google search results for keywords for which your pages are relevant. When Google shows your page in their search results, they typically use the page’s TITLE text as the link text of the listing, and they typically use the META Description for the descriptive snippet appearing under the link. If the TITLE and META Description don’t “call out” to users, they won’t get as many clickthroughs. The TITLE and META Description should both be individualized for each distinct page on your site, and they should be representative of each page’s content. They should repeat the best keywords used to describe that page. Using a little “call to action” in the META Description might also help to improve your page’s click-through rates.

So, use the Webmaster Tools reporting Google has provided to you to improve your site’s overall quality scores, and you’ll likely end up with better overall rankings. Sites with poor quality scores will likely find it harder and harder to rank well, even for very unique terms for which they should be considered authoritative.

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