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There's nothing quite like Google when it comes to being simple and complicated at the same time, and the AdWords platform is no exception. On the surface it looks like a straightforward bidding system: Pay top dollar for certain keywords or phrases and your ad will take one of the top "sponsored" positions. If it really were that simple, then any law firm in a given market is paying that same top dollar amount, and there's no way to do it any better than anyone else except to bid higher - it costs what it costs.

But nothing Google does is ever as simple as it first appears. While it is certainly true that Google is happy to generate revenue, there are two critical things to keep in mind. First, Google knows its ability to return relevant search results keeps users coming back - if the search engine giant simply took the highest bidder, it could wind up serving ads that aren't in line with what the user is searching for. Second, Google only gets revenue when the ads are clicked, so it has a vested interest in determining how relevant an ad is to the user (an un-clicked ad, regardless of bid price, won't get Google one penny).

“While Quality Score is rarely discussed as relates to organic (non-paid) search, it plays critical a role in determining PPC results — and what it costs to get those results.”

A factor known as Quality Score helps Google determine that a web page is relevant to the user's search term. And while Quality Score is rarely discussed in relation to organic (non-paid) search, it plays a critical role in determining PPC results - and what it costs to get those results.

Nothing Google Does is Ever as Simple as it First Appears

payperclick_rightarrow Lack of relevance equals lack of clicks equals lack of revenue for Google. The following example demonstrates how this can play out for PPC advertisers:

For the search term "personal injury lawyer," one of the three top-of-page paid search result spots is occupied by a firm from New York City. However, the search settings that generated this result have the user's location set as West Springfield, Massachusetts, a three-hour drive from New York. Google knows this ad is less relevant based on that distance, making it less likely to be clicked. Conversely, the ads in the other two sponsored positions are from local firms; they are more relevant (higher quality) and therefore more likely to be clicked and generate revenue. Because it knows the high quality ads are three times as likely to be selected, Google can charge $40 per click, getting $120 from three clicks; the other ad would be bidding roughly $80 per click topayperclick_rightarrow compensate for the lower quality score, as it will be clicked at one-third the rate. Google can profit from a lower cost-per-click ad as long as it will be clicked more frequently based on superior relevance/higher quality - its model is not built on bid price alone but a balance of bid price and click-through rates.

To compensate for the lower quality score, as it will be clicked at one-third the rate. Google can profit from a lower cost-per-click ad as long as it will be clicked more frequently based on superior relevance/higher quality - its model is not built on bid price alone but a balance of bid price and click-through rates.

To the right is a different example, using a more conversational (known as long-tail) search term: "what do I do after an accident?" Longer search queries such as this tend to have less PPC saturation, and in this case all three of the Page One sponsored positions are occupied by local firms. So now Google's algorithm needs to look deeper to determine which ad is more relevant (and therefore more likely to get clicked and generate revenue). All three ads are associated with firms that practice law in the user's area; all three practice personal injury law and handle auto accident cases.

How Do You Turn a Click Into a Client?

When the surface factors like location and legal category all balance out, other Quality Score factors start to have a dollars-and-cents effect on PPC. The ad copy itself becomes one element: two of the ads have copy content specifically about auto accidents, while the third provides more general personal injury language. That more general text lowers the relevance of the ad, so it is less likely to be clicked. To distinguish between the remaining two, Google's algorithm can look further into the similarities between the wording of the ad, the user's search term, and the written content on the page to which the ad is linked. So if one ad links to the firm's home page containing general information about the firm, and the other links to an interior page specifically about auto accidents that features an explanation of what to do after an accident, the latter will be recognized as more relevant to the user's search. If Google perceives this difference to be significant enough that the latter firm is more likely to generate greater click through, it can afford to charge less per click.

While these examples are conceptual, the underlying point that should be understood is that despite the appearance of a level playing field in bidding for AdWords, the truth is that all approaches are not equal. A well-managed PPC campaign integrated with your website content approach and overall online strategy helps eliminate waste from your marketing budget, lowers your per-lead cost, and delivers higher quality leads. Without the right partner who understands the full implications of your online presence, you are probably paying more than you should for PPC, and getting fewer clicks than you deserve.

jim_fitzgeraldJim Fitzgerald is director of marketing
for Big Voodoo Interactive, a published
author, and a cited authority. He can be
reached at jim@bigvoodoo.com.