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Google advertisers howl over 'sudden quality score drop'

Second howl in four weeks

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For the second time in a month, Google advertisers are complaining of a sudden drop in "quality scores" on the company's AdWords platform, and some say this is forcing them to pay more for the same ad placements.

In an email to The Register, a Google spokesman said that at this point, the company "believes" that current complaints are related to a bug that hit AdWords in late October. That bug, according to the company, did not actually affect prices on the system, but merely the way quality scores were reported to advertisers.

"We don't believe it to be a new issue, but are looking into [the situation]," the spokesman said. "In the meantime, we're telling our advertisers to continue to focus on core metrics like [click through rate] and net [cost per click]. It's also worth noting that the holidays can be a time of much change as advertisers optimize their campaigns for the shopping season."

Some advertisers are convinced that some sort of sudden change in the system is indeed affecting their cost per click. "My campaign [has] also been hit.....so frustrating because we pay big money for this service and I have had to increase my bids drastically to maintain ranks I have always had," one advertiser says in a post to Google's help forum. "I doubt AdWords will reimburse us for the increased cost or lost sales. Shame this time of year. I am seriously looking into other platforms for the first time."

Another advertiser — based in the UK — tells The Register that as his quality score has dropped, his cost per click has jumped from about £0.90 to £1.40 on one campaign. He spends about £1,800 a month on the service. AdWords places ads according to a "second price auction." You end up paying only if someone clicks on your ad, and the amount you pay is determined by the bid of the advertiser ranked just below you and your respective quality scores, Google's measure of an ad's "quality."

In an email to The Register, a Google spokesman says the company has long been aware of a bug in the system that seemed to drive quality scores down in late October. According to the company, this bug only affected the way quality scores were reported to the user — not the actual score used by the system to place ads.

"We're aware of an issue, and have responded in a thread on the forum and with this post pinned to the top of the forum," the spokesman said, pointing us to a forum post from late October.

"Many accounts are experiencing an unexpected drop in quality score for high performing keywords, starting around the 24th/25th of October 2010. This appears to be a reporting only issue, meaning that we display the quality score as incorrectly low in the account interface, while ad serving itself is not affected," the post reads. "Please know that our engineers are looking into this as a top priority."

Another post from the same late October day indicates the problem will soon be fixed. "This issue was limited to the reporting of Quality Score, and the fix should be live for all within the next 24 hours. For those keywords with a status of Low search volume, the fix should be live within the next few days."

Apparently, it was fixed in some way, because advertisers stopped complaining. But the complaints popped up again on November 19. And many users seem to think this is a separate problem. "After the recent Quality Score bug and shake out things stabilized for my account for a few weeks. But today once again something is going down. My whole average QS across my entire account is taking a pounding today. Is anyone else experiencing this?" asked one forum poster.

Multiple advertisers have complained to The Register directly. "Quality Scores on my campaign have dropped from 10/10 to 6/10 and even 4/10," another UK-based advertiser tells us. "My ads are still being displayed in the right place (top) however the cost has slightly increased."

And many others on Google's forum believe that the change in their reported quality scores has coincided with a change in cost per click. "Our CPCs to be on first positions tripled because of low QS and not sure if we should wait and not make any changes?" says another posted. "This 6 day glitch is not very tolerable Google! Loads of money on the table." ®

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