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The Convergence of User Experience and Search Engine Marketing

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This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

Making your website easier to use has always been important, but now offering a positive user experience is likely critical to obtaining positions at the top of search engine results pages. This suggests that search engine marketers need to focus on user experience, website usability and user engagement to improve their ad placement.

As background, pay per click (PPC) ads are the text links located in the sponsored sections at the top and right hand sides of search engine results pages. While the position order in which PPC ads are ranked on a page was previously dictated in auction fashion with the top bidder obtaining the top spot, the current model search engines apply involves a complicated algorithim that includes everything from ad click-thru rates to a mysterious “quality score.”

Why is Quality Score Important?

In the good old days (circa 2002), the top sponsored ad position was obtained by being the top bidder. This was a glorious and profitable period for direct marketers, as a $0.25 bid would typically result in a top three ranking for most categories. Things began to get more complicated and expensive in February 2002, when Google introduced a formula based on both bid amount and click thru rate. In August, 2005 quality scores were introduced by Google as a third factor in the ranking of PPC advertising. Since that time, an advertiser desiring to have their PPC ads on top of the search results must:

  • place a high bid
  • have strong historical click thru rates for the term being bid upon
  • enjoy a good ad quality score

So what is a quality score?

Although the leading search engines have provided information on factors that are included in quality score calculations, the details of the weighting factors included in the algorithms remains a dark secret. The Google Help Center describes many of the factors, but closes the description rather vaguely by indicating that “other relevance factors” are considered. Some of these “other factors” may be outlined in a Google patent application. Bill Slawski has nicely summarized the filing.

Just how important is the quality score?

Regardless of bid amount, Google recently has begun to banish ads to the right hand side of the search engine results page for terms that do not have a sufficient quality score. Thus, it is possible to pay more for a sponsored ad position than your competitorand have your ad ranked lower. While the quality score required to receive top of page placement varies by category, it seems that a Google quality score of “8” is often the minimum necessary to avoid being cast to the right hand side of the page.

MSN has acknowledged using “user engagement” as a factor when computing their quality score. They determine user engagement based on dwell time and conversions. (I recently spoke with a representative from MSN, who informed me that clicks onto pages on secure servers (https pages) are being used as a proxy for determining conversions.) Given that user experience is being used by Microsoft in calculating ad quality scores, it seems likely that Google, Yahoo and Ask may do it in the near future. This information indicates that search engine marketing and usability have begun to converge.

There is widespread speculation that enhanced usability may also improve rankings of organic search results. Given the success that spammers have had at ranking well for commercial terms by manipulating on-page elements and external links, it seems inevitable that user experience will become an increasingly important weighting factor in organic ranking algorithms. User experience measures are more challenging to manipulate, and utilizing behavioral measures seems to be a logical escalation in the ongoing battle against the “black hat” spammers by search engines endeavoring to provide relevant results to consumers.

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