Google Quality Scores for Publishers: The Carrot and the Stick?

Google’s Panda update has web publishers concerned about how Google is ranking their pages based upon features found on those pages that Google might use to “measure” the quality of those pages. A Google Webmaster Central blog post published earlier this month from Google Fellow Amit Singhal, More guidance on building high-quality sites, tells us:

Our site quality algorithms are aimed at helping people find “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content. The recent “Panda” change tackles the difficult task of algorithmically assessing website quality.

The blog post includes a large number of questions that publishers might ask themselves about the quality of the content and the user experience on their websites, to give them some ideas on how they might improve both the content and the user experience. In some ways, this reranking of lower quality content has been a stick from the search engine, but what if Google used a carrot instead?

What if Google paid publishers of the search engines’ advertisements more or less based upon a quality score their pages? What if the money that you were paid as a Google Adsense participant not only relied upon the clicks on your pages, but also the quality of the content that you publish on those pages?

Google does have a number of AdSense Program Policies for publishers who display Google Adsense ads on their pages. Those include content guidelines listing examples of the kinds of content that shouldn’t be shown or linked to by adsense advertisers, such as content that is adult or violent in nature, or that promotes racial intolerance. Adsense advertisements also shouldn’t be shown on pages that violate others copyrights, according to the guidelines.

But what if Google looked at other aspects of a web page where Adsense advertisements might be shown, and came up with quality scores for those pages which would determine how much compensation those ads might pay to publishers? A Google patent application published last year provides some details on how such an approach might work.

Compensation Distribution Using Quality Score
Invented by Brian Axe, Ronald Ho, Amit Paunikar, Christian Oestlien
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20100114678
Published May 6, 2010
Filed: July 2, 2009

Abstract

Among other disclosed subject matter, a computer-implemented method for compensation distribution includes analyzing first content from a publisher with regard to a quality criterion. The method includes associating the first content with a quality score based on the analysis. The method includes providing second content to the publisher to be published with the first content.

The method includes distributing a compensation to the publisher relating to the second content, the compensation based at least in part on the quality score.

Interestingly, it seems like a number of the quality score considerations may involve the look and feel of a website in some ways. This passage from the patent filing is a little telling:

A multitude of publishers make use of computer networks such as the internet for publication, and their respective publications can have unique characteristics and/or qualities.

Often, a page from one publisher can be significantly different from that of another, and so on.

Differences can be due to deliberate design choices stemming from the publisher’s intention and vision behind the publishing; in other situations, they can be the result of cost restrictions, lack of artistic creativity and/or a limited understanding of the technology involved in the publishing medium.

So, what types of “quality criterion” might be used to classify pages based upon a quality score. The patent provides some examples of things it might look for:

  • Established facts rather than controversial opinions
  • Authoritativeness
  • Verifiability
  • Entertainment value
  • Grammatical accuracy
  • Educational value
  • Timeliness
  • Aesthetic quality
  • Originality
  • Cohesiveness
  • Reputation
  • Informational value
  • Search ranking
  • Popularity
  • Server responsiveness, or
  • Other quality criteria

How might something like the design of a site fit into a quality score?

The patent filing’s inventors tell us:

In some implementations, classifiers can be trained using one or more templates. For example, templates for the most commonly used page designs available in the network (e.g., on the internet) can be developed.

The classifier can use the template to determine whether a page at issue uses the common page design, which can be considered a quality aspect.

As another example, a template of a known “bad” page design can be used.

A classifier might also be trained to look for concepts that might appear within the text upon a page, and it might use that information as part of the quality score as well. For example, we’re told that “the classifier can determine whether there are few or many concepts on the page, which can be used as a quality criterion.”

The classifier might look for other signals as well:

For example, the classifier module can add a point to a page’s quality score for every detected “good” aspect of the page (e.g., a working link, a verifiable fact) and/or subtract a point for every detected “bad” aspect of the page (e.g., broken link, misspelled word). Other types of scoring can be used.

Quality scoring to determine compensation to a publisher might be used in areas other than web pages as well, and the patent describes how this approach might work with print advertisements in a magazine, or with television programs, radio programs, movies, or other forms of media. For instance, the higher the quality of the television program playing when a commercial is shown, the more the broadcasters of the TV show would be paid.

Conclusion

The approach described in this patent seems aimed at increasing the quality of pages found on the Web that use Google’s advertisements, by providing an incentive to increase the quality of the content found on those pages. The Panda upgrade from Google may impact many pages that attempt to entice visitors based upon the topics that they focus upon to visit those pages and click upon advertisements found there.

If you are a website publisher participating in Google’s Adsense program, and you were told that you could earn more money from your Google ads if your pages had higher quality scores, would you work to improve the quality of the content of your pages? I suspect that some site owners would, while others would just work to create more pages if it were easier and less costly to do so.

We don’t know if Google will introduce this approach anytime in the future, but I thought that it was interesting based upon the quality criteria that it included in its description.

It’s possible that many of the signals of quality that the patent filing includes within its description are similar to quality signals that Google’s Panda update may be considering.

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48 thoughts on “Google Quality Scores for Publishers: The Carrot and the Stick?”

  1. I do think Google will use quality scores in the future to judge AdSense sites. I’m surprised they haven’t done this already. However, some items on the list seem to conflict. For instance, established facts vs. entertainment value. I wonder how Google would judge the latter; and in our tabloid journalism culture, the latter could trump the former on certain sites.

    Also, some things are not on this last that probably should be (i.e. page load speed, social graph metrics, and availability of similar information elsewhere). Page load speed might be wrapped up in “server responsiveness” and “reputation” might cover social graph metrics. But if someone builds an MFA site with information found on 10,000 other sites online and they still get a high quality score based on other factors, then I think something is wrong with the scoring.

    One thing I would hope not to be a factor upon which quality is based is search ranking. I do not think AdSense publishers who are adept at SEO should be rewarded because they can optimize a web page properly. Their being able to optimize a web page properly should be the evidence (not the consequence) that they are capable of making money online.

    As an AdSense publisher, I’d welcome quality scores for publishers if the scores are based on sound criteria.

  2. Interesting “quality criterions”. I wonder how Gogle could judge about aesthetic quality and what it means by cohesiveness?

    I have no trouble seeing a link between this patent and Google AdWord’s QS so I will definitely take a look at this one.

    Jeremy

  3. I like the idea of adsense being based on the quality of the website and content. I have the suspicion that the most effective adsense websites for clicks are the ones that have the least compelling content. I write about deep, critical thinking and each post takes me several hours to write. Meanwhile, the adsense ads I have are nearly useless because readers are more interested in my content.

  4. I’m interested in learning more about the measures for things like entertainment value or aesthetic quality, considering that these mean different things for every person who could view a website.

  5. It seems to be Google is being pretty intelligent. They want to evaluate the value of pages the same way people do – since people are the center of what they are aiming to please. It harms Google if people click on Google ads and find it a waste of time. One thing people use to evaluate a site is how the design indicates if the site seems legitimate. It may not be “fair” – good content can be in a bad design, but people are not “fair” in their judgments.

  6. This is kind of bizarre. I find it somewhat troubling that Google has declared itself the arbiter of quality. Quality of content is a wildly subjective concept!

  7. I agree its about the end user and what benefit they get from visiting the website. If your website does not provide any useful content or service then it makes sense that its ranking would be less than a site that provides a useful beneficial activity.

  8. Great to see that google is aiming to crack down on these advertising sites which by pass seo but i do have to disagree with the possibility that google would make a website more because of a site doesn’t meet the “Established facts rather than controversial opinions” criteria. A website could be informative but controversial because after who is to say what is and isn’t true also in order to be controversial the site would be disagreeing with mainstream view but what is wrong with that?

  9. Hi Allen,

    Thanks. I don’t think the aim of this patent is as much to police adsense sites and rank them differently in search results, but rather to provide adsense publishers with some incentive to increase the quality of their pages so that they would earn more money. Panda, on the other hand is something that would judge pages, beyond those that just run Adsense advertising, and influence where they might rank in search results. I’m guessing that it’s possible that with Google’s adoption of Panda, this might not be a route that Google goes down.

    The patent really doesn’t define a number of the terms that it uses in ways that might be helpful, and maybe help with the ambiguity that some of the might create, like you point out with “established facts vs. entertainment value.”

    I was surprised to see search ranking listed as a factor as well, and I’m not sure that it’s a good idea either.

    Hopefully if Google decides to move forward with something like this, they will give us greater insights into what they mean by many of the “quality” signals that they’ve pointed out.

  10. Hi Jeremy,

    By “aesthetic quality” I’m guessing that they mean the look and feel of a site, such as things like how cluttered it might be, how easy or hard it is to read content, the quality of images used, and more. There do seem to be some similarities with the Adwords Quality scores, though those focus upon ads and landing pages, while these focus upon the pages where Adsense ads might be displayed. It seems to fill a gap that maybe needed to be addressed in some way.

  11. Hi Stephen,

    I hope it’s not true that the sites with the lowest quality content are the pages that would be most effective with adsense. I have seen a good number of sites where the content is pretty high quality, and the ads that are shown are useful because they provide products and services that are very good matches with that content.

    What types of advertisements do you think would be most effective with the content that you create on your pages, and are those types of things being advertised through adsense?

  12. Hi Kentaro,

    I would really like to learn more about how Google might measure things like entertainment value or aesthetic quality as well.

    I would suspect that for something likie “aesthetic quality” there might be a list of things that we could come up with that a search engine might consider indications of good design, such as placement of advertisements, use of whitespace, size of fonts, misspellings, and so on. Entertainment value sounds more difficult to come up with signals of quality. Maybe freshness of content if a site is a news type site, or the use of images? Would they look at sites that they consider to have “high” entertainment values, and identify features that those possess?

  13. Hi John,

    Good points. If people see Google ads all over “low quality” sites that contain obviously scraped content, poor designs, numerous spelling and grammatical errors, they may get the impression that Google is helping to create a lower quality web. The context of Adsense advertisements on poor quality web pages can create an association with the ad as well as the advertising service distributing them. Will providing an incentive to publishers to produce higher quality pages in return for greater payouts from the advertisements make a difference, though?

  14. Hi Fred,

    To a degree though, that’s what a search engine does – finding answers to queries and trying to provide relevant, important, and quality results to searchers. There are subjective elements to each of those – relevance, importance, and quality. Part of the reason why I like looking at patents from the search engines is because they tend to focus more upon how something might work, and not upon marketing that thing. It gives us the chance to see some of the possible assumptions behind what the search enignes might do in the future, and it’s possible that we might not agree with some of the assumptions behind them.

  15. Hi Andrew,

    It is about the end users, ultimately. If they aren’t happy with the search results they see in Google, they’ll find other ways of finding answers.

  16. Hi stephen,

    Given some of the criticism that Google had been receiving earlier this year about the lack of quality of many websites that were showing up highly ranked in search results, it probably isn’t surprising that Google has started taking steps like the Panda upgrade, and exploring ideas like the one described in this patent. This patent isn’t so much about how pages are ranked, but it’s definitely waving a carrot around to give publisher incentive to create higher quality pages.

  17. Google is pretty smart. No one can deny that. Quality content and a target audience in the search results it a must. It is interesting to say the least how Google is able to produce search results which we have found through our own research. For example, some always look for flowers and typing in flowers, etc comes up with a different search results most of the time when you have someone like me, who never types in the search flowers. Totally different results and Google has narrowed it done pretty good. Otherwise the ideas here are applicable.

  18. Hi Craig,

    It sounds a little as if someone with a journalism background was involved in writing the “established fact vs. controversial opinion” part of the patent filing. One of the reasons I like many of the blogs that I like is because they provide controversial views that aren’t always in sync with mainstream media. Then again, one of the reasons why I like to write about search related patents and white papers is because they are primary resources directly from the search engines, and it’s hard to deny that they exist – they are verifiable. I may add controversial opinions about them sometimes, but I like having both verifible fact and opinion.

    I’d love to be involved in the discussion at Google on how “quality” can be determined by verifiable facts and controverisal opinions.

  19. Hi Jeff,

    It is interesting to see how Google is capable of delivering different pages to different searchers based upon past searching histories, customization, personalization, preferred languages, locations of searchers, and more. Regardless of what they are showing, they do seem to be focusing upon improving the quality of results.

  20. Bill, I agree that Google wouldn’t implement a quality score for the purpose of judging AdSense sites, but I also recognize it could be a consequence. For instance, PPC quality scores are intended to help advertisers improve their ads and landing pages. However, there are some ranking effects to the quality scores. I see this being somewhat similar.

  21. Wow! If Google came up with quality scores for pages which would determine how much compensation those ads might pay to publishers, that would really change how internet marketers look at Adsense as an income stream. Many publishers set up lean sites that essentially push visitors through Adsense ads simply due to the fact that the site is so lean that the Ads are the most informative and attractive thing on the page. This could really change MFA sites.

    Great post Bill, as always.

    Mark

  22. Bill,
    Panda update has been a failure from Google. We bought a $700k worth exact match domain. We were ranking#1 for 8 years my friend Bill, yes 8 years is long. Content was done by journalist from UK(will keep the name private due to privacy). LATimes,WSJ and many others are just few examples of types of links our content used to get.

    We never had Adsense Ads because our business model was different as we had a great deal with banks.

    Current Rankings —>

    Rank #1 –> exactmatchinfo.com —> 3 leaderboard ads on the top yes over the fold, backlink profile -> hardcore profile links and other junk backlinks.

    Rank #2 —> exact-match-randomkeyword.info —> 2leaderboards on the topic, footer contains 50 repeated different keywords of the topic. About 6 months old. backlink profile one of those you can buy for $50 at DP 5000 profile links and such.

    Rank#3 —> wikipedia

    Total BS results, this leads me to think that Google is actually pushing some MFA sites on top in good niches where there is good demand for the product and CPC is high just so Google can earn.

    What is funny, we actually offered the rank#1 guy money to buy and we asked him for stats he has 12% CTR (Adsense) daily earning is $2000 or so on average.

    I thought it is more about user engagement, quality content, social proof and all that BS, but currently we are being dominated by MFA.

  23. Very interesting! The Panda update has caused such an uproar but, if we, as Google searchers rather than Webmasters, look at the results we get in the SERPs today compared to, say, five years back, the relevancy of the Search results are far better. With any update there are going to be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and the Panda update appears to have been more divisive than most of the other Google updates.
    The effect of a good or bad placing in the Google SERPs can ‘make or break’ a Website/business but, at the end of the day, Google doesn’t owe Website owners anything. A Website shouldn’t allow itself to be totally reliant on Google in the first place; no Website/business should allow itself to be 100% reliant on a single external and uncontrollable object in the first place!

  24. it makes sense that criteria used for a quality score as it relates to AdSense could also impact on organic SEO.

  25. Thanks for the share. Its all about that every web page must have high quality content. As a a website publisher participating in Google’s Adsense program must also have good quality content.

  26. Hi Allen,

    If Google did set up some kind of incentive for Adsense publishers to improve the quality of the pages where they display advertisements, it could potentially also help those page to rank better in search results. I do believe that is intentional on the part of Google as well.

  27. Hi Mark,

    Thanks. It really is in the best interest of Google to get people to stop thinking of Adsense as a way of making a quick buck by producing thin content pages showing advertisements. Not sure if the approach in this patent might be the best way to do it, but Panda seems aimed at having people produce higher quality pages and better user experiences on the Web as well.

  28. Hi Ernest,

    One of the analogies that I’ve been hearing more and more frequently from Google is that changing ranking algorithms is a little like changing the engine on a plane while it’s still flying a few thousand feet above the sky.

    Google has been making changes to their ranking algorithms on a pace that equals about two a day for the last few years, and I expect they will continue to do so. We can all probably point out specific search queries where Panda doesn’t seem to be working well, but there have been a lot of changes in search results. I’d love to see something come out from Google that tells us more about how they evaluate the quality of their search results, and what the impact of the Panda changes have been, but I don’t expect to see them publish that.

    If you had a choice now between purchasing that exact match domain again, or spending the money on web and business design and development, would you have made the same choice?

  29. Hi Gary,

    I agree with you completely about relying too much upon any source of traffic to a site.

    There are things that most websites can do to help keep them from being impacted too harshly by any algorithm change, even one like Panda, but ultimately it really helps to make sure that there are plenty of different channels that people can follow to find your pages.

  30. Hi Steve,

    Definitely. Many of the things that were listed in the patent as being indications of “quality” are things that can help to improve not only search results, but also the number of times people might bookmark or print a page, how frequently someone might refer someone else to that page, and how often people might become customers of that page if it sells goods or services, as well.

  31. Hi Tessa,

    This patent doesn’t demand that publishers showing adsense advertisements have high quality content and pages, but it does provide an incentive for them to do so. I do think that if Google decided to move forward with this, that there would be a good percentage of site owners who made changes to make their pages better.

  32. Quoting

    “If you had a choice now between purchasing that exact match domain again, or spending the money on web and business design and development, would you have made the same choice?”

    I would still buy the exact match domain, I wasn’t riding on the power of exactmatch, we bought it for branding, design is top notch. We were paying close to $500 per article on our website, infographics cost us $3000 in creation and promotion. Content is top notch on our homepage. We have had NyTimes writers write for us. I just don’t buy in this BS of quality, and I respect you Bill, I know you know your stuff inside out. If you get a human to review our site with anyone of the others they will vote for our site.

    But when great sites get hit and nothing adds up that is when webmasters lose it. I didn’t pay that sum to writers and infographic artists just to get outranked by a MFA site with 12 thin pages. This is ridiculous.

    But then again, some results are good and some are bad. To me Panda was a failure more than anything.

    And anyone who buys the idea that Google hates sites with Adsense they need a REALITY check. It is a multi-billion dollar business which made Google what it is today. Take away Adwords/Adsense from Google and we will see where they stand.

    Sorry for the frustration.

  33. Hi Ernest,

    I understand your frustration, and I’ve been looking at some sites that have been hit by Panda that have great unique and original content, written by people with advanced degrees and in many cases as experts in their fields. There are some issues with the sites, and those are being addressed. But it is frustrating to see those pages get harmed in search results, and also see pages with much lower quality rank higher.

    There definitely are some problems with Panda, and hopefully those are being addressed at the Googleplex, but it’s hard not to come up with the sense that Google is potentially biasing what they are doing towards sites that might display Adsense, and that perception has some serious potential to harm them.

  34. >>> “With any update there are going to be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and the Panda update appears to have been more divisive than most of the other Google updates.”

    If Amazon takes another million new visitors because of “Authority” or “Popularity” that’s, say 1000 small sites that may have to close. So Amazon announces an extra $0.2 a share in earnings and 1000 small sites are closed, employees fired, people wishing Matt Cutts and Google the worst. With things being near equal, fine, send them to Amazon (or Home Depot or Walmart,) but not almost automatically because ‘people know and trust them’. Google is Walmartizing the web, they have already picked the winners and good luck dislodging one.

    I think G is probably using this for normal SERPS, or trying to. Most pages probably can’t be judged on this since they are not article sites so looks and brand may do all the ranking.

    Google cannot run this new algo at full speed and test it for a year or two, while ruining 70%-80% of people’s traffic. It’s very irresponsible and arrogant of them given their market share.

    My site has been hit by Panda. I removed all the thin pages* and updated the rest. I am very happy with the content and Panda has plenty to chew on. Now, I have tried three different types of templates on three pages with way more purposefully info that my competitors. I linked to them from the front page, Google has indexed them 10-15 times since February and there’s absolutely no change in rank. How is this fair, or right? And why do they keep BS-ing us about ‘content’ ? Just be honest

    * tens of thousands of thin pages are apparently perfectly fine for soem of my competitors.

  35. It has to be so maddening for quality publishers like Ernest. I look more and more to Bing actually.

    Regarding quality content and Adsense: Some write articles that are intentionally lacking, to get the click. So how is that judged?

    And how to explain bizarrely inappropriate ads on your page?

  36. Hi Mike (Google’s TOP 40 Countdown),

    I’ve seen more than a couple of authors writing about Google describe a potential bias that such an important channel might have upon society, and the things that we learn, and the way that we learn about them.

    I believe that Google isn’t trying to use the same yardstick for quality from one site to another without recognizing that different types of site have different purposes. I’m not sure that they’ve been tremendously successful with that type of classification. Panda has been disruptive for a lot of sites, and it’s definitely a warning that site owners should make sure to not rely upon any one source to deliver traffic to them.

    I’ve seen some problems on some sites that may have caused problems with the Panda update that aren’t all that obvious, and I suspect that other algorithm changes may have negatively impacted many sites as well.

  37. Hi Stacy,

    Bing has some issues of its own as well. I’m sometimes surprised when I do a search there and I don’t see some sites listed in some results that I expect to see.

    As for some articles showing up that seem to be lacking in quality, intentionally to attract clicks on ads, I think that’s something that Google is trying to avoid.

    There’s a difference between “inappropriate” and “irrelevant” ads Google showing an ad for items that can be purchased at a particular store, in the context of an article about that store seeing bad or defective goods is definitely inappropriate. Google showing ads that might be more relevant to things that you’ve recently searched for, rather than something related to the content of the page that you’ve landed upon is something that I see every so often as well.

  38. Hi Andre,

    I do believe that Panda does try to classify pages and sites based upon indicators of quality, as a filter on top of relevance and importance signals. A page can be both relevant and important in regards to a particular query, but not always necessarily high quality. When there are many potential good results in response to a query, it is in Google’s best interest to try to return results that people will be satisfied with. The question is how to you predict and then measure that satisfaction, especially when there are so many potential pages to return and so many potential queries to return pages for that it’s impossible to do so manually.

  39. Google already uses a version of Quality Score for compensating AdSense publishers and has done for some time. This model already rewards publishers with relevant content with higher AdSense payouts, just as it rewards AdWords purchasers with relavant landing pages with lower ppc prices.

  40. Hi Sarah,

    I spent some time on Google’s help pages for Adsense when I was writing this post, checking to see if they had implemented something like what this patent describes, which would reward publishers who show adsense advertisements more money for showing what might essentially be the same ads, if they had a higher quality score for their pages. I really couldn’t find anything saying something like that.

    Under the patent there are a pretty wide range of criteria that it might use to apply a quality score to a web page that might display Adsense advertising, which I’ve listed above. When I was going through the Adsense policies and descriptions and help pages, I did see them mention that the relevance of publishers pages for certain topics could potentially help them make more money when participating in the program, because it could lead to better matched ads, and more traffic from higher rankings in the search engines. But that’s all that I really saw there.

  41. Thanks Bill. I woud be very happy to stand corrected. A few months ago I was investigating smart pricing and why removing AdSense from certain pages made overall AdSense earnings go up. I camw across these 2 posts:
    1. http://forums.digitalpoint.com/showthread.php?t=549296
    and
    2. http://www.adsense-assistant.com/articles/improve_adsense_quality_score.php
    Perhaps the writers mean it metaphorically, perhaps they know something we don’t, or perhaps thay are mistaken. I don’t actually know!

  42. Hi Sarah,

    It appears that the blog post and forum post you’ve linked to have enough common phrases that they may have shared an author, or one inspired the other. There’s also a link at the end of the blog post to something to buy to take advantage of the Adsense quality score being described. That made me a little skeptical.

    Now the author may provide some helpful information that might make it more likely that ads that yielded higher payouts would show up on your pages, and include ideas on how to approach topics so that it was more likely that people would click upon Adsense ads. That is possible.

    I do think that the quality of a page, and how relevant it is to specific queries can have an impact upon how much you might earn through Adsense, but I don’t think that Google has set up a program like the one described in the patent filing. One of the points behind such a program would be to make it public, in an effort to encourage publishers who display Adsense to build higher quality pages. Keeping it secret wouldn’t help to advance that.

    From the patent’s description, if there were an Adsense quality score in place, it appears that Google would inform Adsense publishers what the scores of their pages were, and if there was an improvement of those scores, they would tell them that as well.

  43. Everything you say makes good sense Bill. Thanks for the clarification. My own AdSense experience does make me agree with you that relevance and overall quality is rewarded, but I would probably lose my mind if I pondered too hard on the vagaries of AdSence. Thanks for your original post and drawing attention to the patent – fascinating stuff!

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