Quality Score in Higher Education Marketing: What it is and Why it Matters

You‘ve probably heard of it, you might even have a general idea what it is, and you’re guessing there is some kind of benefit to making it go up – but what IS quality score, really? And why does it matter so much to higher education marketers?

Simply put, in a Google Adwords search engine marketing campaign, Quality Score (QS) is Google’s evaluation of how closely related your ads and landing page content are to the keywords you are bidding on, based on a scale from 1 – 10 (low to high). The resulting quality score (found at the keyword level in AdWords) radically impacts how much you pay at auction for your paid search clicks, as well as where and how often your ads appear. The higher your score, the less you have to pay – and vice versa.

Why is Google so willing to reward this relevance? It’s simple. They want high quality search results for their users. If your ads are generating clicks, and those clicks stay on your site, it’s an indication that searchers are finding the type of content they’re looking for. This positive user experience is important to Google because it will keep searchers coming back (and it doesn’t hurt that these clicks also generate revenue for Google).

Why is having high Quality Scores important for higher education marketers?

“They’re important for everybody in the marketplace, not just in higher education,” notes Sol Dostilio, Digital Advertising Director at VONT. “But because higher education is such a competitive vertical with an expensive average cost per click, strong quality scores are the surest way to get the most clicks at the lowest possible cost.” And the lowest possible price on a click can go a long way to helping you achieve your cost per lead and cost per enrolled student goals.

Quality Score is based on three metrics:

  • Expected click-thru rate
  • Ad relevance
  • User experience of the related landing page

Let’s take a look at each of the three components and talk about how marketers can strategically maximize each one.

Expected click-thru rate (CTR):  One of the few certainties in the calculation of Quality Scores is that expected click-thru rate carries the most weight. So, there is tremendous value in understanding the best practices for maximizing CTRs. The first and most critical step is creating a high-grade keyword list. Keywords should be as relevant and specific to what is offered on your landing page as possible.  The trick is knowing what words to choose, what words NOT to choose, what words to designate as “negative keywords” (yes, there’s such a thing) and how broad or narrow the list should be.

What you don’t want to do is use keywords that are vague or too broad, yet still related to your topic. For instance, if you are trying to find candidates for your MBA program in Boston, a keyword for your campaign would likely be: “MBA program boston.”  However, you might not want to use the term “business degree boston” as this could be too general and could result in a low CTR and quality score.

Another tactic is to add “negative keywords.”  According to Google’s help section, “negative keywords let you exclude search terms from your campaigns and help you focus on only the keywords that matter to your customers. Better targeting can put your ad in front of interested users and increase your return on investment (ROI).”  A strong negative keywords list does not directly impact your Quality Score, but it should help improve your click-thru rates.

Ad extensions also have a significant positive effect on CTR, and thus can be a great asset in boosting your quality score. Make sure you leverage as many of them as possible!

Ultimately, your click-thru rate will be determined by how relevant your ad copy is to your keyword list. An effective technique for ensuring maximum relevancy is creating ad groups with just a few closely related keywords. When you add too many keywords to an ad group, it makes it less likely that the ad will be highly relevant to all the possible search terms. Let’s discuss ad relevance in more detail now.

Ad Relevance:  So, how can higher education marketers guarantee their ads will get clicked on? They can’t, but they can increase the likelihood of users clicking on their ads and spending time on their landing page.

First and most important, the relevance of the ad to the search query should be obvious to the searcher. With that in mind, the ad copy should include an exact match of the keywords featured in the ad group. So, if the ad group includes the keyword “mba program boston,” then the headline of the ad should include “MBA Program in Boston.” Google will bold words from the keyword that appear in your ad to further highlight the relevance. This ability to mirror the keyword in the headline is only possible if there are just a few closely related keywords in each ad group.

User Experience on the Landing Page:  Quality Score is also impacted by your visitor’s landing page experience.  Google is evaluating site metrics such as, how long users spend on the landing page, do they click deeper into your website, as well as other factors. Make sure your landing page has plenty of relevant content and ideally features a 15-30-second video to help increase time on the page.  Also, make sure your landing page is optimized for mobile devices and that it loads quickly.

With this in mind, it’s important for higher education marketers to have very specific landing pages, ideally one for each program.

Some other tactics to consider with Quality Score in mind:

  • Test different ad variations and then optimize them based on which ads are generating the strongest click-thru rates. This should be an ongoing, continuous improvement process.
  • Have a strong and relevant call-to-action in your search ads.
  • Geotarget your ads – for example, you might limit your targeting to within 30 miles of your school, unless you have an online program.
  • Pause keywords that have low quality scores and are not performing well on a cost per conversion basis (there is also an Account Level Quality Score that is not visible and can be brought down if there are many keywords with low quality scores). With this in mind, be cautious of using competitor brand name keywords (they will inherently have lower CTR and quality scores) if they aren’t performing well.  If that’s the case, they should be paused.  Pausing keywords does not erase the low Quality Score, but the further they are put into the past, the easier it will be to increase the Account Level Quality Score.

To ensure you have a high Quality Score and your ads are being seen by the right candidates, remember these important tips:

For your keyword choices:

  • Use only a few keywords per ad group
  • Develop a strong negative keywords list

For your ad:

  • Make sure to use the keywords in the ad group in the ad headline
  • Have a strong call-to-action
  • Use as many ad extensions as possible

For your landing page, make sure:

  • your keywords are on the landing page. If a page has a high bounce rate and/or low time on site, that will have a negative impact on Quality Score.
  • your landing page is heavy on relevant content and features a video to increase time spent on page. 15-30 seconds is a good length for video.
  • make sure the page loads quickly.

The takeaway

Having a strong Quality Score is the surest way to get the most clicks at the lowest possible cost. Make sure your keyword groups are relevant and specific to your ad, which in turn should also be relevant to your landing page.

Search engine marketing and Google Adwords are only one aspect of a complete digital higher education campaign. Not sure what a digital marketing for higher education campaign looks like? Still have questions?  Shoot us an email or give us a call at 207.887.8333. We’d be happy to walk you through it.

About VONT Performance Digital Marketing

At VONT we believe that change is the only constant in the digital world – and that excites us. Over the years, digital marketing has played an ever-growing role in higher education recruitment. From lead generation for inquiries, campus visits, and applications to increasing brand awareness and student yield – digital marketing and ongoing optimizations can have a significant impact on the objectives that confront today’s higher ed marketer.

We believe in this idea of continual fine-tuning so much that we named our company VONT, which means to achieve exponential improvement in incremental steps. It is our core belief, and the reason why we are not simply a web design company or simply a digital advertising agency, but rather a long-term, single source partner providing a comprehensive array of web development and digital marketing capabilities for higher education clients.

In short, we’re here so that our clients achieve success in the ever-changing digital world. If you’d like to learn more about VONT and the work we’ve done with our higher education clients, visit our Work page. Or, if you have a question, contact us. We’ll get right back to you!

Written By

The VONT Team