Breaking “Auction Order” Explained

One of the things that raised eyebrows in my interview with Diane Tang and Nick Fox was the following section regarding how Google determines which ads rank first and climb into the all important top sponsored locations:

Nick: Yes, it’s based on two things.  One is the primary element is the quality of the ad. The highest quality ads get shown on the top. The lower quality ads get shown on the right hand side. We block off the top ads from the top of the auction, if you really believe those are truly excellent ads…

Diane: It’s worth pointing out that we never break auction order…

Nick: One of the things that’s sacred here is making sure that the advertiser’s have the incentive. In an auction, you want to make sure that the folks who win the auction are the ones who actually did win the auction. You can’t give the prize away to the person who didn’t win the auction. The primary element in that function is the quality of the ad. Another element of function is what the advertiser’s going to pay for that ad. Which, in some ways, is also a measure of quality. We’ve seen that in most cases, where the advertiser’s willing to pay more, it’s more of a commercial topic. The query itself is more commercial, therefore users are more likely to be interested in ads. So we typically see that queries that have high revenue ads, ads that are likely to generate a lot of revenue for Google are also the queries where the ads are also most relevant to the user, so the user is more likely to be happy as well. So it’s those two factors that go into it. But it is a very high threshold. I don’t’ want to get into specific numbers, but the fraction of queries that actually show these promoted ads is very small.

This seemed a little odd to me in the interview and I made a note to ask further about that, but what can I say, I forgot and went on to other things. But when the article got posted on Searchengineland, Danny jumped on it at Sphinn

“Seriously? I mean, it’s not an auction. If it were an auction, highest amount would win. They break it all the time by factoring in clickrate, quality score, etc. Not saying that’s bad, but it’s not an auction.”

This reminded me to follow up with Nick and Diane. Diana Adair, on the Google PR team, responded with this clarification:

We wanted to follow up with you regarding your question below.  We wanted to clarify that we rank ads based on both quality score and by bid.  Auction order, therefore, is based on the combination of both of those factors.  So that means that it’s entirely possible that an ad with a lower bid could rank higher than an ad with a higher bid if the quality score for the less expensive ad is high enough.

So, it seems it’s the use of the word “auction” that’s throwing everyone off here. Google’s use of the term includes ad quality. The rest of the world thinks of an auction as somewhere where the highest bid (exclusively) determines the winner. Otherwise, like Danny said, “it’s not an auction”. So, with that interpretation, I then assume that Nick and Diane’s (which sounds vaguely like a title of a John Mellencamp song) comment means that Google won’t arbitrarily hijack these positions for other types of packages which may include presence on the SERP, as in the current Bourne Ultimatum promotion.

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