This morning, Google sent out a notification email to 35,000 Google Ad Grant holders warning of forthcoming changes to eligibility criteria. They include some very significant differences meaning that, if you are currently using Adwords with a Google Ad Grant to advertise your group's website, you are likely to have some adjustments to make to keep your account open in the new year.
Google Ad Grants offer $10,000 per month of free text advertisements in Google searches to registered non-profits. Many small charities, including Making Music member groups, have used this to help boost traffic to their websites, in particular for concerts and ticket sales. From 1 January 2018, Google are introducing changes to the eligibility criteria in order to try to improve the quality and relevance of adverts displayed from non-profits.
What are the changes?
The full changes are covered in the 'Program policies' section of Google's Help website, mainly in the 'Mission-based campaigns' and 'Account management policy' sections. In brief, the main changes are:
No bid cap for 'maximize conversions' bidding (good news!)
This is good news for most: previously you had to cap your bids for advertising placements at $2, meaning it's impossible to compete with bigger charities and advertisers on popular keywords. This is no longer the case - if you have conversions tracked on your website through Google Analytics (always a good idea) you can now switch your bidding strategy (under 'Settings' for each campaign) to 'Maximize conversions'. This will allow your account to automatically bid more than $2 for keywords that are more likely to get you conversions.
Minimum Click Through Rate (CTR) of 5%
All Google Grants accounts will need to maintain an overall minimum CTR of 5% (previously it was only 1%). If you fail to reach 5% for two months in a row, Google may remove your Grant eligibility. That's going to be tough for many groups who use Ads to promote concerts etc., where CTR may be low.
No more single-word or 'generic' keywords
You will no longer be allowed to use keywords with only a single word - e.g. 'concert', 'messiah', 'barbershop', 'ukulele' except those that are branded words for your group (e.g. your group's name). You're also no longer allowed to use 'overly-generic' multi-word phrases for keywords, e.g. 'singing group'.
No more keywords with a Quality Score of less than 2
Keywords are given a Quality Score based on how relevant Google thinks the page you're linking to is for searchers using that keyword. Previously this only effected how likely an advert was to be shown (or not). Now it is explicitly part of your eligibility, so including keywords for adverts that have a low Score puts you at risk of your eligibility being removed.
What can we do?
If you have a Google Ad Grants account, you basically have three options:
1. Review your adverts now and make the changes required to ensure you abide by the new criteria. This will probably mean:
- Pausing/removing adverts which receive less than 5% CTR.
- Removing any keywords that receive a Quality Score of less than 2 (this will probably overlap with the above)
- Removing any keywords/phrases that use single-words or generic phrases
It's likely that this will reduce your traffic from Google advertising, in some cases very significantly, in the short-term. If you are able to invest the time to identify and target 'long-tail' (i.e. more specific search keywords that are more relevant to the content of your website), you may be able to balance this with fewer but better-performing adverts - Google has various forthcoming webinars to help you learn how to do this. For many small groups with limited time to spare, however, this may be a lot of effort for a relatively small return.
2. Wait for Google to suggest changes, and then follow them/enable them
In their announcement, Google said:
"Please note that we will primarily use in-product notifications to communicate personalized suggestions as well as warnings about non-compliance with policies so look there in your accounts for messages from us."
This means that you're likely to be given suggestions (along with warnings) to help you make the changes needed whenever you log into your account. It also implies that they'll give you a bit of leeway to make changes before removing your eligibility.
You could, therefore, keep logging in to your account regularly between now and February and check your notifications (top-right corner of the screen) for any changes Google suggests. You can usually 'accept' or 'decline' these with a few clicks, so it may be quicker/easier than trying to identify and change these manually, though you risk your account being disabled if you're not quick enough to act on them/the suggestions don't cover all the necessary changes.
3. Switch to Adwords Express
If you don't have the time/expertise to make the changes above, or if you can't work out how to make them without leaving your Grant so curtailed as to be ineffective, you can switch your Ad Grant spend to an Adwords Express Account. This gives you the same budget, but is run (more-or-less) automatically by Google, so you have little control over your keywords/strategy. Adwords Express accounts don't have to abide by these new eligibility criteria (as Google is in control of them rather than you), so it may be the only practical option open to small groups with little time to spare.
In order to make the switch, you'd need to log in to the Adwords Express website (using the same email and password you use for your Google Grant), set up your new Adwords Express account (remember not to include any billing information), and pause/switch off your Google Adwords campaigns (your existing $10,000/month budget is available across the two accounts - Adwords and Adwords Express - so you need to ensure you're only using it on your new Adwords Express account).
What happens if we don't have time to make the changes by 1 Jan?
The risk of not acting now is that your account could be rendered ineligible or even deactivated. That would mean you'd need to contact Google and demonstrate how you'll make the necessary changes before they would allow you to advertise again.
In reality, it's unlikely that you'll be penalised without warning or straight away on 1 January - Google says they're trying to give people plenty of warning and time within their Grant accounts, so you would be more likely to see warnings whenever you're logged in to your account in advance of it getting to the point of being deactivated.
However, on the basis of 'planning for the worst while hoping for the best', it's worth taking the time to discuss the issue with your committee, deciding on your approach, and being ready to make whatever changes you decide upon early in the new year.