The Mysterious Decline of Google Ad Grants
Ad Grants – what on earth is going on?!
Google Ad Grants are one of the best assets a charity can have in its arsenal. They allow charitable organisations and non-profits to run paid search campaigns free from media spend, and are often used to promote information, petitions, campaigns, and fundraising.
Yes, they have restrictions -which have dampened their impact in some key areas- but they are vital to many charities, big and small.
We know all about Google Ad Grants; we are one of a handful of Google Certified Partners (for running Google Ad Grants) and we regularly work on over 30 every month. Having visuals on all those accounts allows us to identify and investigate trends when we see them.
… And we’ve started to see a substantial change.
Why we’re writing this blog
School holidays always have a profound impact on search; dwell time suddenly disappears for a large audience, and users focus more on quick, action-based behaviour such as buying tickets, recipes, and activity ideas. The sort of searches typically not related to Ad Grants.
So coming into Easter, we communicated to clients: “Expect a drop, but we expect it to pick up after the holidays.”
And sure enough, we did see the drop:
Clicks from Ad Grants year-on-year.
Except, we didn’t see the bounce back. In fact, Ad Grants clicks continued to decline from there…
Some accounts did return to pre-Easter levels, but enough didn’t. Enough continued declining to cause us to have a look into why that might be. And what we found were three likely isolated events all contributing to this trend.
Investigating the data
Ad Grant trends are hard to judge for a number of reasons:
- Google occasionally gives out an increased Grant budget to organisations who meet certain criteria.
- Account changes, such as moving priority or brand campaigns to a separate Paid account, have a significant impact on traffic.
- New priorities or focuses to align with new organisational strategies.
- New agency taking on and optimising more effectively.
As a result, you need to review the data from a few angles before you can accurately identify a trend or change in behaviour (whether user or platform).
However, we can see a significant change in data since mid-April which indicates this change in behaviour (platform side).
Specific points of interest for Google Ads in recent years have been:
- Christmas 2021 and 2022 (increase spend granted).
- Removal of Modified Broad Match (the ‘secretive’ fourth match type).
- Google pushing Performance Max campaigns.
- Google’s changes to Broad match (2023).
If we line these up with the graphs, we start to understand a bit more:
So there is correlation with some of these updates. Most notably:
- Broad match
- Removal of modified broad match
Both have a significant impact on the way in which the keywords we bid on are matched to users’ searches. So we wondered, if we examine the keywords in the account and how well they are performing based on their relevance to the actual searches, do we gain more insight?
Now, helpfully, here this aligning keywords with actual searches is called the ‘search term match type’, and uses the same three match types as our ‘keyword match types’.
They are different things, trust me:
You can see that from August 2021 to March 2023, when our keywords have exactly matched the user’s search, we’ve seen very little decline. However, when we didn’t match the search closely, and relied on matching ‘broadly’ to the search term, our clicks had declined by around 100k/month.
If we compare the two ‘match types’ metrics side-by-side we can see a similar decline, but over a longer period.
The direct correlation between the two graphs is that although those were broad match keywords (left, in blue), commonly they were matching exactly what the user was searching. This is interesting because a decline here, without any substantial changes in an account, is either a drop in searches or a change in the frequency of ads showing.
Another place where we are seeing the sharpest drop-offs is on keywords for which the website isn’t organically ranking highly – or at all. As Google puts increasing emphasis behind ad strength and landing page experience, this trend will likely only magnify, as landing pages that don’t align with keywords get increasingly penalised and aligned with organic results.
Broad search and other match type updates.
The most obvious likely cause has been that change in broad match, which we cover in our blog here: https://upriseup.co.uk/blog/how-google-ads-match-types-are-changing/#summary
It’s a reasonable shift which has more widely reaching changes, but the following couple of changes will likely have the most substantial impact on Ad Grants:
Google Ads (through broad match) will now not enter another keyword (from the same account) into the auction if a keyword matches the search exactly.
This could have a sizeable impact in Ad Grants as they typically contain more keywords than Paid accounts, which means there’s greater chance that multiple keywords are entered into an auction.
It could be the case that a keyword was actually outperforming the exact searched term previously, because it had a better ad rank.
In this example scenario, going forward only the ‘Donate to Colon Cancer’ keyword would be carried forward to the auction, and its ad rank is not good enough for page 1 – which results in the account receiving fewer impressions (and thus fewer clicks) for this search term.
Broad match was typically the widest matching match type. Now, it will still match to a wider array of terms compared to the other match types. But this will now only be in relation to trying to achieve more conversions. This means that broad keywords that aren’t generating many conversions and are using a conversion-focused bid strategy will start seeing considerable volatility in their bidding, as the machine learning tries to optimise both the search terms it matches to and its bids to maximise conversions.
There’s far more going on with the broad match changes, so I do recommend reading the blog – it’s a great read. (Yes, I also wrote that one…)
Results page updates
2023 has also brought some substantial changes to the results page. Whilst you wouldn’t make an immediate connection between SEO updates and the performance of Ad Grants, they are intrinsically linked because they share the same ‘space’.
There was a core algorithm update that coincided with the start of the volatility (March 2023), but the most aligned update is the April Review Update, which necessitates a focus on promoting quality content to users. The interesting part about this update is that it moved the review algorithm out of a focus purely on product, and more onto content and services.
The alignment here for the Ad Grants is that we saw health and cancer organisations hit harder than other organisations, which could potentially increase the likelihood of a no-ads results page for more informational, health-based searches.
Cancer charity search term matches dropping since the April update.
Connected to this update is the relationship that Google has with the NHS and US-based health organisations. As covered in our blog on E-E-A-T, Google has been increasingly likely to favour NHS and US-based organisations on organic results for health information searches. Again, if we combine this with a potential move away from showing ads for those searches, we would expect to see a reduction in impressions (which we are indeed seeing).
All of these results page updates hit Ad Grants harder than Paid accounts, as Grants are penalised by Google Ads against paying advertisers. This means that when Google Search builds its results page, the chances of an Ad Grant ad appearing appear to have been lowered.
Google Ad Grants have always faced considerable challenges. This is just one more on the pile.
We’re definitely seeing a reduced ‘place’ for Ad Grants in Google search – one which will have a larger impact on some organisations than others. However, there is still a place.
Content has always been key to an Ad Grant’s success, and those who have been impacted most are the ones who boast the least content, or who are utilising keywords that, whilst relevant, don’t have a focused landing page.
So as we move forward, my three takeaways are:
- Ensure you have enough relevant content on your website. Think of your Ad Grant as an extension of your website’s SEO. For a keyword to perform well, it needs to have a relevant and aligned landing page.
- Embrace the new Broad Keyword Match Type. It’s here, and Google are only going to increase its use and prominence. Also ensure you minimise (or better yet, eradicate) phrase and exact match conflicts.
- Ensure you utilise conversions in your account. They don’t always have to be transactional, and can be engagement-focused, but all effective bid strategies start with conversions.
Finally, for all business priority objectives we recommend testing running a Paid account. Paid accounts have not been as affected by the new changes and are not restricted by the Google Ad Grant rules.
I hope this has been helpful and please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions.
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