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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 year-on-year from Google Ad Grants

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:

Google Broad match keyword impressions 2021-2023

 

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:

Google match types explained
Source: https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/7478529?hl=en-GB

 

Google ad grant clicks 2021-2023

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.

Google broad match clicks 2021-2023

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.

Impressions for different Google keyword match types 2023

Impressions for different Google keyword match types 2021-2023

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.

 

Potential causes:

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:

1.

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.

how google auction has changed for ad grants

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.

 

2.

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.

Impressions for different keyword match types 2021-2023

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.

 

Summary

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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    How Google Ads Match Types Are Changing

    Broadly go where no man has gone before!

    Google Ads has changed the way that broad match types work, and for some reason no one is really talking about it!

    Google search is changing. Google says it’s all for the good, and you’ll get more conversions for less money. But what does it all mean, how has it changed, how can you navigate all the jargon? And what even is a keyword anymore!

    Looking for the TL;DR version – click here.

     

    1. What is a keyword?

    In paid search (also commonly referred to as Google Ads), a keyword is a specific word or group of words for which an advertiser wants to show their ad when a user searches them. A search term is the actual wording used by the user when searching on Google.

    However, as an advertiser, you will not be able to cover every possible variation of way in which a user could search for you, your service, or your product. 

    Match types are therefore used by advertisers to allow Google Ads some flexibility in its ability to match a keyword to a match type. An exact match means the keyword and search term need to be the same (ish). Phrase match allows for the order of words to move around and some words to change, as long as it doesn’t change the basic meaning of the keyword. And broad… well broad means you give Google the keys and you let it drive off into the sun.

    …at least, it used to.

     

    2. What we know

    How have broad keywords been used to date?

    Most experienced advertisers have always been averse to using broad match keywords; they regularly resulted in budget being squandered on irrelevant searches and the keywords underperforming against match types you had control over.

    • If you wanted to spend your budget, you could use broad.
    • If you wanted to achieve your targets, you didn’t.
    • Additionally, in the charity sector, broad could be seen as too risky, given the limited control.

    But things have changed – quite considerably.

     

    3. How broad match is changing

    In March of this year, a Think with Google blog dropped to limited noise. It covered two engineers who had been using AI and Large Language Models to improve Google Ads.

    The article details the overall history of broad match but specifically highlights three developments we need to be aware of:

    • The use of Large Language Models helps broad search understand the importance that the order of words in a search can have. A to B is very different from B to A when it comes to user intent.
    • Prioritising the keywords’ relevancy first, before considering ad rank.
    • Utilising multilingual search.

    The most interesting development here is the prioritisation of relevancy over ad rank in auctions. This development means that Google may put in a keyword with a lower ad quality, if it believes it’s the most relevant keyword you have. It also means that if you have the keyword which matches the user’s exact search (no matter the match type), that keyword is the only one put forward, regardless of the potential ad rank performance.

    Without oversight on your keywords and their impact on your accounts, this change could be significant. If you have similar keywords within an account, you will likely see a change in usage among those keywords – with a reduction in impressions for some of your better keywords as their usage is limited by weaker keywords.

    how google keyword auction works

     

    4. Further developments

    Google Ads has also produced a weightier documentation called Unlock the Power of Search.

    (It’s a good read!)

    It has a lot going on, and more than its fair share of hyperbole and salesy talk, but I’ve picked out some of the key points:

     

    Auction change (keyword matches)

    The auction process now starts with relevancy to determine what keywords to even put forward for the auction. This also means Google will only put forward keywords from what it determines to be the most relevant ad group, to the user’s search. This means that even keywords which are relevant, and have a better ad quality might be blocked from entering the auction by a ‘more relevant’ ad group.

    Google signals are introduced

    Broad match is now the only match type to make use of all the available ‘signals’. It uses these signals to understand both the intent of the user and to gain a deeper understanding of the keywords’ meaning. These signals include but are not limited to: previous search history, time of day, location, and user search habits.

    Keyword grouping

    The combined context of the keywords in an ad group is now a factor. For example, if you added a more generic keyword into an ad group, Google would understand the context of that keyword and apply relevancy, based on the other keywords within that ad group.

    For example:

    If you added ‘rose’ as a keyword into an ad group which contained broad keywords around wine, Google Ads alleges that it would understand that the context of this keyword is wine and not the flower, the colour, or the name – and would therefore only show that keyword against users searching for wine.

    Focus more on ad strength

    In an interesting move, and one which will certainly be met with scepticism by a few people, Google recommends you to view Ad Strength metrics when looking for optimisation tweaks, and reiterates that Quality Score is meant only as a diagnostic tool.

    However, Google’s own support pages still indicate that Ad Strength, too, is just a diagnostic tool.

     

    And finally, the subtle language change that could be nothing but is probably everything

    Google makes many references to Keyword Themes within the documentation. Keyword Themes had previously only been referenced in Google Smart Campaigns, where the user provides the relevant themes (such as ‘online bereavement’ or ‘breast cancer symptoms’). The Smart Campaign will then match to searches it believes are relevant to that theme and will help you achieve your conversion targets (typically CPA).

    5. What we can do about it

    Review match types

    This is a substantial shift in direction for Google Ads, which has

     spent a considerable amount of time in recent years making each match type broader and broader!

    With the introduction of smart bidding, Google Ads now treats the same keyword equally across match types (assuming ads and landing pages the same). This means that if you are splitting out match types, you will actually just be splitting out your data up to threefold – and thereby limiting learnings and optimisation potential. Google tells you to simply remove different match types and just run with broad, nut if you have a strongly performing account with good account history, our recommendation would be to test this process over time.

    The last thing you want is to make a sudden, drastic change and lose all the benefit of historical performance.

     

    Review your keywords

    Your keywords should be grouped into similarly themed ad groups already. But it’s now even more important (if using broad match) to ensure there is limited crossover in keywords (and their associated search terms) between these ad groups. Being tight on keywords used here will help you keep control of which ad shows in those searches – and where users get sent.

    Remember – if a keyword exists that matches the user’s search exactly, Google Ads will use the matched keyword and not (necessarily) the best keyword.

     

    Test!

    If you, like many of our clients, have account structures meticulously crafted over many years, then you don’t want to be making substantial changes on an impulse. You start by testing on some lower risk campaigns, assess the keyword structure within, and then utilise Google Ads Experiments to see the impact of this new AI-driven approach.

     

    6. What we’ve seen

    We’ve not seen a huge change in our Paid accounts – especially the ones with good account history and prolonged performance.

    However, we are seeing Google Ad Grants being affected. We discuss this in more detail in a separate blog, but we are seeing a substantial change in Google Ad Grant performance, though this is due in part to some additional factors.

    The biggest impact here lies in health-based searches, where there isn’t as strong a focus on conversions.

     

    7. What’s the future of broad match?

    Google trials new broad campaign type

    Google has recently introduced a new campaign type to select accounts whereby, during account creation, you can opt to remove keyword match types in their entirety. This means that any keywords applied to the campaign will be broad match, with no alternative option. Whilst this is a beta test, ultimately this is likely the first step in removing the ‘keyword management’ element of Google Ads. We’ve already been removed from bid management, and it seems that match types are the next component to go.

    The death of keywords

    Myself and Dan have often prophesied about the inevitable demise of keywords with Google Ads. The fact that, in this article, Google Ads are talking about keyword themes as much as individual keywords is a strong indication that this is coming.

    This is certainly a deliberate use of language and is likely the first step in moving to this ‘keyword-less’ model. We’re already well on the way to the removal of match types, with Google suggesting that only in specific circumstances should you be using Exact and Phrase matches:

    Content is king

    There I said it. In a Paid Search blog! But it is true. As we lose more and more control over the keywords (and their matched search terms) that we want to bid on, our skills as paid search experts will come increasingly from the ad copy we write, as well as our ability to optimise landing pages.

    That involves ensuring the content is aligned to the ad copy and the paid search keywords (or theme, once keywords go), but equally that the content also represents a good user journey and user experience.

    We should also look at testing the copy – can we manipulate the search terms our ads match to by implementing new keywords in the copy? Or by changing the hierarchy of those keywords in the copy? There are abundant possibilities for new testing!

     

    Summary

    To summarise:

    • Match types are all but confirmed to be on the way out, with Google making it clear that (in its best practice) you should only use exact or phrase in specific cases.
    • Keywords now match for relevancy first and if a keyword matches the search exactly, that is the only keyword to be put forward.
    • Keywords themselves are likely on the way out, with Google set to pursue a ‘keyword theme’ model instead of individual keywords.
    • The ad and its landing page become even more important- and the main places you (as an advertiser) can make an impact.

     

    Those are some enormous changes; there really is nothing like digital media to keep us on our toes.

    On a personal level I’ve been screaming into the void about some agencies’ ill-formed use of broad matches over the years. To feel that those agencies are now potentially on the front foot through negligence is a very bitter pill to swallow.

    However, it’s an exciting challenge. We’ve just gone through (still going through) the death of our beloved Universal Analytics, so it makes sense that we now prepare ourselves for the inevitable death of the keyword.

    To discuss the demise of keywords, and how we can best manage this new approach, why not contact us for a chat.

     

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