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Google Ads for Nonprofits: 12 Expert Tips for Managing Your Campaigns

24 min read
June 14, 2022
Abby Jarvis
man looking at a Google ads dashboard

Searching “Google ads for nonprofits” brings up hundreds of articles (including our introduction to Google Ad Grants). The program has been popular since its launch in 2003, and thousands of nonprofits have used it to improve their online presence and reach people in their community. Eligible nonprofits can qualify for up to $10,000 a month in search ads. Creating those ads is a valuable way for nonprofits to find new supporters and boost their organization’s visibility online.

If you look up requirements for Google Ad Grants, you’ll discover thousands of results that cover how to get started with the program and basic steps nonprofits can take to get their ads up and running. But what should you do after creating your campaigns? And how can you make sure you stay compliant with the requirements associated with these grants?

How to Manage Google Ads for Nonprofits

In this interview, we’re going beyond the basics with Anna Curtis, Digital Marketing Manager at Neon One. Anna has worked on Google Ad Grants for several nonprofits, including Feeding America, Visit Denver, and Heart Rhythm Society. She’ll draw on her five years of experience managing Google Ads for nonprofits to share how you can stay compliant with Google’s requirements, track and manage your ad performance, and get the most out of your Google Ad Grant money. 

Don’t have time to read the full interview? Jump to each of the questions Anna answers in this interview.

  1. What Metrics Should I Track in My Nonprofit’s Google Ads Campaigns?
  2. What Should I Do With Under-Performing Google Ad Campaigns?
  3. How Can I Get the Most From My Google Ads Grant?
  4. How Can I Guarantee the Required 5% Click-Through Rate?
  5. What Are “Meaningful Conversions?” How Can I Generate Them?
  6. What Are Ad Groups? What Should They Include?
  7. How Can I Write Ad Copy That Works?
  8. What Are Sitelink Ad Extensions and How Do I Use Them?
  9. How Should I Conduct Keyword Research for Google Ads?
  10. What Is a Quality Score? How Do I Meet Quality Requirements?
  11. Must All of My Nonprofit’s Google Ad Grant Keywords Be Two or More Words?
  12. Where Should I Go for More In-Depth Google Ad Grants Knowledge?

Let’s get started!

What Metrics Should I Track in My Nonprofit’s Google Ads Campaigns?

Abby: A lot of organizations have embraced Google Ads for nonprofits. There’s a lot of information out there about how to qualify for Google Ad Grants and how to get started with your campaigns. But there’s a lot less information about how to keep your Google Ad grant money once you’ve gotten it. 

I want to ask about the key data points nonprofits should be tracking. We know site visitors is a popular metric, but what else should they be paying attention to?

Track Metrics That Support Your Goals

Anna: Not to give a very general answer, but it is really dependent on the type of nonprofit or fundraiser. I recommend always starting with a measurement framework based on your goals.

Ask yourself, “What are our objectives? What are the ways we’re going to achieve those goals?” Establish the outcome you want to see from your campaign, identify the relevant data points, and then set your targets.

Say you’re a membership organization and your goal is to surpass last year’s memberships by 10%. You’re going to want to benchmark against last year’s memberships. You’d want to upload or track conversions like membership sign-ups and revenue from sign-ups within your Google Ad Grants account. 

At that point, you’re tracking the correct metric right there in the platform, and you’re keeping your eye on exactly what you want to achieve. You’re not focused on less impactful metrics like click-through rate or impressions. 

Of course, you still have to monitor those data points in a Google Grants account to remain compliant, but those shouldn’t be your primary KPIs in terms of really moving the needle towards your business objectives.

Takeaway: Identify Meaningful Metrics

You’ll rely on data points like click-through rates and page views to get a general understanding of your campaign’s performance. Other metrics may be more useful as you work toward reaching your nonprofit’s unique goals. Take a few moments to define specific campaign objectives—like number of new donors, volunteer signups, and other engagement indicators—and create KPIs that will help you track your progress toward those goals.

person looking at Google analytics on a Macbook Air
Google ads for nonprofits are most effective if you set well-defined goals for your campaigns.

What Should I Do With Underperforming Google Ad Campaigns?

Abby: Say someone has identified relevant KPIs and metrics and have been tracking them for a while. What steps should they take if they identify underperforming campaigns?

Look for Simple Solutions First

Anna: Look at what exactly is underperforming. If you think click-through rates are low, ask yourself, “Is that having a direct impact on my primary KPIs?” Are you driving the amount of donations or membership sign-ups you were looking to drive? It’s a lost effort if you’re focused on driving a higher click-through rate even though your primary KPIs are doing really well. 

If you do identify an area that you want to improve upon, there are a few different things you can do. Let’s say you’re seeing a low click-through rate and you want to improve it. I would start by looking at your search term reports. See if what people are searching for is relevant to what you’re bidding on, and make sure those search terms are relevant to you and what your nonprofit offers. Add keywords and negative keywords from there. Focus on cutting down on the irrelevant traffic you may be seeing. That will help improve your campaign performance a ton.

You can also go and add columns to reports to see what part of your quality scores are suffering, whether it be your landing page experience, expected click-through rate, or your ad relevancy. From there, you can identify practical steps you need to take. You can say, “I need to improve my website or my landing page,” or “I need to improve my ad copy,” or “I need to get my click-through rate back up.”

Takeaway: Make Simple Changes First

Before you reevaluate your Google Ads campaign, make sure you’re actually under-performing. If some performance metrics are low but you’re meeting your overall goals, some simple tweaks can help. Try adjusting language on your webpage or tweaking your ad copy to improve metrics like click-through rates.

Use Built-In Google Ads Features

Anna: There a few really nice Google Ads features out now. If you’re using responsive search ads, for example, you can click to edit that responsive search ad and Google will give you suggestions for increasing your ad strength. That’s a really good place to start: Look at your ad strength and improve from there.

I would also recommend checking your campaign settings. I’ve frequently adopted accounts and found that someone is accidentally targeting locations they didn’t mean to target. Look at your location reports: Are you targeting the geographic audience you want to target? Are there different audiences you want to target instead?

Google Ads has an odd location targeting setting that’s been challenging for a lot of advertisers. You can target people within a geographic location, but you can also target people with an interest in a geographic location. If you’ve accidentally selected that setting, you could be targeting people in Japan, for example, because they had an interest in your search term related to your location setting. It’s always good to make sure you truly are reaching people in the right geographic location.

Really look at your campaign settings and see if there’s something you need to adjust. Brainstorm with your team! If you’re seeing a problem and you’re lost on ways to improve it, see what your team suggests.

Takeaway: Double-Check Ad Strength and Campaign Settings.

Use Google’s suggestions to improve your ad strength. Then, double-check your campaign settings to make sure you’re not accidentally targeting the wrong groups of people. You can also work with your team to brainstorm new ideas: Your coworkers can be a great source of creative solutions.

The location targeting tool in the Google Ads platform can help you target donors in your area, which is a great way to build a community of local supporters. This article explains why it’s such an important strategy and includes more tips you can use to connect with donors in your area.

How Can I Get the Most From My Google Ads Grant?

Abby: Nonprofits can get up to $10,000 in Google ad grants per month, and that seems like a lot of money. But it can go very quickly! Do you have any advice for nonprofits around allocating that budget? Is it better to put a lot of money into a few high-cost terms? Or is it better to spread a wider net with more low-cost terms?

Consider the 80/20 Rule

Anna: To answer this question, I would refer to my idea of the 80/20 rule. 20% of the keywords in your account are probably driving the bulk of your conversions, whether that be donations or membership sign-ups or something else. The other 80% of keywords might be driving impressions or clicks, but they might not be contributing to that key KPI that you set. Don’t be afraid to trim those out if they are not giving you the results you want. Pause them and revise them!

Say to yourself, “Here are the subset of keywords that are driving results. How do I expand on those? Can I trim the ones that aren’t working?” That allows you to find what subset of keywords are most relevant to your organization.

You can also try different match types. I recommend a “broad” match for Google Grants. Once you feel like you’ve exhausted your $10k per month and don’t see an area you want to optimize further, you can start a paid Google Ads account. A lot of nonprofits will do this and run it in tandem with their Grants account to house their more competitive keywords.

Takeaway: Optimize Your Keywords and Consider a Paid Account

For many nonprofits, a handful of high-impact keywords generate the best results. Make the most of your Google Ads Grant by prioritizing those keywords and trimming the budget you’re using to support lower-performing campaigns. 

Get the most from your budget by using broad match settings for your Google Grants keywords. If you’ve used your budget for the month and don’t find additional opportunities for optimizing your ads, consider starting a paid Google Ads account.

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How Can I Guarantee the Required 5% Click-Through Rate?

Abby: Google has some very specific requirements that nonprofits have to meet in order to continue to receive and use Google grant money. 

Nonprofits have to maintain a 5% click-through rate (CTR) to stay compliant with Google’s requirements. Can you explain what that means? What steps can nonprofits take to make sure they’re meeting that goal?

Create Automated Rules That Keep You Compliant

Anna: It’s a requirement, but it’s also in your best interest to maintain an engagement rate of 5%. If you’re doing that, it’s an indicator that you have a pretty healthy account.

One way to make sure you’re staying compliant by maintaining a 5% click-through rate is to do what I do. Set up automated rules! I have an automated rule in my grants accounts where, if a campaign has an average CTR of below 5%, I receive an email notification. I then know to go in there to review and pause keywords that are bringing down my average.

If you notice that you’re pausing a lot of similar keywords due to low CTR, consider improving your ad copy and reactivating the keywords. Let’s say you’re a healthcare nonprofit and all of your keywords related to kidney disease awareness have fairly low CTRs. You’d want to update the ads, then look at your search term report to see if you need to add negative keywords.

Takeaway: Use Automated Rules to Identify Issues

Set up automated rules that pause campaigns that fall below a 5% click-through rate. Your account will stay compliant, and you’ll have time to adjust campaign elements that could be harming your performance.

computer screen displaying graphs and data on a Google Analytics dashboard
If your click-through rate falls below the 5% threshold, pause that campaign until you can identify why. You can even create automated rules that will pause campaigns with low CTRs to ensure you stay in compliance with Google’s requirements.

What are “Meaningful Conversions?” How Can I Generate Them?

Abby: Google Ad Grant recipients must have conversion tracking in place, and they need to have at least one “meaningful conversion” per month. Can you explain what qualifies as a meaningful conversion? What steps can someone take if they’re not meeting that goal?

Conversions Show Google You’re Reaching the Right People

Anna: Conversion tracking should be set up in a way that helps you reach KPI targets, and it should also inform conversion-based bid strategies (if you’re using them—which you should!). When users take a specific action that you’ve deemed beneficial to your organization, it signals to Google’s bid algorithm that you need to reach more users like them.

Conversion tags need to have meaning to them. Don’t just put a conversion tag on your About Us page just because it’s getting you a 90% conversion rate. Instead, track multiple points of conversion, like volunteer applications, donations, and event registrations.

I want to add a caveat: When you’re tracking these actions, don’t be too narrow. Don’t just track one action that you only see a handful of times per month as a result of your campaigns. If you try to use a conversion-bid strategy in the future, Google’s algorithm won’t have enough data to work properly. What I’ve noticed while managing a lot of accounts over the years is this: If you can get a conversion rate between 10%-20%, that conversion-based bid strategy will perform optimally. Sometimes I use “vanity conversions” to get there, but they’re usually page views that would indicate a highly engaged site visitor.

Takeaway: Track Conversions That Show Google Your Value

Conversions are interactions people have with your ads. Meaningful conversions are any actions people take that indicate to Google’s algorithm that you’re reaching the right audience. Use conversion tags to track actions that show Google that you’re reaching highly engaged users. This can sometimes mean striking a balance between tracking a few very high-impact actions (like visiting your donation page) and more general conversions (like pageviews on high-value pages).

Looking for more insight into how you can engage with your supporters online? This article on marketing for nonprofits explores how you can find your donors online and inspire them to interact with you.

What Are Ad Groups? What Should They Include?

Abby: Another requirement for Google Ad Grants is that nonprofits must maintain at least two ad groups per campaign and two ads per group. Can you break down what ad groups are and what kind of ads they should include? 

Ad Groups Help You Organize Different Types of Ads

Anna: I like to think of ad groups as buckets for organizing your keywords and making sure your ad copy is relevant to those keywords.

The line between “ad campaigns” and “ad groups” used to be a lot clearer than it is now. That line is becoming really fuzzy with the introduction of responsive search ads and the change in keyword match type definitions. Now, you might notice that, when someone searches for a keyword that’s more relevant to a certain ad group, they may be seeing an ad from a different group based on which groups are performing best. It’s becoming a little gray compared to how things may have been run, say, 10 years ago.

Try not to focus too much on control. Organize as you see fit, and let those algorithms do the heavy lifting.

Takeaway: Ad Groups Are Useful Organizing Tools

Organizing your ads into different groups can be a helpful strategy as you evaluate your ad copy and your campaigns’ effectiveness. But, as Google’s algorithm evolves, they’re not as definitive as they used to be. Use them to keep yourself organized, but don’t worry too much about how Google uses them.

How Can I Write Ad Copy That Works?

Abby: You’ve written a ton of Google ads. Do you have any tips for putting together ads that will inspire people to click on them? 

Follow Policies, Mirror Website Content, and Use Calls to Action

Anna: Yes! So, Google has a lot of policies. I’ll start with that. Familiarize yourself with all of them. There are advertising policies. You have to follow trademark policies. There are punctuation policies. You have to follow character limits.

When you’re writing ad copy, don’t stray too far from what your nonprofit’s website already says. That can lead to confusion. Sometimes, ads influence what goes on the website. Often, websites influence what goes into the ads. 

Another tip is to use really clear calls to action. It’s okay, sometimes, not to have a call to action front and center. But, if you’re going to send a user to a donation page, say “Donate today” somewhere in that ad. If you do, your user will know that they’re going to a donation page. They know what to expect. Anyone using search is looking for one thing, and that’s immediate gratification. If your ad doesn’t give them that immediate gratification, it’s onto the next result.

Takeaway: Consider Your Website and Google Policies When Writing Ad Content

Your ads should include strong calls to action that prepare users for the content they’ll find on the corresponding page. But even the best calls to action won’t work if they don’t get approved: When you’re writing ads, follow Google’s policies to ensure people see and interact with you.

Including a strong call to action in your ad copy is a great way to hit your engagement goals. Hone your call-to-action writing skills with the tips in this article.

Abby: A nonprofit’s account has to contain two sitelink ad extensions that point Google users to specific pages on their website (not just their homepage). What are some site pages a nonprofit should consider pointing to with their sitelink ad extensions?

Use Your Navigation Items to Inform Sitelink Ad Extensions

Anna: Base everything you do in your Google Ads account on your website’s structure and content.

I always recommend starting with your website’s top navigation. If you’ve designed your website to cater to what people need most, that top navigation probably already has what your sitelinks should be.

Takeaway: Look to Your Website’s Navigation to Identify Sitelinks

When you designed your website, you included the most valuable pages in your top navigation menu. Include those high-priority pages in your ad campaigns instead of focusing on less important ones.

How Should I Conduct Keyword Research for Google Ads?

Abby: Nonprofits get the best bang for their Google Ads buck if they’re targeting really relevant search terms. That requires a lot of research. Do you have any advice for nonprofits conducting keyword research? How can someone identify the best keywords?

Combine Google’s Tools and Third-Party Services

Anna: Look in your search console. See what you’re already ranking for organically to give you ideas.

You can also use Google’s keyword research tool. There are different ways you can do that. Start with keywords you know are relevant to your business: You can get ideas for similar keywords from the keyword research tool. You could also plug a page’s URL into that tool. The tool will crawl that page and spit out keywords it thinks are relevant, and you can build upon those results.

There are also free tools like SpyFu that let you look at the keywords your competitors might be bidding on. You can brainstorm with your team as well: Maybe different departments have ideas about what keywords are relevant to your organization. Leverage your team, leverage the keyword tools out there, and look at the keywords your competitors are targeting.

Takeaway: Get Inspiration from Multiple Sources

Google’s free tools can help you understand what organic keywords you’re already ranking for and keywords you could rank for easily. SpyFu and other free keyword research tools can help you understand what keywords perform well for your competitors or other nonprofits with similar missions or services. Combining those resources will help you understand where you should focus your efforts, and input from others in your nonprofit can help you polish your approach.

Person's hands typing on a computer
Combining Google tools, third-party platforms, and ideas from your team will help you identify high-quality keywords you can use in your Google Ads campaigns.

What Is a Quality Score and How Do I Meet Quality Requirements?

Abby: Google requires keywords to have a quality score higher than two. What does that mean? And what steps can nonprofits take if they discover one of their keywords doesn’t meet that requirement?

Quality Scores Reflect Three Key Areas of Performance

Anna: Quality scores range from 1 to 10. It’s all based on those factors I referenced earlier—expected click-through rate, landing page experience, and ad relevancy. If your quality score is low, Google will give you an idea of which of those three factors you can improve. 

Remember when I said I have an automated rule set up to notify me if a campaign has a click-through rate lower than 5%? You can create a similar rule that says, “If a quality score is 2 or below, pause it and notify me.” You remain compliant, and you can go reevaluate your keyword. 

Sometimes you just can’t get that quality score to improve. Other times it can take a long time to get it to improve. In those cases, you have to go ahead and pause those keywords, then look at ways to improve those three factors.

Takeaway: Automated Rules Can Help Prevent Quality Issues

Your quality score is based on three key elements: your click-through rate, how relevant your ad is to the content on the landing page, and the experience your users have on that page. Create an automated rule that pauses a campaign if its quality score dips below a certain threshold. You’ll stay compliant, and you’ll ensure you have time to fix your campaign before turning it back on.

You can learn more about creating a great user experience on your site and your landing pages by exploring these 22 website design tips.

Must All of My Google Ad Grant Keywords Be Two or More Words?

Abby: Another requirement is that the keywords in a Grants account must be at least two words long. There are exceptions, but I haven’t found any great information about what those exceptions are. When should a nonprofit feel comfortable including a single-word keyword? How can nonprofits determine whether or not they’re risking their campaigns by using a single-word keyword in their ads?

Only Use Single-Word Keywords When They’re Associated with Your Brand

Anna: When you’ve done all of your keyword research, you may have accidentally pulled one-word keywords into your plan. Do a search for cells that don’t include a space. Then, get rid of those keywords. That’s one way of making sure your strategy doesn’t include any single-word keywords.

The exceptions are brand keywords. Let’s say there’s an acronym for your brand—your name has four words, and there’s a four-letter acronym for it, like “SPCA.” Google might flag that keyword and tell you it’s not compliant. You can dispute it! You can say that’s your brand and it’s what people search to find your brand.

That is when single-word keywords are allowed. I’ve never seen another case where single keywords would be allowed.

Takeaway: Avoid Most Single-Word Keywords

Unless your nonprofit’s name (or commonly-used name) is a single word, your Google Ad Grants account must only target multi-word phrases. If your account contains single-word keywords, check to make sure you didn’t accidentally include multi-word phrases that are missing a space.

What to Do If Google Ads Flags a Branded Keyword

Abby: Is it hard to dispute those single-word brand keywords with Google?

Anna: No, not at all. You typically do that during your account setup. Your brand campaign is probably one of the first things you create. It’s always good for a nonprofit to set up their branded keywords within their strategy early on.

If you need to dispute a brand-specific keyword, just create a support ticket. They’ll work on it for you, and you shouldn’t have an issue. Sometimes it takes a little while for grant support tickets to go through, but you should be fine.

Takeaway: Work with Google to Run Branded Keywords

If Google rejects a branded keyword in your Google Ads account, creating a support ticket is the simplest way to dispute their decision. Don’t worry if it takes some time for the approval to go through; Google works with thousands of grant recipients and will help you when they can.

Where Should I Go for More In-Depth Google Ad Grants Knowledge?

Abby: Do you have any resources for someone who’s looking to hone their Google Ad skills or get more familiar with the program? What can nonprofits do to stay on top of trends or changes?

Use Google’s Resources to Stay on Top of Trends and Best Practices

Anna: Skillshop. I’d really recommend starting there. It gives you a bunch of resources on Google Ads, Google Analytics, and all of Google’s advertising and marketing products. Gather the knowledge there, and stay current on the latest features and releases. 

Google Marketing Live just happened recently. Watch those updates! See what Google marketing products are focused on in the near future. This year, there was a lot of talk about data privacy and consumer consent. Think about how your organization is tailoring your strategy to account for some of these trends.

It also feels like the ad space is moving to a more visual place. There are image ad extensions for search and new features/updates coming for video campaigns. We also know responsive search ads will be the new standard very, very soon. So go ahead and start migrating away from expanded text ads.

The best thing you can do is embrace what’s on the horizon. Pay attention to changing trends and work on staying ahead of the curve.

Takeaway: Google Makes It Easy to Stay Current

Skillshop is a Google-run platform that provides free learning opportunities for anyone looking to hone their skills. Resources on Google Ads, Google Analytics, and other Google-specific tools will help you increase your knowledge and improve your performance. Watch out for updates on Google’s products, too. It’s a great way to learn about upcoming trends and changes to the algorithm. Following those updates will help you adjust your campaigns so you get the best results.

An overhead view of five people working on computers at a table
Using Skillshop training to hone your Google Ads skills, watching for Google updates and releases, and keeping an eye on upcoming products and trends will help ensure your campaigns stay successful.

Successful Google Ad Campaigns Take Time

Thousands of nonprofits have benefited from Google Ads Grants. The $10,000 monthly budget for search ads may seem like a lot of money, but it can go quickly. Instead of creating ad campaigns, letting them run, and hoping for the best, it’s important to be proactive about tracking your performance and adjusting your strategy. 

Whether you’re conducting keyword research before you launch an ad or creating automated rules that pause underperforming campaigns, it’s important to take a thoughtful approach to your Google Ads account. Resist the urge to “set it and forget it”—proactive management and ongoing education are the best strategies for nonprofits who want to maintain their Google Ads Grant and build their visibility online.

If you’re using Google Ads to bring more traffic to your donation form, you’ll want to make sure it’s easy for people to make a gift. Download this Donation Page Checklist and discover tried-and-true tips for creating a great donation experience for your supporters.

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