Helping Charities with SEO and Google Grants

Quick note from Rick before we begin this post: Sorry I was absent for so long from these pages. As you can see from my Additional posts on SEO page, I have actually been keeping busy with SEO blogging. But recent employment obligations prevented me from being able to focus time and energy on this blog for a while. Circumstances have now changed, and I trust that problem has been put to rest. Now, finally, back to our regularly scheduled programming!

Imagine this: you work (or more likely, volunteer) for a charitable organization. Your charity’s good work benefits the community in which you live, and you love contributing to the organization. But, unfortunately, the organization is always strapped for resources. There’s not enough time in the day, there’s never enough help, and if only there was more money to publicize the cause. You know that if you could only get the word out, the community would rally around you and really help you make a difference. Does that sound familiar? If you work or volunteer for a non-profit group, it certainly should.

Now imagine your organization’s website advertising its mission and its good work within Google AdWords. In fact, imagine that some benefactor has provided your charity with a donated AdWords budget of up to $10,000 per month – that’s $330 per day to promote the charity’s name, improve the community’s awareness of its mission, and stir up community support for your favorite cause. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Ah, but that’s only a pipedream, right? Well, think again.

An SEO role in charity

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post that detailed how I got into the SEO business. I owe big debts of positive karma to many people in this business (including Duane Forrester, Dana Lookadoo, Elisabeth Osmeloski, and Jim Boykin, just to quickly name a few, but there are many others) for the success I’ve had in my career. In that post, I specifically recalled the excellent advice I got from my friend, Rand Fishkin. When I was preparing to transition away from my original role with Bing Webmaster Center and was unsure if I really had what it takes to make it in the SEO field, Rand advised me to further develop my technical SEO skills on my own. “Just do SEO,” he advised. “And when you do it, give back to the community by volunteering part of your SEO work to a charitable group who would surely benefit from (and appreciate) the efforts.”

It was great advice, and I did just what he suggested. I found a local 501c3 non-profit, charitable organization (a small but very talented local performing arts group, Woodinville Repertory Theatre) that would benefit from a little white hat nudge on the web. I figured I would learn a little about theatre at the same time as I learned how to be a better SEO, all the while helping the theatre become better known in our community. Hanging out with some amazing and talented people was just one of the perks!

The organization already had an established volunteer webmaster, so I came in to the group as a volunteer online marketing advisor. I advised the webmaster on SEO strategies and gently recommended improvements to the site, but mainly I handled off-page tasks, such as delving into capturing and creating local search profiles, starting targeted social media networking, and personally sponsored limited-run, paid search ad campaigns during runs of shows. As volunteer work goes, that PPC work was somewhat expensive, but the funds I spent on ad campaigns were given as donations to the charity. I also got genuine, first-hand experience in designing and managing real-world Google AdWords campaigns.

In the past year or so of steady SEO improvements, developing consistent local search profiles, working in social media, and funding occasional PPC campaigns, the theatre’s presence on the web, and its authoritative standing with the search engines, has grown significantly. Now the theatre’s SERP listing even includes Site Links in Google SERPs! Sweet!

Unfortunately, despite the great brand-building and awareness opportunities afforded by the PPC ad campaigns, they were just too expensive for me to run in perpetuity. The theatre itself had no money to pay for such advertising, so what was I to do?

Google Grants to the rescue

That’s when I learned about Google Grants. Google offers officially recognized IRS 501c3 charities the opportunity to apply for numerous benefits. I applied in behalf of the Woodinville Rep and we were approved in relatively short order.

Google offers several significant benefits for eligible non-profits under the umbrella of the Google for Nonprofits program, including:

To be honest, Woodinville Rep really hasn’t had an opportunity yet to do anything more than work with the AdWords benefits, but as that was our primary intent when applying to the program, we’re satisfied with that (for now!). As such, I’m going to focus on our Google Grants experience to date.

The Google Grants program offers non-profits access to a brand-building and mission-promoting online search ads campaign worth up to $10,000 per month in Google AdWords spending. Now before any of our friends on the black hat side of the aisle start salivating, the program does have many strict rules and limitations that must be obeyed to receive the benefits. The rules are not overly onerous, but they do limit the program from being a easy-money, free-for-all romp into a reasonable, charity-support program. Let’s walk through them so you can see for yourself:

  • The charity must be a federally-registered United States 501c3 non-profit with an Employer Identification Number (EIN).
  • The charity must have a website, and Google Grants AdWords ads must link to a page on that site.
  • The charity website cannot display revenue-generating ads, such as Google AdSense or any other affiliate links.
  • Campaigns can only be keyword-targeted. You can’t use placements to target ads.
  • The keywords used must be relevant to the charity’s work and mission.
  • The Google Grants AdWords links cannot go to pages that are primarily links to other sites.
  • You can only use text-based ads, not image ads or other ad formats.
  • The ads can only be shown on the Google Search results pages, not the Google Display Network.
  • Commercial advertising is not allowed.
  • The maximum spend per day is $330.00.
  • The maximum ad bid is limited to $1.00. (This limitation is the only real disappointment here, as this restriction means many desirable and locally competitive keywords are unavailable to us, so we’ll never come close to burning through the maximum daily spend for the Seattle/Tacoma area.)
  • Conversion tracking is permitted, but you can only use the manually set bids for clicks option, not automatic bidding, conversion optimizer, or bid ideas on the Opportunities tab of AdWords.
  • You can only use cost-per-click (CPC) bidding, not cost-per-impression (CPM) bidding.
  • The Google Grants AdWords account has to be actively managed during the entire campaign or the account may be suspended.
  • The grant is an open-ended, ongoing donation, but can be rescinded by Google at any time for any reason, especially if you violate their usage guidelines (above rules) or do not actively manage the account.

The benefit of using such a generous AdWords budget at no cost is a boon for any charity struggling to be found, heard, or seen online. We are just getting our branding campaign underway, and a show promotion campaign for our next production will also run. The best thing for us is that the brand building effort is perpetual. It won’t stop as long as we take care to follow the simple rules above. I personally look forward to filling theatre seats, entertaining patrons, and helping the performing arts flourish in my little neck of the woods near Seattle.

Helpful lessons learned

I learned a few things along the way in setting up the Google Grants account for Woodinville Repertory Theatre. The process is not necessarily intuitive, especially for those unaccustomed to administering PPC campaigns. Take these following lessons and learn from some of my mistakes. You and your charity will benefit with a more streamlined process.

  • Create a new Google account for use with Google Grants. You can’t use an existing account that was previously used to purchase AdWords services. (I know this all too well – this problem delayed my implementation for quite a while, causing my initial application to be denied.)
  • When setting up the initial AdWords settings, be sure to click into the Networks and devices section > Networks settings, and then select Let me choose. Click Google Search, but be sure the Search partners and Display Network checkboxes are clear. Otherwise the system will not allow you to proceed with the account setup phase, insisting you correct the error, but the erroneous setting is not identified and is likely hidden from view! This one hung me up for a quite a while.
  • In the Bidding and budget section, under Bidding option, select Focus on clicks, then select I’ll manually set my bids for clicks. Make sure the Use my conversion tracking data and bids to optimize for conversions checkbox is clear.
  • Also in the Bidding and budget section, under Budget, set the figure for 330.00 per day.
  • In Advanced settings, in the Ad delivery: Ad rotation, frequency capping section, select Optimize for clicks.
  • Don’t set the Demographic, Social settings and Automatic campaign optimization options with Google Grants (they are used with the Google Display Network, which Google Grants doesn’t support).
  • Log in to your Google Grants AdWords account at least once per month to ensure your account is considered actively managed. If you’re an SEO volunteering to help the charity run the campaign, you’ll want to see how the ads are doing and possibly tweak them to optimize for click-through rate, anyway. Just be regular about doing this.

The rest of the settings are either intuitive or custom to your situation. But the above tips should help you paddle through the muddy waters that temporarily held me back.

Bing and Facebook, Take Note!

And a quick word to Bing and Facebook: Please take note – emulating this sort of program for genuine charities on your own platforms would be a very good thing for both your customers and you. If you had also offered such programs, I’d be talking about you as well!

As a professional SEO, you know what it takes to help websites be successful in search. You know how to structure and conduct PPC campaigns for building brand awareness. Yes, your professional knowledge and experience is quite valuable, but that’s all the more reason to pick a non-profit whose work is near and dear to your heart and volunteer your valuable time and efforts. Most charities will not have heard of Google Grants, and even if told about it, they wouldn’t know what to do with the benefits it offers, even if they did get accepted.

So find a little bit of extra time in your month, pick an eligible, needy charity, do a quick site review for a light SEO tune-up, help them with local search profiles, determine if they might benefit from a Facebook or Google+ page or a Twitter account, and most important of all, get them signed up and running with Google Grants. For the minimal cost of performing a monthly log in to check on the status of the account, they can receive up to $10,000 per month in free search advertising in the Google SERPs. Talk about making a difference in your community! red diamond logo

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