RealTime IT News

Google Grants Non-Profits a Break

By Sean Michael Kerner

Generating awareness and driving Web site traffic can be financially draining for any organization. The challenge is even greater for non-profits, which often limit marketing expenditures to ensure more money and resources are directed to the causes they represent.

An adjunct to Google's AdSense contextual advertising program, currently in beta release, has been making it easier for some non-profit charities. Google Grants, as the program is called, has been lurking silently in the background of the Google infrastructure for the past several months. It's triggered when Google's technology can't determine the best keyword match for the content on a page, or doesn't have appropriate AdWords ads to serve with the content. Publishers that display AdSense ads can turn off the feature as a user preference (and instead of serving the PSA can serve their own ads).

"As a company we are interested in giving back to the community," Sheryl Sandberg Google VP global online sales and operations told this publication. "When we thought about what we could give back, what we obviously do is search and advertising and it would be a great opportunity for us to refer people interested in the topics that these non-profits work on."

Sandberg went on to explain that Google Grants has been beta for the last two quarters, but she wouldn't say how many non-profits benefit from the program nor how often Google Grant ads appear throughout the AdSense Network.

"We've done a couple of surveys of our non-profit beneficiaries and what we've seen is that the results for the non-profits have been very strong," Sandberg said. "We've really helped them increase interested traffic to their Web sites."

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has had a significant upsurge in visits to its Web site since it started with the Google program, CPAWS spokesperson Sara Krynitzki told internetnews.com. "Because it has increased our Web site traffic, it has been working to improve our name recognition. We consider it more of a communications tool than a fundraising tool," she said.

Volunteer Match, which matches volunteers to volunteer opportunities at over 26,000 organizations, shares Krynitzki's view.

"The Google program has really been incredible for us," Jason Willett, director of communications at VolunteerMatch.org, told this publication. "Since October, nearly 35 percent of our traffic has come directly from the VolunteerMatch ads on Google."

America's Second Harvest, has also benefited greatly from Google's benevolence. It runs an AdWords ad that reads: "Create a hunger-free America. Your donation will help feed millions."

According to Gabriela Fitz, online strategist/project manager for America's Second Harvest, Google Grants referred 12,000 visits to second harvest in December alone. That number represents 8 percent of the total visits to the site from any source and is at least a 300 percent increase over the "regular" referrer numbers from the traditional Google search queries. Google is the third largest referrer to the site, trailing only direct URL entry and the global hunger site (www.hungersite.com).

"Google has consistently been our largest referrer, Fitz told this publication, "but honestly the AdSense ad has been terrific. We've seen it in a lot of places where people come to us and say, we found you through a Google ad."

The challenge of getting the message out is particularly difficult for Second Harvest, which lacks the brand awareness of more cohesive nationally branded charities like the Red Cross. "Second Harvest in particular has been 'brand challenged' because we have affiliates that don't all share our name, Fitz said. "In my experience ad banners themselves haven't been great for clickthroughs, their greatest function has been brand awareness. This has been a great opportunity for us."

The success of the Google referrals prompted Second Harvest to approach the other major search engines to see if they could offer a similar program, so far without any success.

"It would be great if the success of Google's program prompts them to do a similar PSA program," Fitz said, "but for some reason I think the other sites are slow to catch on."

To date, the non-profit organizations that are part of the Google Grant program joined after being approached by Google.

"We told the Googler community [people that work at Google] about the program and asked them to send non-profits that they are affiliated with or know of and that's how we did it," Google's Sandberg said. "Googlers themselves were interested in the work of these non-profits."

The next round of Google Grants appears to have been expanded beyond the root Googler community with a publicly available online application form. According to the latest Google Grant documentation, "A committee of Google employees is responsible for selecting award recipients. Selection criteria are based on confirmation of your 501(c)(3) status, the content of your application, and the potential benefit that your organization and the public will receive from free Google AdWords advertising."

The current application period for the next round of grant has been extended to January 30, 2004.

"Beta programs here are tests," Google's Sandberg said, "what we're trying to test is how useful this is for the non-profit community and how good of a result is it for our users."

Google does not receive (or request) charitable donation receipts from the non-profits it helps with Google Grants. "What we haven't been looking at, to be totally honest, is any kind of benefit to ourselves, Sandberg said. "We just want to give back to our users and the non-profits."