Charities that fail to generate enough clicks through Google’s AdWord grants scheme could have their accounts closed down under planned changes to the scheme.
The Google Ad Grants scheme, which started in 2003, gives charities a free monthly "budget" of $10,000 (£7,450), which they can spend on AdWord pay-per-click marketing by bidding for keywords that will position them in the advertising section of a Google search.
Every time the keyword produces a click on the link, the cost of bidding for the word is taken from the budget. Charities that consistently spend most of their $10,000 each month are eligible to upgrade to the GrantsPro programme and to a $40,000 budget.
Google announced this week that it would be making amendments to the scheme on 1 January, including that charities could have their accounts closed if their chosen keywords and phrases fall below a 5 per cent click-through-rate each month.
Google's new policy guidance says that if "the CTR requirement isn't met for two consecutive months, your account will be cancelled".
This might particularly affect charities on the GrantsPro programme, experts said, by threatening to send them back to a $10,000 budget.
The range of keywords that charities can choose has also been restricted. Charities will no longer be able to use "overly generic" single word keywords, apart from those on a list of twenty words exempted from the change in the rules. Google has not explained why these words are exempt.
One change, which lifts the $2 limit on the amount charities can bid for keywords, has been welcomed.
But experts criticised Google for changes they say could negatively affect the scheme's value to charities.
John Onion, from the media company UpRise Up, said Google had implemented a number of changes to the scheme but the latest were "extremely significant".
He said: "The forced removal of ‘overly generic’, without clear explanation, or single-word keywords, combined with the requirement of account click-through rates needing to be more than 5 per cent, will significantly affect the value charities will receive from the scheme.
"For GrantsPro accounts, where the monthly value is up to $40,000, the implications are that if, as a result of this, the accounts receive only $10,000, the $40,000 limit will be permanently removed. Truly, GrantsPro accounts are being continuously squeezed between a rock and a hard place".
Tegan Jones, fundraising and communications officer at the HIV/Aids charity the Bishop Simeon Trust, told Third Sector that the changes could hit charities hard over Christmas.
"In one way this could have positive benefits, because the $2 maximum word bid has always been quite limiting and made certain words completely unavailable to charities," Jones said.
"But this is way too short notice. Many charities close over Christmas and will have no chance to get this all sorted in time. Many organisations rely on pro-bono support to manage accounts or might need to seek advice. None of this will be possible in such a short timescale, particularly in December.
"I sadly think many charities will be left having a January full of ineffective Google AdWords accounts, or even risk having them closed".
Google told Third Sector: "We revised our Ad Grants policies to help non-profits improve the quality of their adverts, which will lead to greater awareness of their projects and missions."