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How does Google’s BERT update affect nonprofits?

Google just unveiled a major new update to its search engine. The aim (as always) is to make searches more efficient, and these changes always affect web traffic. So, what do nonprofit marketers need to know about this Google update, called BERT?

BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. This makes no sense to anyone outside of the programming realm, which is why we use the acronym. Basically, it’s a new algorithm that helps Google process searches more like a human would.

That may not sound like much, but Google is predicting that this will affect roughly 1 in 10 searches. In fact, they’re calling it “the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.”

That sounds important, right? Let’s dig into how that might impact nonprofit marketing and fundraising.


The first big thing to note is that this will likely have no effect on your paid search efforts through AdWords or Google Ad Grants. No part of Google’s announcement mentions anything about advertising, so you’re in the clear on that front.

This is all about organic search traffic rankings for when people type questions or keywords in the Google search bar.

There’s no need to make any changes to your Google Grants strategy, and you can keep applying your full-funnel media strategy for digital donor acquisition.


With BERT, Google’s search engine will better understand the small nuances of the English language. This will ultimately lead to more effective searches for everyone – less hunting around and hoping you find the right website.

Here’s a great example from Google:


The person typing in this query wants to know whether they can pick up a prescription for someone else. Before BERT, Google provided a basic answer about filling prescriptions – not helpful. With BERT, it understands the meaning and provides a more accurate response.

This can apply to nonprofits as well. If someone types "donation opportunities that help children" into Google, BERT will most likely steer them toward nonprofit organizations that provide help for children in need vs. a list of ways that children can donate.

The result may be a slight drop in visitors to your website, but an increase in the quality of those visitors. The people who are looking for you and your services will find you more easily. This will show up in meaningful metrics like a decrease in bounce rate and an increase in time spent on your site.


Each time Google makes an update, its AI does a better job in understanding our language. That means each update places a stronger emphasis on good writing that people can read and understand.

All the little, tricky ways that SEO experts have found to manipulate search rankings are falling by the wayside. Smarter algorithms can see through the smoke and mirrors, and they can better understand what genuine writing looks like compared to a formulaic placement of keywords.

If you want people to find your nonprofit organization in searches, you’ll still need to organize your web pages well. You’ll also still need to talk about what people are searching for – just do it in a natural way.

Ultimately, BERT will help the right people end up in the right place. If your organization is running an effective multichannel fundraising campaign, this is simply one piece of the puzzle in how donors will be able to connect with your message.

Ashley Walker

Ashley oversees PPC and Google Ad Grant efforts at RKD Group, helping manage how we optimize conversions across our client's marketing platforms. Ashley is actively involved as an ambassador for the Ad Grant Certified Professionals, a cohort designed to develop and share best practices across the Google for Nonprofit member community.

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