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Improve your church website’s search results: SEO Guide

By Gavin Richardson

If someone moved into your community and Googled "churches in [your city],” would they find you? Do a quick search on Google and Google Maps. Does your church show up on the first page? People search for everything from random questions to the mysteries of the universe. Does your church website offer answers to questions that people are asking? If it does, can people find them?

If people can’t find you, then keep reading to learn how to meet and greet people where they are looking for you (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.) You may know some search-engine optimization (SEO) basics, but to get maximum online exposure, you must continually learn about new SEO algorithms and strategy. Here are some of the latest best practices, along with tutorial images.

SUCCESSFUL CHURCH SEO

Claim Your Google+ Local page: In May of 2012, Google migrated from Google Places to Google+ Local. The most important thing to be aware of is that you must verify your Google Places listing on Google+ Local or else you may no longer be the verified owner of the older listing. After the verification process, you will be able to take advantage of all the latest new features. Be sure to include welcoming photos, videos, links and other relevant information to direct people to your church website, services or ministries.

Many churches haven't claimed their old listing, so verify now and Google will favor your new listing over other unclaimed listings that don't have as many features. You might even find your church's Google+ listing at the top of search results ... that is, until everyone else gets the memo.

Stack the Reviews: Google+ Local will automatically pull reviews from other popular sites. So encourage members or visitors to leave reviews on Google, Bing, Yelp, CitySearch and YellowPages. A good rule of thumb is to have around 10 reviews.

Use Target Words in Event Postings: If your site posts church events, be sure to optimize those postings. People unfamiliar with your church probably will not look for the names of specific events or even use the phrasing of the church. Families probably will not look for “Fancy-Named Consignment Sale,” but they will look for “The Best Consignment Sale in Lexington, KY.” People also will look for “Halloween Children’s Events in Olympia, WA” instead of a generic “Children’s Activities.”

Be Consistent: As you update information on the search engines and site listings, be sure that you are consistent. Use the same email for contact. Write phone numbers in the exact same way. Spell out “Avenue” or abbreviate “Ave.” It does not matter how you write the information as long as it follows a consistent style.

Keyword Research: Do you know what people are searching for? Google AdWords provides a great keyword tool to research the items for which people are searching.

The AdWords keyword tool identifies search terms or phrases that people use related to a keyword. It also will give a “competition” score, which indicates how many other websites use a particular keyword or phrase. The higher the competition for a keyword or phrase, the harder it is to rank high in search results if you use that keyword or phrase. To optimize, compare a few similar keywords and use the one that has a lower competition rank and a higher number of searches.

In the article Give your church website an SEO tune-up, we encourage the use of Google Trends, which is another great tool for measuring the popularity of keywords in a particular area during a specific period of time. You can compare keywords, much like AdWords, but Google Trends narrows the data to cities, whereas AdWords only pulls data by country. This allows you to compare keywords to see which is more popular in your local area. Trends may not have a "competition" score, but it excels in listing words or news stories that are "hot" right now. To optimize, develop Web content that ties Biblical or spiritual lessons with what's trending.

You can see below in the Google Trends example that the popularity of the term "ministry" has declined during the last decade. However, in the "related terms" section, note that "youth ministry" has the highest related score. Clearly, people want to know more about youth ministry, so be sure to use those exact words in your website and highlight all youth activities and community involvement. Providing this optimized information could be the main factor for many people deciding to visit.

In short, use the AdWords keyword tool for Web content that you think will collect slow steady traffic and be relevant for years to come. Use Trends to find viral video ideas and to create posts that may generate a lot of traffic in the short term.

Use Keywords in Page Titles: Your site has key pages that people look at when deciding whether to visit your church. Ministry, pastor and worship pages are all highly visited. Put keywords in those pages that you think people will search for. A township or city is a good keyword to optimize. Instead of writing the “Missions” page, for example, use some keywords to identify “Missions in Raleigh NC”. Use well-recognized neighborhoods in a city as keywords. Example: “University Village Chicago Children’s Activities” instead of a generic “Children’s Ministry.”

Don’t forget the Meta Description: Most content-management systems provide an easy method to update the “Meta Description” field for each page on your website. The meta description should summarize the most valuable content on the page and include optimized keywords and search phrases. Determine the most valuable content by researching what people are searching for or what people need in your community. Search engines will display the meta descriptions under your website's page title in search results. This is the first impression visitors have of your church. Read The little (search) engine that could to learn more about meta descriptions.

Updating Content: Search engines like a site that updates. Effective search engines provide a great experience and relevant content to their users. They will give higher rankings to sites that update regularly. You don't need to write all new material everyday. Posting one or two new articles a week is great. If you do not have enough time, comb through old content and update those pages.

Optimize Your Images: When you upload photos to your website, write a detailed description into the alternate text or "alt tag" image field. Search engines use the alt tag description to determine the relevancy of your content. Also, special software will read alt tags aloud to vision-impaired people. Knock two best practices out at once. Example: the Haiti mission photo might be “First United Methodist Church Indianapolis Mission Team to Haiti in 2013”

Go Page by Page: Have a target goal for each page on your site. Start with one page and work through these processes to supercharge the SEO on that page. Then repeat the process for as many pages as you can.

TIP: If you use a WordPress-based website for your content management system, install a plug-in called YOAST SEO. It gives you a green light for a highly optimized page or blog posting.

These practices might be a bit daunting at first, but once you have optimized a few pages, they become much more intuitive to do. Start small at first and work your way through your site until everything is bursting at the search engine seams. Then you will have a website that is both an information source and an outreach tool.

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