When you start looking at putting together a website, one term that pops up a lot is SEO. So what is SEO, and do churches need to be concerned about it? The answer depends both on what you mean by SEO, and what your church’s specific goals for its website are.
All churches need to be concerned about SEO to the point that their webpages show up in searches when people are specifically looking for them. However, unless search engine traffic for broader terms is a primary goal of your site, you probably don’t need to pay a whole lot of attention to specific tactics. That said, it’s still a good idea for you to be familiar with SEO basics, so keep reading!
So what is SEO? It’s an abbreviation for Search Engine Optimization. Basically, it has to do with setting up your website in a way that makes it easy for search engines to find and index your site. To understand SEO, you need to have a basic understanding of how a search engine works.
Since Google is overwhelmingly the most popular web search engine, it will serve as our example. When someone browsing the Internet types something into Google, it goes to Google’s servers (their computers), which are located in a datacenter somewhere in the world. Those servers take what you typed (your query), and almost instantaneously go through their massive database (the index) and find what seems to be the best match for what the searcher is looking for. Google’s servers send that list back to the searcher’s browser, and the person clicks on a link on the results page, which takes them to a website that hopefully matches what they are looking for.
From your perspective as a church webmaster, you want your site to appear at the top of the list that people get when they search for certain words or phrases (keywords) so that they’ll find your website. For instance, if your website is for First Baptist Church in Nebula, Arkansas, you hope that your website comes up when people look for keywords like “Nebula Baptist Church” or “church in nebula” or “baptist church with nursery available in nebula arkansas” or any sort of similar word or phrase.
SEO is what you as a webmaster or web administrator can do to help Google know that your website should appear for relevant queries.
SEO has two primary parts: On-Page and Off-Page. Let’s start with off-page.
Off-Page refers to things that you can do to help your website in search rankings that don’t have to do with improving the site itself.
The most important element of off-page SEO has to do with links to your website. Google finds websites the same way that people do: by following links to them. If there are no links pointing to your site, the only way to find it is by typing the address directly into your browser. Google won’t know your page exists, so they won’t be able to add it to their index and it won’t appear in any search results.
How do you get links? This is where SEO becomes a controversial topic. If you encounter ads claiming to sell you hundreds or thousands of links to your site (called backlinks), avoid them! This is known as a black-hat tactic, meaning it’s something sneaky, or underhanded. It’s a way to try to artificially manipulate rankings. It might give a brief boost to your site in the rankings, but search engines will probably catch on and possibly even remove your site from their index completely.
Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to get some good backlinks for a church website. Make sure your site is listed in denominational directories. Check if your local newspaper, chamber of commerce, or tourism websites list churches, and contact them to add a link to yours.
Also, and this isn’t as important for churches, but it’s still good to know, be aware of anchor text. Anchor text is the word or phrase that is linked to your site. Google looks at this when it calculates what keywords your site should rank for, so having relevant anchor text is good.
One other important place to make sure your church is listed is in Google Places for Business. This will make your church show up on a map on the results page so searchers can see where it’s geographically located. When someone searches, Google also takes their geographical location into consideration when it’s calculating what to show them for results, so someone searching for “First Baptist Church” in Omaha, Nebraska will get different (presumably more relevant) results than someone in Milwaukee, Wisconsin searching for the same phrase.
As the administrator, your control over off-page SEO is limited. You can’t control who else links to your pages or what text they use in their links. But, you do have complete control over what’s on your site, that is, on-page SEO. This has to do with the factors that are in your website itself that control how search engines see your site.
The most important factor is the title. Your site title (what appears in the top bar of your browser when the site is open) should contain your church’s name and city. If it says “Home,” that is not helpful. While it may indeed be your home page, no one is searching for the word “Home” to find your church.
You should also have your church’s name and address on the front page of the website. Readthis post for more tips on what needs to be on your front page.
One common mistake churches make is having a Flash intro page. This was popular for a while, but is no longer a good practice. Besides annoying your visitors by being slow to load and not loading at all for most visitors on mobile devices, search engines can’t read the content of a Flash animation or video, so they can’t index it and it doesn’t affect search results.
Along the same lines, make sure that you have text content on your website. Search engines look at text to determine the relevancy of a page to a searcher, so if you just have pictures, your site will be ranked lower because Google won’t be able to tell what it’s about.
In the text, don’t overdo it, but do slip in a few words or phrases that you think people might be searching for. For instance, use the name of your church a few times on the page, mention your denomination, and if you have attractive features like a nursery, youth group, coffee hour, etc., mention them on the site.
Privacy pages are a little more difficult, since they’re a legal document, but there’s plenty of information online to help.
One last thing to pay attention to is metadata. Metadata refers to words in a spot on your website that search engines can see, but people looking at your site won’t. Google frequently looks at the metadata site description to create the couple-line blurb description that it shows in the search results list. Otherwise, Google will also examine your site itself and come up with its own description that it thinks will indicate what your site’s about. Try searching for your church and see what comes up!
SEO can be a huge and daunting topic, but especially for churches, it’s not really that complicated. Remember that you’re making content for your visitors first and search engines second. Once you’ve done some basic SEO, you can look at tools like Google Webmaster Toolsand Google Analytics to see what you can improve and learn how people are actually finding your site, but that’s a topic for a different post!
If you’re looking for more information on church SEO, one resource is churchseo.org for church specific tips and the Google Webmaster Channel on YouTube for more general SEO tips. Just be wary of any services trying to sell you link-building or search engine submission. They’re almost certainly scams.
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