Normal, everyday life in 2020 would typically prompt churches to consider the ways they could strengthen their digital presence. After all, the world today consists of people checking out establishments — whether they’re stores, restaurants, hotels, or yes, churches — online first, before ever visiting them in person. People use search engines like Google to get critical information about a business, like address or hours, but also to get a feel for the place before stepping foot inside, through reviews, photos, or a glance through the website.
However, these are unprecedented times. 2020 has not been “normal, everyday life,” but rather has brought the COVID crisis, creating circumstances that demand churches bolster their digital presence, whether they’re ready or not. Now more than ever, churches are relying not just heavily, but sometimes exclusively on their web capabilities and their chances of being seen in search engine results.
We can’t say for sure what this year, or indeed this next several years, will bring. But we can be certain that a strong web presence, a robust website, and the flexibility to quickly alter service delivery methods will largely determine whether churches sink or swim this year and beyond.
Missional Marketing is a one-stop shop for digital church growth and has become an expert in all things Google-for-churches. Through a combination of technical capabilities and considerable expertise, Missional Marketing has been able to help thousands of churches and nonprofits of all sizes (and with a range of budgets) to maximize their efforts and increase their digital impact. Below are some of the crucial factors that churches can undertake now in order to grow in 2020, particularly as they take advantage of increased online activity and digital needs.
Improve your Local Search Presence with Local SEO
When an unchurched person in your area searches for a church, they’re inevitably using keywords that return local search results. Because of this, being found in local searches is a fundamental pillar of church growth in this day and age. Having a strong local search presence is so crucial for churches that we frequently refer to Local Search Engine Optimization as the first thing every church should do.
Steps to optimize your church’s local search presence can be broken down into four main areas which we’ll elaborate on in the following section.
#1 Pay Special Attention to Your Google My Business
Your church’s Google My Business profile functions as the search result that’s returned in local searches. Thus, any person searching for a church using a local search must interact with your church’s Google My Business in some fashion prior to taking a desired action, such as visiting your website or requesting directions to visit in-person.
Optimizing and keeping your church’s Google My Business profile up to date is relatively simple, but does require some diligence. We’ve broken down the many aspects of how churches should use Google My Business in a deep-dive blog entitled Google My Business for Churches [The Ultimate Guide].
#2 Manage Online Citations
A primary driver of where you show up in local search rankings is Google’s confidence that your church exists at the location it claims. While your Google My Business profile and church website are two important pieces in establishing this confidence, they can only go so far. Enabling your church to be found in authoritative online directories helps build Google’s confidence, and in some cases, will even help bring traffic to your church website from people searching the directories themselves.
Adding and correcting online citations across a large number of directories can be extremely time consuming (well established churches often have 200+ relevant citations, to give you an idea.) However, there’s simply no replacement for having a robust and consistent online citation profile within authoritative directories. For more information on which directories are the most crucial and how they factor into a church’s local search presence, please consult our blog entitled The Impact of Online Citation Directories and Aggregators on Local SEO for Churches.
#3 Make Sure Your Website Provides Clarity to Robots
As mentioned above, Google wants to be as confident as possible that your church exists at the location it claims. The two most important references for your church’s NAP info (name, address, phone number) are your Google My Business profile and your church website.
Your church website should naturally make it easy for people to be able to find the address and phone information of your church, and this info should be consistent with your Google My Business profile. However, just because a human can adequately locate and understand this information from your church website doesn’t necessarily mean a crawler (robot) can as well. Because Google relies entirely on its crawler’s interpretation of your church website, it’s paramount that the NAP info of your church is clearly present in a format that a crawler can reach and understand. The most effective way to do this is through the use of structured data.
#4 Bolster Your Online Reputation
It should be no surprise that Google wants its users to have a good experience. In the context of a user performing a local search, this extends beyond a user simply clicking on a search result to reach a website. Instead, the user experience is measured from your Google My Business profile all the way to an in-person visit. The primary indicator Google uses to gauge user experiences at your church are your reviews.
Reviews within Google itself have the highest value (for obvious reasons), but those in authoritative third-party directories such as Yelp are certainly valuable as well. Churches with high volumes of reviews build Google’s confidence more than those that are more limited, though the average star rating is also important.
Beyond asking your church’s biggest fans to leave you rave reviews, another important step your church can take is to respond to reviews in Google My Business. Replying to content-rich reviews (both positive and negative) shows both Google and prospective visitors that your church is engaged with the community and receptive to feedback.
Get a Google Grant
Google offers churches and nonprofits an opportunity to advertise for free through the Google Ad Grant program. Qualified churches can spend up to $10,000 per month of Google’s money in pay-per-click Google Search ads. When someone searches in Google, ads are typically shown as the very first search result.
There are 3 reasons the Google Grant should be included in every church’s growth strategy in 2020.
#1 Church Searches Are Spiking
As internet usage continues to climb, so do online searches for church-related terms. Missional Marketing has seen a 60% increase in church searches in 2020. Not only are more people searching, but more people are clicking on ads, as we’ve witnessed an ad-click increase of more than 100%.
#2 Google Ads Even the Playing Field
Churches of any size can easily become a top search result for all kinds of keywords using the Google Grant. Whether you have 100 or 1,000 members, your church’s ads will be shown first when a person searches a church-related term. The higher your church shows up in a Google search result, the more likely a person will click on a link to your church. In fact, the top 3 search results receive 75% of all clicks. With the Google Grant, your church can be a top search option.
#3 Grants Give the Best Bang for Your Buck
Many churches are looking to increase their online presence in 2020 through advertising. But nothing compares to the return-on-investment of the Google Grant. We have found that churches whose grants we manage receive a 927% ROI! On average, this means we’re able to spend more than $3,600 of Google’s money on their behalf each month, with over 1,000 new clicks to their website. Churches looking to invest in online advertising to increase web traffic should consider the Google Grant as the best value for their monthly spend.
Acquiring the Google Grant
Churches and nonprofits that meet Google’s requirements are able to apply and use the Google Grant. You can find out now if your church is eligible. In order to apply, Google outlines a 5-step grant application process which includes:
- See if you’re eligible for the grant
- Apply for Google for Nonprofits
- Submit the Ad Grant pre-qualification form
- Create your account
- Submit your account for review
Churches looking to reach as many people as possible should consider the Google Grant as an effective growth strategy in 2020 and beyond.
Do Church Online
A church’s online worship experience has never been more important than it is right now. COVID-19 has changed church as we know it in 2020. As congregations haven’t been able to meet physically, people all over the country have been searching for church online. For many churches, online church is a new wilderness to explore. Those churches that learn and live in this new space will be prepared for church growth this year and beyond. On the other hand, those churches that fall behind risk eventual irrelevancy.
As your congregation connects online, here are a few best practices:
Clearly Display Options to Watch Live
Right now your church website is your church. The website itself acts like your church building and navigating to your online worship page is like entering into your worship center. In the same way you’d want people to easily find your worship center after entering your church building, make sure the option to join your online worship experience is prominently displayed on your church website. If people are confused about where to go or have to search, they’ll probably leave.
Don’t Send Them Away
Church greeters would never meet a new person visiting the church the first time and then immediately send them away to meet their needs somewhere else. But many church online worship services today immediately send people away to other websites for their online worship experience.
Instead, offer a page dedicated to your church online worship experience right there within your website. Write that page as if you were a greeter, welcoming a person to your church’s worship service for the very first time. Find a video player that will embed and stream your weekend services. We recommend Vimeo Premium.
Embed With Vimeo, but Post Everywhere
Vimeo Premium allows your church to easily embed your live stream, along with a chat function. Passive participation is not the main goal of streaming your services. Instead, you want interaction and an opportunity to build community online. In addition to a chat, also include a place to submit prayer requests or to connect with the church. Forms like this help people take next steps in their faith while responding to your online services.
Although it’s great to embed your services on your church website, this doesn’t mean it should be the only place your services stream. Besides your church website, you should share your stream in other social platforms like Facebook and Youtube. People today engage with online church in many different ways and so you want to reach them where they are. In the same way the apostle Paul became “all things to all people” to win some, your church should plan to share your service stream wherever possible in order to engage with those searching for spiritual answers on any online platform. As people do stream in multiple ways and through many platforms, make sure access to other platforms are easy to find. Although it would be great if everyone streamed from your website, the bigger win is engaging more people online, regardless of where they watch.
Advertise Church Online
Simply having an online worship experience is great, but you also want to make sure you’re inviting people to join your online experience. Otherwise it’s like planning a huge party but forgetting to send out the invites. Advertisements on Google, Facebook/Instagram, and YouTube are the best way to invite those searching online to your church’s weekend service. The good news is, you don’t have to sit back and hope your online church can grow; you have the chance to get out there and invite people to your growing online church experience. If you invite them, they’ll come.
Map a Plan to Migrate Your Church Website to WordPress
If it’s not already there, migrating your church website to WordPress will provide a number of powerful advantages for your online presence. While a migration can be a complex undertaking with many considerations for content, design, and SEO (don’t forget the migration of your existing SEO value with a plan to map and implement 301 redirects), the resulting benefits weigh heavily in favor of church growth.
Future-Proof Your Website
All too often, church websites fall behind the times thanks to inadequate content management systems. The platform on which your website’s built should remain up to the most current standards in terms of SEO, site security, functionality, and appearance, or else it risks poor performance and visibility. Whereas a small, or niche CMS lacks the customer base to warrant continued updates, WordPress is the most used CMS by far. It sets the standards for all other content management systems. This makes WordPress the most future-proof solution for church websites.
Leverage Time & Cost-Saving Plugins
Another strength of WordPress is its vast offering of plugins. Thanks to its extreme popularity, millions of man-hours have gone into the development of over 50,000 WordPress plugins that extend or enhance a website’s functionality. These plugins are available at little to no cost, giving you the ability to leverage their functionality with the simple click of a button for their installation.
Employ Superior On-Page SEO
Optimizing your church website for search engines is made simple on WordPress through a plugin called Yoast. It easily guides you in on-page SEO tasks, such as assigning keywords to relevant pages and including them in important metadata, such as meta descriptions and alt image tags. You won’t have to be an SEO expert in order to make your website pages seen and understood by Google.
Maintain & Edit with Ease
Obtain Felt Needs Content
When looking to gain website traffic through Google Ads and the Google Ad Grant, having enough relevant felt needs content on your church website is absolutely paramount. Landing pages specifically focused around the felt needs that your church ministries address will serve as the connection between your paid (or grant) ads and your church’s main domain. These targeted landing pages (recommended in a subdomain) will help to achieve low bounce rates and high conversion rates, leading to higher quality scores from Google Ads, and thus, better ad performance. As people in your community are searching Google for help with some of life’s greatest challenges, they’ll land on ads specifically tailored to the difficulty they’re facing. These ads will click through to their matching landing page, and visitors will be met with encouraging content that gently leads them to the support offerings of your church through calls-to-action such as “Plan a Visit,” “Request Prayer,” or “Contact a Pastor.”
Missional Marketing offers a powerful felt needs content solution called the Answers Subdomain. This subdomain consists of prewritten apologetics-type answers to common questions people have about God, the Bible, and Christianity. Data from Google Ads shows us that people are turning to search engines in huge numbers to learn the Biblical perspective on a wide variety of mankind’s burning questions, including “Why should I believe in God?”, “Why does God allow bad things to happen?”, and “What happens after death?” By connecting its pages to Google ads, the Answers Subdomain instantly gives your church a collection of felt needs content that’s certain to drive new people to your site.
Family Felt Needs Subdomain
Another valuable felt needs content solution is the Family Felt Needs Subdomain created by Missional Marketing in partnership with best-selling Christian author and HomePointe founder Kurt Bruner. People are searching every day in Google for solutions to their families’ greatest concerns, and every church is uniquely positioned to address them. Unfortunately, church websites are often ill-equipped to make this meaningful connection occur. The targeted landing pages of the Family Felt Needs Subdomain dedicated to highly searched keywords and connected to individual ad campaigns can ultimately bridge this gap.
Optimize Your Sermons
Whether you realize it or not, your church’s sermons are the greatest source of felt needs content. But are they findable in Google? Missional Marketing’s Sermon Video Library is the most sophisticated approach to leveraging your sermon videos as felt needs content to boost Google Ads and Google Ad Grant performance. This proprietary platform offers your viewers a Netflix-like experience, paired with SEO metadata for each individual sermon, and the option of full transcription for an even more powerful SEO punch. If you’re looking for the very best in sermon video setup in order to actually generate new visitors and have your sermons found in Google, the Sermon Video Library is your very best bet.
Perform On-page SEO
On page SEO refers to the changes you can make to your website to ensure it’s fully optimized to perform well in search engines. We have broken it into the following 3 areas, Speed, Crawlability and Security.
The speed of your website can have a major impact on how well your website ranks in Google Search Results. In fact, Google has gone on record to highlight the importance of website load time.
You want your site to load as fast as it possibly can (ideally under 3 seconds from the perspective of a user), but there are numerous barriers to this. So here are some of the steps you can take to ensure your website is performing as well as it should.
Images that are used on your website should be optimized so that they’re compressed as much as possible, without sacrificing quality. Images should also be resized to whatever size they are used on the site. For example, using a 1200 x 1200 image for a thumbnail is unnecessarily adding load time to your website. Many website content management systems have plugins to help optimize images. Check out this blog post if you want to learn more about optimizing images on your church website.
Upgrade Your Hosting
Upgrading your hosting plan can sometimes yield great results in terms of load times. Talk to your host to see if there are any steps you could take to improve your website load time. Also, do some research online to see which hosts are reputable. All hosts are certainly not created equal, so it’s important to shop around if you’re not totally satisfied.
To decide where to rank each website in the search results, Google trawls through every page of every website using crawlers. These crawlers analyze the content of each website, and based on a number of factors, decides how sites should rank.
Optimizing your website to assist these crawlers to more easily navigate your site is known as improving its crawlability. There are a number of steps you can take to boost your website’s crawlability, which we outline here.
Add an XML Sitemap
As the name suggests, this is a map of all the pages on your site. You identify this map in your robots.txt file, and also in your Google Search Console, so that Google’s crawlers know how to crawl your site.
The XML Sitemap acts as a roadmap for crawlers, telling them which pages to navigate to, and which ones to avoid.
Optimize Page Metadata
If the XML Sitemap serves as a roadmap to direct crawlers, metadata is like the signposts along the way. Metadata refers to your page Headings, Browser Titles, Meta Descriptions and Image Alt Text, to name just a few. Google reads the metadata from these places to get a better understanding of what your website’s all about, so it’s critical that your content is optimized.
Add SEO Content
In order to have well-optimized content, you first need to have content. In broad terms, there should typically be 500 words of written content on any page you want to rank in search engines, with 1,000+ words being optimal. You can find more information on church SEO content here.
Google prefers secure sites, so it’s crucial that your site has an SSL certificate installed, and is set up correctly so that your site uses HTTPS.
Having a site site that operates over HTTPS is important for SEO, but has a number of other benefits too. For one thing, your users are assured that the data sent to and from your website is done so privately. Additionally, your site will show the secure padlock icon in the URL bar. Without HTTPS, this bar just says ‘unsecure,’ which doesn’t make a good impression with visitors.
Perform Off-Page SEO
Off-page SEO relates to the steps you can take to improve your rankings in search engines that don’t involve working on your own website. Backlinks are a huge part of off-page SEO. A backlink is simply what happens when another website links to your website — for instance, in a blog or article. Since its inception, Google has monitored which sites link to other sites, and has based results off of this indicator of credibility. Google’s logic is that if a website has a lot of other websites linking to it, it’s probably a reputable website, and so it ranks highly in the search results.
A ton of site developers figured this out and have tried to game the system by creating sites with loads of links pointing to their own websites. Google itself has evolved over the years and actually penalizes anyone that’s trying to beat the system with unnatural links. However, backlinks still remain a major part of SEO. Here are a couple of ways you can build up natural backlinks to your website.
Press Releases About Community Events
Press releases are a great means to spread the word about your church, but also a prime way to get backlinks. It’s a good habit to do regular press releases for all upcoming community events.
First off, put together a list of local publications. Local news outlets are excellent sources, but you can also find tons of local community interest blogs, which are often on the lookout for this type of content. Once you have your list together, start sending out regular press releases to these sources. You don’t want to overdo it — about every month is ideal, so as to not bother the outlet or look like you’re spamming them.
You can find some great information on writing church press releases here.
Backlinks From Local Non Profits That the Church Helps
Your church might work with local nonprofits, such as schools, community centers or food banks. Their websites can be another ideal place to get links back to your website. Reach out to them and ask them if they’d be willing to list your church as one of their recommended partners with a link to your website.
These critical pieces will absolutely help your church to increase its digital presence and grow in 2020. But these tools are just the tip of the iceberg. For each area highlighted above, there are a whole host of options that could best optimize your specific church’s website. One of the more challenging aspects of digital marketing is simply knowing where to begin.
So if any of the recommendations above piqued your interest, inspired some questions, or even completely baffled you, don’t hesitate to reach out to Missional Marketing to help your church come up with a plan. Our expert team can work with your existing resources to map out a strategy that best suits your specific needs.
There may be some elements that will benefit you to implement immediately, while others might be able to be tabled for a while. Missional Marketing will partner with you to guide your decision-making process and answer any questions, so you come away with a feasible and effective 2020 growth plan that fits your unique church.