Local Church SEO Boost

Google My Business for Churches [The Ultimate Guide]Last Updated: May 18th, 2020

We intend for the following resource to be a comprehensive guide to everything a church should need to know about Google My Business. We’ve broken this content down into three sections:

  1. Understanding Google My Business and Local Searches outlines what Google My Business is and why it’s important. We’ll also explore the meaning of local searches, the relationship between Google Maps and Google My Business, and the importance of discovery searches.
    Jump to this section
  2. Managing Your Google My Business Profile describes exactly what churches should be doing to keep their Google My Business profile in top shape, as well as common mistakes that we’ve observed in managing so many church client profiles.
    Jump to this section
  3. What We’ve Learned From Managing Hundreds of Google My Business Profiles for Churches examines some situational recommendations we’ve learned across our years of experience. If you have a Google My Business question regarding your church’s own situation, you might find the answer here!
    Jump to this section

Google My Business for Churches

Part 1: Understanding Google My Business and Local Searches

What is Google My Business?

Google My Business is a free tool for businesses and other organizations used to manage their online presence across Google, including Search and Maps. By claiming (verifying) your Google My Business profile, your church is able to manage your information and interact with the audience that’s discovering your church in their local search results.

Simply put, every church should be using Google My Business.

Google Maps and Google My Business

Unless your church location is brand new, you almost certainly can be found in a Google Maps search. Go ahead and search for your church at https://www.google.com/maps if you aren’t sure.

If your church can’t be found in a Google Maps search you have a big problem – but excluding brand new churches, this scenario is extremely uncommon. Even if you’ve never taken any explicit action, Google has probably figured out that your church location exists on its own and included it in Google Maps search results.

Search results displayed in Google Maps (or in Google’s local pack – more on this later) include several pieces of important data about the entity in question, including:

  • Primary Category
  • Address
  • Phone Number
  • Google Reviews
  • Website
  • Hours of Operation

Local Pack Example

If a user clicks on a search result or a map pin, an additional panel is displayed containing the information above as well as potentially:

  • Logo
  • Photos
  • Events
  • Featured Reviews
  • Social Media Profiles
  • .. and more

Details in a Knowledge Panel SERP

Details in a Google Maps Panel

As you can see, someone viewing a local search result from Google Maps can be exposed to a lot of information about your church before they even reach your church website. This raises the question: where does Google get this information from? The answer is that it is aggregated from Google My Business and other authoritative third-party sources found online. If your church doesn’t have a Google My Business profile however, Google will be forced to rely entirely on third-party sources.

Local Searches and the Local Pack

When unchurched people search Google to find a church, they inevitably use keywords that Google recognizes are requesting a location. This triggers Google’s local search algorithm, which almost always includes a local pack.Local Pack Drawing

The local pack is a set of three results from Google Maps (marked on a map), that typically appear above all other search results. The local pack contains only results that are geographically near enough to the searcher to be relevant, and that Google is confident exist at the location they claim.

What this means in practice is that even if people aren’t searching in Google Maps explicitly, in regular Google searches, unchurched people are most likely to discover your church through a Google Maps type result within the local pack.

Knowledge Panel Search Results

When someone performs a direct search or branded search (more on these below) using keywords that reference your church name explicitly, the first search result they receive is likely presented in the knowledge panel format. This panel behaves almost exactly as when someone clicks your search result or map pin in a Google Maps search as described above. Knowledge Panel Search Result Example

As we discussed previously, these results can contain a wealth of information about your church – the primary source of which (if available) is your Google My Business profile. Thus, even for people that already know about your church and search for you explicitly, their first interaction is likely to be with information drawn from your Google My Business profile, prior to them having the opportunity to reach your church website.

The Power of Discovery Searches

When a local search is performed, Google categorizes it in one of three ways:

  • Direct Searches occur when a user searches for your church explicitly by name or address.
  • Branded Searches occur when a user searches for a brand related to your church (for example, a branded ministry name).
  • Discovery Searches occur when a user searches for your church is or does, but did not mention your church or its brands explicitly (for example, “church near me”)

You can view analytics that track which search types were used to find your Google My Business profile using the Insights tool.Google My Business Insights Screenshot

People performing direct or branded searches rarely have difficulty finding the church they’re looking for – though in fringe cases there can be issues depending on nuances regarding a church’s name, etc. However, people performing these types of searches already know about your church.

The most valuable searches, however, are discovery type searches that are performed by people actively looking for a church. These searches help drive church growth by exposing new people to your church. Users that performed discovery searches may have searched for:

  • “church near me”
  • “[denomination] church” (ie. “Baptist church”)
  • “church in [city name]” (ie. “church in Phoenix”)

What is Local SEO?

Local Search Engine Optimization (“Local SEO”) can be defined as the practice of optimizing your online presence to improve search result ranking in local type searches. This encompasses all search results from Google Maps (including the local pack), as well as the regular organic search results displayed in local type searches.

Google My Business’s Importance in Local SEO for Churches

As we’ve already mentioned in this article, when a local type search is performed, Google relies on its local search algorithm which differs from its typical behavior in several ways – one of which is the display of a local pack.Local Pack SERP Example

Google’s local algorithm uses several key drivers not typically considered to determine search rankings. Perhaps the most important of these is that Google wants to be supremely confident that the entity exists at the location it claims. Simply put, Google doesn’t want a user who searches for a bank to see a map pin for a bank on Google Maps, hop in their car and drive to the location expecting to arrive at a bank, only to end up at a park with no bank in sight. This example sounds a bit absurd – but we can tell you from personal experience that it happens.

While there are several important methods to increase Google’s confidence that your church’s location is correct, the simplest is to have a verified and actively maintained Google My Business profile.

Thus, Google My Business is a critical component in making sure your church ranks competitively in local type searches, as well as converting people who discover your church in a local search to the desired action, such as visiting your church website or requesting directions to pay you an in-person visit.

How People Interact With Your Google My Business Profile

We’ve described above how closely linked your church’s Google Maps search result and Google My Business profile are. When your GMB profile is actively maintained, they may even be virtually synonymous.

When a user comes across your church’s local search result, there are several different ways they could choose to engage deeper. First and foremost, there are three primary actions that bring a user into closer contact with your church, which Google tracks within the GMB Insights tool:

  • Clicks to your website.
  • Directions requests.
  • Phone calls.

Actions in GMB Insights

In addition to the simple actions above, there are most definitely other less common ways a user might interact with your search result such as:

  • View photos (managed via GMB – though users can submit their own).
  • Read or submit reviews.
  • Check out upcoming events (if Google is aware of them).
  • Check out your social media profiles (if Google is aware of them).
  • Suggest changes to your GMB information (for you to moderate).

Part 2: Managing Your Google My Business Profile

Claim/Add and Verify Your Google My Business Profile

First and foremost, to manage your Google My Business profile, it must exist and your church must have access to it. For the data contained within your Google My Business profile to be shared with Google Maps (meaning, for it to have any impact externally in search results), it must first be verified.

If your church already exists on Google Maps (true of the vast majority of churches), you’ll want to claim and verify your listing. Do NOT create a duplicate new Google My Business profile instead – this is confusing to Google and will inevitably hurt more than it helps!

If your church isn’t currently present on Google Maps (perhaps it’s a brand new church or campus), you’ll need to create a new profile in Google My Business and verify it.

Google has instructions provided here for both of the above scenarios.

Verification Methods

Verifying your Google My Business profile ensures that you are who you say you are (an owner or manager of the business). Until you’ve performed this step, the changes you make to the Google My Business profile in question won’t be used by Google in its Google Maps search results.

There are three typical methods that may be available to perform verification of your Google My Business profile.

  • Verify by Post. This method has Google send a postcard with a verification code to the mailing address listed. After receiving the postcard, you simply enter the code. This method is the default and is available for all businesses. For newer churches/campuses, post verification will frequently be the only method available.
  • Verify by Phone. This method allows you to receive an automated phone call (placed to the phone number associated with the Google My Business profile) that will read you a verification code. You then enter the code within Google My Business. This method will only be available if Google is very confident that the phone number in question is associated with the location in question due to authoritative external references.
  • Verify by Email. This method allows you to receive an email from Google to an address on your church website’s domain containing a verification code. Simply enter the code within Google My Business. This method will only be available if Google is very confident that the domain in question is associated with the location in question due to the authoritative external references.
  • There is also at least one “special” method that Google doesn’t publicly advertise which we’ll outline in the last section of this article for churches that are unable to receive physical mail at their location.

Once verification is complete, you’re all set. You now control the fate of your church’s Google My Business profile.

Ensure Your NAP Info Is Correct

It should go without saying, but make sure the NAP (name, address, phone) information contained within your Google My Business profile is correct and up to date. This is done within the “Info” section of Google My Business.Google My Business Info Interface

Service Areas

Immediately underneath the address info (“Business Location”) within GMB is a field called “Service Areas”, which is frequently misunderstood and misused by churches.

The Service Areas field is designed for businesses that travel to perform their services (ie. a plumber or housekeeping service), or businesses that deliver their product (ie. pizza shop) to outline how far they are willing to travel.

Because this model doesn’t apply to churches, you should not set a Service Area – it will only confuse Google and potentially hurt your search rankings.

Use the Most Specific Primary Category Possible

When setting the primary category for your Google My Business listing, choose the most specific category possible. If your organization is a Baptist Church, choose “Baptist Church” instead of just “Church”. Google has categories available for almost every denomination you can imagine, including “non-denominational”. You can include more generic categories such as “Church” and “Christian Church” as additional categories.

Having an appropriate primary category set for your church is a significant help in ranking for local searches seeking a specific denomination (ie. “Baptist church near me”).

Hours of Operation

Make sure you have hours of operation set. These should include your service times and your office hours – essentially, any time that your church is available for interaction with in-person traffic. You can use the Special Hours field immediately below to specify any deviations in these hours due to holidays, etc.

Description

Make sure to set your business description. This should be a short, descriptive paragraph about the identity of your church. What is your purpose?

Manage Photos

Your Google My Business profile should have at minimum a handful of high-quality photos to help establish your church identity. Ideally, you should have one or more “exterior” category photos of your church location to help people identify what your church looks like before they go searching for it in the real world.

Most importantly, you’ll want to have individual images flagged as “Logo” and “Cover”. These images will be displayed within some formats of search results for your church. The “Logo” flagged image should of course be your church’s logo. For the “Cover” image, we recommend the best frontal exterior shot of your church location you have available. If your church doesn’t have its own distinct building, use something that speaks to your church identity. This “Cover” image is going to be the first visual impression that your church gets to make on a lot of potential new visitors!Google My Business Photos Interface

Post Special Events

Much like Facebook or Twitter, Google My Business is a great place to keep people up to date with the major happenings at your church. Use the “Post” and “Event” functionality to let people know what’s going on!Google My Business Post/Event Interface

Read and Respond to Reviews

Your Google My Business reviews are a critical part of your church’s online presence. While generating positive reviews is extremely important, responding to existing reviews (both positive and negative) is an easily overlooked but equally crucial practice. Responding to reviews shows both Google and potential new visitors that your church is engaged with the community and receptive to feedback.

Enable Real-Time Messaging

Your audience can get in touch with you in real-time through your GMB profile if you download the GMB app and enable messaging. Messaging works best as a conversation between you and your audience. To ensure the best experience for Google My Business users, Google requires that you maintain short response times to messages (typically less than 24 hours). If this requirement cannot be met, Google may disable your messaging capability. You can find more info here.

Consider Adding a Virtual Tour

Using the Street View App and 360-degree cameras, or by hiring a professional, your Google My Business profile can contain a fully virtual tour of your location. You can find more information or help locating a pro here.

Part 3: What We’ve Learned From Managing Hundreds of Google My Business Profiles [Situational Recommendations]

Because we help manage the Google My Business profiles of several hundred church locations, you can say we’ve just about seen it all. In this section, we’ll explore how to handle recurring “special cases” that we’ve encountered over the years.

What to do when a church doesn’t have a distinct building (ie. meets inside a school gymnasium, theater, or event space)

Even if your church doesn’t have its own dedicated location and instead relies on meeting inside a school, event space, or similar, you should still have a Google My Business profile. However, there are several unique considerations that often apply to churches with such arrangements:

  • Your hours of operation should list your service times only. You don’t want people showing up to a school on a Tuesday hoping to speak to someone about your church when you only meet on Sundays.
  • Try to display photos of the venue exterior with your church signage in place (if possible) to help new visitors understand what to look for.
  • Google Maps has relatively recently added the ability to understand and display that a location exists inside another location. This is perfectly applicable to churches who meet inside schools or other venues, as well as churches that host other businesses (such as a book store or coffee shop) inside their own dedicated space. You can see an example of this below:
    Located Inside Example
    Google My Business has at times in the past provided an interface to establish this relationship – but at present, it’s unavailable. Thus, while as of this writing the method (to our knowledge) to have your GMB listed as being “located inside” another is via automatic detection from Google Maps or manual intervention from Google support, we imagine this feature will once again be exposed to the public sometime in the future.

What if we can’t receive snail-mail at our meeting location?

As discussed above, for younger churches or churches that don’t have their own dedicated building, it’s likely that Google My Business will only expose a single verification method, that being via postcard. This can be a big problem for churches that (for whatever reason) are unable to receive mail at their meeting location.

This problem can only be solved by making manual contact with Google My Business support. In such a situation, Google will typically offer video verification as an alternative method. Video verification consists of providing a “virtual tour” to a Google employee of your church location when your signage is in place. While we’ve had success with this in the past, it does require someone from the church to coordinate with Google My Business support during a limited window of time. However, because having a verified Google My Business profile is incredibly important for every church, jumping through Google’s hoops is more than worthwhile.

Multi-Campus Considerations

Google My Business listings represent an individual location, and thus it should go without saying that each of your distinct church locations (campuses) should have its own Google My Business profile. If desired, in order to more easily manage access to multiple GMB properties from a single location, you can create a location group that functions as a container for your individual GMB listings.

Multiple Campuses

One of the pillars of Local SEO is that Google wants to be confident that your church location exists at the location your GMB property claims. Thus, whenever possible, it is optimal for each campus-specific Google My Business profile to have distinct information. For example:

  • It is ideal for each of your campus locations to have a unique phone number that provides direct access to that campus. Many multi-campus churches have a main “call-center” number shared between all of their campuses. This can be a bit confusing to Google.
  • Similarly, the website URL property of your GMB profile should point to a campus-specific landing page whenever possible. Ultimately, this is advantageous both in making it clear to Google that your church location is one of several that are all associated with the domain but also sends a user who has found that campus’ GMB to a page dedicated to the campus in question.

Having a shared phone number between your campuses or associating all of your campus GMB properties with your main church homepage won’t destroy your local search presence, but it will provide a handicap.

Duplicate Google Maps Search Results / Google My Business Properties

One scenario we see fairly often is when a distinct church location has duplicate search results appearing on Google Maps. This is a major deficiency in terms of Local SEO, not to mention a potentially confusing experience for someone viewing both search results. This can usually occur in one of two ways:

  • Google erroneously auto-creates a new Google Maps result for your church. Most often this duplicate will be located extremely close to the present correct address of your church, or it may be at an old address that is no longer in use. In this case, you should report the duplicate location on Google Maps.
  • People at your church miscommunicate and manually create a duplicate. Perhaps access to the old GMB profile becomes lost and a frustrated church staff member creates a new one instead (don’t ever do this – take necessary steps to claim access to the existing one instead). In this case, to resolve the problem you should first ensure that your church has access to both properties (take the necessary steps to claim any that you do not have access to). If one of the profiles is clearly simply a low value duplicate with few to no reviews and inferior search rankings, you can mark it as permanently closed. In the unfortunate circumstance that you have significant value split between two or more duplicate GMB profiles, you can contact Google My Business support and ask them very nicely to merge the listings in order to salvage as much value as possible.

What to do when a church doesn’t have a permanent location

If your church is temporarily meeting at a residential address or otherwise will be frequently changing your meeting location in the future, you should wait to create a Google My Business listing until your location solidifies. In simple terms, ask yourself the question: “would I want someone to see a pin on Google Maps for my church at this location?” If the answer is no, your church isn’t ready for a Google My Business presence.

Conclusion

We hope this article was informative and helped to build your understanding of Google My Business and how it impacts Google Maps and Local SEO. If you have any further questions or are looking for help in managing your Google My Business, we’d love to hear from you!

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