Church website content has a long way to go if churches expect to find themselves in search results.
I am sorry to say this because I love local churches, but the state of church websites is pretty embarrassing. Perhaps, more pastorally, I should say, there is a lot of potential for the improvement of church websites.
As I say that, I will admit that church websites have come along way. In fact, there are some pretty fantastic church websites even within the Rio Texas Conference where I serve.
However, there is a considerable gap between the current state of church websites and their potential for reaching new people in new places. That gap is comprised of two deeply interrelated concepts: search and content.
Search, as I am discussing it here, is a broad term for how people find things on the internet. With the vast quantity of information on the internet, people need a way to find what they are looking for. The 90s became a time for rapid growth and technological improvements to what we now know as the search engine. Google, the leader in web searches now completes 3.5 billion searches per day.
Church Website Content: What People Look For
One thing that “the church” still fails to understand is that online search has become the default for how most people look for things. Whether people are looking for a place to eat, someone to paint their house, something to watch, a book to read, or even tips on church technology, they search for it. They search on their computers, phones, tablets, and now, even on their voice assistant (Amazon Echo, Google Home, etc.)
Most decent church websites have figured out “search” in a very narrow sense. If I type “United Methodist Church near me,” into Google, up pops a good listing of United Methodist Churches near me. It does, however, leave out the United Methodist Church that is, in fact, closest to me – demonstrating that not all churches have mastered even this narrow search.
The news isn’t so great for my tribe if I zoom out from that extremely narrow search and just search “church near me.” Methodist churches get pushed down the list by other denominations.
But owning the search results for United Methodist Church or even church doesn’t take into account how people search. Sure, it gets the small percentage of people who have already decided to go to church but what about everyone else?
That’s where the next concept comes in – content.
Church Website Content: What Search Engines Look For
Content, as a concept here, is simply the text available on your website. Content is not only crucial for the people who are visiting your page, but it is also essential for people who are searching for what you offer. I have written about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) before but let me recap. Search engines such as Google use computer algorithms to scour the web and return the most relevant results to people who search. As webmasters have learned to game the system and increase their search position, the algorithms have become progressively smarter. These search engines don’t just look at the name of a site or even the name of the pages on a site. They look at the content of the site in an attempt to determine if the website has information relative to the search.
The formula for how this works is complex and ever-changing. However, there are some things that we know influence search engines:
(Note: this is not a comprehensive list but includes items related to our topic.)
Content – The words on your pages. That includes descriptions of images and, specifically keywords related to the search.
Backlinks – Other websites linking to yours. You know what gets other websites to link to yours? Great content.
Social Signals – People talking about you on social media is a big plus. If you want people to talk about you on social media, you know what helps? Great content!
From my review of now thousands of church websites and extensive Google search analyses, most churches don’t get this. Let’s take a look at a general example.
Church Website Content: An Example
What if someone asked a general question, “Who is God?” Let’s take a look. Bear with me; you are going to need to scroll a little bit. Below, you will find a description of what you are seeing.
At the very top, you can see that this is a popular question. There are 27,000 searches each month on this exact phrase. If you look to the right, you will see the “people also search for” list that shows similar topics people search (courtesy of the Keywords Everywhere browser extension.)
You might think that some of “the church” would own the search results for this question. But no. Wikipedia does. In some ways, I can blame the nature of search engines for that. If you look at some of the things that influence search engines above, you can guess that Wikipedia has a lot of advantages. In fact, Wikipedia has nearly every advantage when it comes to search ranking.
Below, the church does make its voice heard, though a little covertly. Everystudent.com is run by Campus Crusade for Christ, and gotquestions.org considers itself a para-church ministry run by S. Michael Houdmann.
It takes until the third page of search results before an actual denomination shows up, the United Church of God – and the link leads to a book about God. The first denominational website to address the issue shows up on page three and links to the Official Site of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I wanted to search until I found a link to an actual local church website and I finally found one on page 5: Victory Christian Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Next, I was curious to see how long it would take someone from my tribe, The United Methodist Church pop up. I gave up after page 20 and after seeing results from The Economist, a yoga studio, Billboard Magazine, and the New York Times.
Further down the page, I have pointed out some of the details of how Google ranks these pages. The stats are courtesy of Moz.com which ranks pages based on two factors, “Page Authority,” and “Domain Authority.” Page authority ranks how that specific page looks to search engines based on factors like content, backlinks, and social signals. Domain authority does the same thing for the overall website.
So then, why does Wikipedia show up at the top? Because, in the eyes of the search engine algorithm, they have the best content. Their content is rich in keywords related to the search, plenty of people have linked to Wikipedia in general and this page specifically, and Wikipedia is mentioned plenty on social media.
So Where Are the Church Websites?
This seems strange, but church websites have very little content related to questions about God. What decent church websites do have is information about the church. I cover the essential church website content in my Church Website Self-Evaluation Tool. These are important to reach the people who are specifically searching for a church. If someone finds their way to your church website, you need to give them all the tools they need to take the next step and visit your actual church.
However, if churches want to be found by people who are searching, and may not know what they are searching for, we are going to need to up our game when it comes to our church website content.
Realistically, even if you were to start today and fill your church’s website with everything you could come up with to answer the question, “Who is God?” you are going to have a tough time breaking through to the top of the search results. Fortunately, people are also searching for other things.
In my next post, I am going to show you one example of where churches might be able to drive their websites to the top of Google searches using great church website content. Churches just might connect with people who are looking for something they offer.