Updated May 2016
Fact: 82% of smartphone users say they use search to find local businesses . This means roughly four out of five potential new congregants could be looking for your church on the search engines! Is your church website optimized to show up in the search results, and: how many of us have been mystified or even ripped off by the world of search engine optimization (SEO)?
SEO is the mysterious dark art by which the content you want people to see shows up in their search results, on maps, and in suggestions. Typically, this involves choosing key phrases or words you want to be associated with, and then trying to convince the search engines to show people your site when those words are typed. Why does the church down the street display prominently in local search results, but not yours?
For myself, and many others, SEO has often been presented as technical, complex, and transient. Many of us have heard how Google has over 200 ranking factors that no one can really know with certainty. It all feels so futile.
Don’t fret, not all SEO experts are shady, and not all great SEO requires an expert. What follows is a layman’s (or woman’s!) guide to achieving local SEO results on a shoestring, with minimal nerd skills required. In other words: these actionable local SEO tips can be applied by you and your staff easily—often for free. Buckle up, and get ready to take your church’s local search engine game to the next level.
Three types of SEO (Well four…sort of)
Google delivers three types of search results: paid, local, and organic. Update: as of 2016, the right column can now dynamically deliver any of the three, sometimes in combination – so we’ll keep this in mind but stick with three types since the right column is largely up to Google. The presentation of this information can vary, depending on the search terms, but notice the prominence of the local search results.
The layout of search results can change, depending on what is searched for, but the three types are the same: paid, local, and organic. Here are some variations to study:
Paid search results
The best way to understand these results is: advertisements. These are purchased ads, meant to show only when certain key phrases are typed.
Organic search results
Plain and simple: these are the results the search engines decide to be the most relevant for a search. Type a search like “running shoes” and you’ll get Zappos, Eastbay, Road Runner Sports, and a host of other relevant results. Mostly, these results are location independent, and can never be purchased.
Local search results
These are localized search listings, usually tied into a map and reviews. My search for “running shoes” in Colorado Springs yields local running store locations. This makes great sense. Who wants to find out about a running store in another city? The search engines are smart enough to show such results if the query was specific to that other location (i.e.: “Denver running shoes”).
Paid ads (PPC) and organic results are topics for other articles. The type of search results we want to look at in this article are local.
Local search is, potentially, one of the biggest wins for churches. You don’t need a blog. You may not need a website (but you should really have one in this day and age). You just need a name, address, and phone number. Let’s look at local search SEO for churches…
3 Local search SEO tips for churches
Local search is a church’s best bet for getting found by local community members. The great news: ensuring your church is listed in local search results is affordable, and often free.
1) Carve your name, address, and phone number into stone
Decide upon the name, address, phone number, and website (if you have one) you want listed in the local search results. Use the exact same information across any services you list your church on. For example, if you add the church information to Google and Yelp, don’t use “Anywhere Road” on one and “Anywhere Rd.” on the other. SEO nerds refer to this as a “citation” —use it consistently.
In fact, it’s a good idea to keep all of your church details in a spreadsheet as a handy reference. Grab our citation template for free!
Have your contact details in order? Let’s get started!
2) Claim your local search listings
With your citation details in hand, it’s time to claim your “business” (church) listings in the search engines and directories. Many of these sites may already list your church, but you want to gain access to control the details, images, videos, etc.
Option 1: Manually claim listings
Cost: Free (The “decent” option)
At a bare minimum, sign up for Google My Business, Bing, Yelp, and Apple Maps to claim your business listing manually. Once you’ve verified your ownership of the listing (usually by entering a pin number sent on a postcard in the mail), you can control the profiles for those services. Adding photos, hours of operation, responding to reviews, associating with business categories, and much more can be handled by claiming your listings.
Once setup, this information is what should feed into local search results. Verified and managed listings seem to be given preferential treatment in the local search results (Note: if you update your listing and still see the wrong info in Google search results, try correcting it here).
But, wait! There are many other listing services. What about other map services and listings such as YellowPages, FourSquare, Superpages, and more?
Option 2: Sign up for Moz Local and manually claim some listings
Cost: Not Free (The “better” option) – This is the option I recommend
Claiming your business listings and changing your church information manually might not always work. As maddening as this sounds, there’s another factor at play: other sources of business data (bear with me, this matters if you want to understand how to get found).
In the United States, there are four groups which collect business information (Infogroup, Neustar Localeze, Factual, and Acxiom) and beam it out to various places such as Yelp, YellowPages, and Google (learn more at the risk of getting overwhelmed). The search engines do their best to makes sense of this data, but sometimes they are faced with a quandary: what if one data aggregator collected a misspelled address and shared it? How is Google to know if the version of your name, address and phone from Infogroup is more accurate than Acxiom’s version?
Moz further explains:
“…search giants pull in business information from a variety of other sources, in addition to maintaining their own business databases. They … do the best they can to match the data that comes in from these other sources with what they have in their own index, but sometimes that doesn’t happen properly.”
Basically, if you don’t inform the data aggregators of your real church citation (NAP) information, then there’s a chance your manually entered details will be ignored by the search engines in favor of data coming from an aggregator.
Solution: give the data aggregators accurate church information
In order to ensure the right name, address, phone, website, categories and other pertinent church information is shown in local search results, it is possible to feed the right information directly to the data providers.
For $84/year, Moz Local will take your church information and push it to the major data providers so search engines can discover your location and share it with those in your community.
The Moz Local tool is affordable and nearly comprehensive, but you’ll still need to setup and manage your Google, Facebook (if you are having trouble pulling up this page, try visiting https://business.facebook.com in an Incognito window), and Apple Maps Connect accounts manually.
Option 3: Use Whitespark or BrightLocal
Cost: Not Free (The “best” option if you have deeper pockets and nerds handy)
Both of these services allow technical and thorough control over online citations. These companies provide staff support. For example, BrightLocal has a dedicated submissions team which manually submits citation information to 1,600 local and niche directories—wow!
These are pricier options, but make a lot of sense for churches with bigger budgets and the ability to put a tech-savvy team member on the job.
3) Gather Online Reviews
Getting the right information into the search engines won’t guarantee preferential placement in the local results. Let’s say there are 100 churches in your area; Google can’t show all of those churches on the first page of local search results. So let’s talk about credibility. How do the search engines determine credible listings? There are a variety of factors, but a massively important factor, the one we are going to look at here—is online reviews.
The reason services like AirBnB and Uber work is because of reviews. If scores of people say a business is excellent, odds are the business is excellent. If the majority of Uber passengers say Leadfoot Jones is a terrible driver, he probably is. Search engines give reviews plenty of weight when factoring which listings to show for a search.
A good example is searching for “colorado springs collision repair” here in Colorado Springs. DMI Collision rules the results. Why? I can tell you it’s not because of high quality website code. The DMI website meets almost none of the criteria for a well-coded website, but the search engines love to recommend the business. This is because DMI has 70+ reviews on Google, and most of them are positive. DMI has repaired two of my vehicles over the years and their service is truly exceptional.
Encourage your congregation to review the church on Google, Yelp, Facebook, and anywhere else which seems relevant. If you only choose one, go with Google reviews. If you are entertaining the thought of paid or fake reviews, stop—they can get you blacklisted and look especially bad coming from a church!
Once you’ve claimed your Google business listing, it’s possible to respond to bad reviews, and if you pay for BrightLocal, you can use their review plugin to help gather reviews. WordPress should have some review plugins available for your website too.
To recap, here are your three action items:
- Set your name, address, phone and any other church contact information in stone. Here’s a handy local seo citation building template.
- Claim your local search listings
- Deliberately build up reviews (real ones) on services like Google, Yelp, and Facebook
It’s a good idea to create a baseline before you setup these three steps. Search for a variety of phrases you think potential congregants might use (i.e.: “colorado springs churches”, “evangelical free church”, “local churches”, etc.) and take screen captures of the results.
Next, complete the three action steps, be patient, and check in on those same search phrases in the coming weeks and months. If all goes as planned, your church should get a boost in the local search rankings!
Let us know how it goes! As always, if you haven’t checked out the Disciplr app, check it out when you have a chance.