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Search and Ye Shall (not) Find

Series: Improving your church website

Improving Your Church Website
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[This is my Web Wise column from the November 2004 issue of Good News Etc.]

Has your church been Googled? Unfortunately many church websites have not been indexed by the most popular search engine in the world!

Go ahead, type in your church’s name and see if you even come up on the first page of results. Now, if your name is First Bapterian Church, chances are you won’t (since there are umpteen 1000s of them around the world!). So put in “First Bapterian Church” + “San Marcos” and see what comes up.

In my recent work with Promise Keepers, I had to make contact with many San Diego churches. Being the Netfreak I am, I went to the web to find their contact info. Now, I’m probably on the high side of experienced when it comes to searching the web, but some churches were downright hidden on the World Wide Web.

How does this happen, you may ask? Good question. Let’s look at an actual example from a local church (although the name and details have been changed to protect the victim):

I was trying to find a church by the name of Bonita Bapterian Church (BBC). So I entered that name into Google and began scanning for the link in the results. It was on the second page, eighth link down. The link on Google’s result page said “Bonita Bapterian Church,” so it was exactly what I had entered. But why was it 38th the in the results?

Here are some hints so we can all learn from BBC. For this column I’ll focus mainly on the homepage - your action items are in bold:

Do the Visitor Exercise (no heavy lifting involved): Sit down with the church’s staff/leaders and spend 15 focused minutes brainstorming all the phrases and keywords you think someone would use to find a church in your area. List all those and save them for your action steps below. (Better yet, ask some recent visitors what words/phrases they would use at a search engine.)

• BBC had decided to use a domain name that was not close to the church name. It was not BonitaBapterianChurch.org; it was ThisPlaceIsSwell.com. Interesting name, but it does negatively affect your ranking.

Go ahead and use ThisPlaceIsSwell.com as the public web address on all your printed materials, but have it resolve/change to BonitaBapterianChurch.org when someone reaches the site.

• Search engines weigh your homepage very heavily. What’s on there is so important to being indexed correctly. In BBC’s case the name of the church was in a graphic at the top of the page. A search engine’s spider (the program that comes to your site to grab all your content) can’t read the text in a graphic. It did have the church name in text at the very bottom (footer) of the page, but the search engine considers the upper part of the page to be paramount.

Make sure the name of the church and a short description (using the city name) is in text in the upper half of your homepage.

Make sure your developer puts ALT tags on your graphics. Those assign text to a photo/graphic, so a spider can read them. Though they aren’t weighted as heavily as real text, they’re still important.

Make sure the page title has the church name (and the city name if it’s not part of the church name). The title is what you see in the way upper left corner of your browser; if you went to Amazon, it says “Amazon.com: Welcome.” In this case we would want “Bonita Bapterian Church” or “First Bapterian Church of Bonita.”

• Meta tags are hidden words on a webpage that give clues to search engines about the purpose and content of a website and/or that page. (Your developer will know what and where they are.) Many of the church sites I visited didn’t have any tags, including our example - BBC. While meta tags are not as important these days in search engine ranking, they are still important, and the lack of them practically screams to the search engine to nominalize your site.

Spend a bit of time developing your meta tag description (your church’s purpose and such) and keywords based on the Visitor Exercise above. Then have your developer put them on the site.

These are just the thin upper surface of what can be done to improve your church site’s ranking on search engines (see moreHelp below for more ideas). But they will be good first steps to help folks who need your church, find your church.

moreHelp (related links)

Mike Atkinson is the father of the groom at Chris' wedding this month, is the president/founder of uneekNet (helping your organization succeed on the web); and runs a daily humor email list at Mikey's Funnies.