How will they find your church?

Hunting dog photo as analogy to finding your church site via a search engine

When people are searching the web with terms that ought to include your congregation in the search results, does it actually appear?

When was the last time you used Google, Bing, Yahoo or the rest to search for your own congregation the way a potential visitor might? That is, (s)he is not searching for your congregation by name or address, but is looking for churches that fit his or her criteria, or is asking a question on a religious topic. Do you search using search term that you would expect such potential visitors to use? If you haven't tried a search like this, it can be quite revealing.

That begs the question, what are your potential visitors looking for in a local church? Which in turn makes me ask, does your church offer what they are looking for? And that bring us to: do the pages of your web site contain those words and phrases?

I recently asked some preachers, ministers and pastors what are the most common questions they get from potential visitors, aside from your location and event times. Among the pragmatic questions:

  • What do you offer for teens (or tweens, or toddlers)?
  • Do you have a nursery?
  • Are you equipped to handle special needs kids?
  • What sort of programs do you have for "seasoned" citizens?

Among the more philosophical questions are those about God (does he exist?) and where your church stand on particular Christian beliefs or principles.

If these are the sorts of things you want to bring people to your web site, those things must be on your web site. If it doesn't talk about them, people won't find it when search for them.

Addressing this is part of an ongoing effort that web-site owners do (or should do) called "search engine optimization", or "SEO". In a nutshell, SEO is setting up your web site so that search engines, such as Google, will include your web site in the search results in which you want it to appear.

While there are many facets to SEO, a crucial one is the text. or "content", that you put on your web site's pages. Google and other search engines visit your site on a regular basis to try to figure out how to account for it in searches. So it's essential that your web pages contain the content that your intended searchers are looking for.

Need some help? There are some very good free tools available to give you some insights. Here are just a couple.

Google's Webmaster Tools

With Webmaster Tools, you upload a small HTML file to your web site to prove it's yours, and you can see insightful information, such as

  • What searches include your church's site in the results, as well as how far down the list it appeared. Do you see searches that you would expect, or are the majority of your searches variations of your congregation's name?
  • What words appear to be the most important on your site. This is based on how many times the words appear, how close to the top of the page they are, whether the text is identified as a header or normal text, and other factors. Are the top entries what you want?
  • Suggestions on how to improve your site's rankings.

Screaming Frog SEO Spider

Screaming Frog lets you review your site just as a search engine would, allowing you to see:

  • Page Titles. Yes, those can have an impact. This is not the title that appears at the top of the web page, it is the title you see in the top border of your browser (If the title is long, let your mouse hover over your browser's tab and the full title should pop up. See the example below from the Washington Post's web site). Information you can add to the HTML code of your web page, but does not appear in a browser. These are called "meta tags". They include descriptive information that search engines examine as well. Standard meta tags include "description" and "keywords". The description contains complete sentences, whereas keywords consist of simply a list of words and phrases. See the tags from the Washington Post below.

    Example of the title tag, using the Washington Post web site as an example

  • Descriptive text with your images. This may appear when you hover your mouse over an image, and is usually referred to as an "alt tag". Ideally, every image, other than those that are pure decoration, should have an alt tag that describes what is going on in the image ("Our guest speaker last Sunday was John Smith, minister of First Community Church in Gotham", rather than simply "John Smith"). This is because not only can it help with your SEO, individuals who are sight-impaired surf the web with software that reads aloud not only the text of the page, but also any alt text for the images, so be wary of labeling your image as "image 4". By the way, text that is in (or part of) the image doesn't count ... the search engines can't read it.

    Example of the description and keywords meta tags, using the Washington Post web site as an example

 Do you need to do all of these things? No, you can do all, none or any combination. But this is a clear case, pardon the expression, where the devil is in the detail. The more you address content, the more successful your site will be in attracting the visitors you want.