Church planting can be a fun, terrifying, exciting, grueling, rewarding, humbling experience all wrapped into one. Like any step of faith there can be many highs and lows.
Over the years I’ve seen this played out with many Church plants, and one thing I’ve noticed is that the Church website strategy can follow this same pattern of ups and downs.
For starters, there never seems to be enough time to get everything done. Most Churches these days recognize how important a web presence is and will at least get a basic website up and running before getting too far down the road, but how do you fit everything else in? With design, media, email, social, video, IT and more… the person that is in charge of getting the website up and running probably already has their hands full! Even though SEO and online marketing seems important as part of the web strategy, it can easily take a back seat with so many other tasks at hand and can seem like a daunting task.
But… I’m here to tell you. It doesn’t have to suck up your valuable time. If you build a solid foundation, you’ll get off to a great start and will save yourself loads of time and stress in the future.
Here is the basic list of items you should be focusing on:
- Choose a website platform that is SEO friendly to start with.
- Basic website optimization.
- Submit the Church as a business to Google (then use a tool to get listed everywhere else).
Let’s Get Started…
1) Build a Foundation With a Good Website Platform
This ship may have already sailed for you, but it’s an important topic and if you haven’t yet chosen a platform, please read this. I BEG you to read this. We live in a day where your aunt’s distant relative’s brother’s son’s best friend built a website once and would love to build your Church a site too. Please stop. It will make your life so much easier in the future if you START with a platform that that is basically SEO friendly out of the box.
Yes, you saw their ads in the SuperBowl, but please don’t judge them based on that. They didn’t make sense to me either.
If you’ve built a few websites you might be balking at this recommendation but hang on just a sec. SquareSpace sites are:
- SEO friendly
- Easy to customize without knowing code
- Mobile friendly out of the box
- Simple email setup
- Offers top-notch support (Seriously. When NYC flooded during hurricane Sandy, they hand carried hundreds of gallons of fuel to keep their generators running so they wouldn’t experience downtime. They are fanatical about their customers.)
I know it can be tempting to run out and buy a fancy site that is already built for churches with all the features like calendars, events, sermon pages and all the rest, but in my experience, most Churches don’t end up using all those features anyway. Churches need sites that are designed well, highly user friendly, mobile ready, and social/SEO friendly. Many solutions or themes offer all these things but few deliver like SquareSpace does.
So if you’re planing a Church and have little to no experience with web design, platforms, SEO, etc. I can’t recommend this platform highly enough. You pretty much can’t go wrong.
Caveat: While SquareSpace is a quick and easy out of the box solution, it may not necessarily scale well if the Church becomes really large. It can be a great starting point for a small Church, but you might outgrow it at some point and if you don’t want to have to change platforms in the future you might want to choose something more robust as a starting point.
If you’ve ever looked into creating a website, you’ve heard of WordPress. It’s been written about so often and there is such a plethora of info out there I don’t feel the need to go into great detail.
The self-hosted WordPress platform is:
- SEO friendly out of the box but even more so with plugins.
- Relatively easy but takes some getting used to.
- Ultimately customizable with endless themes, plugins and options.
- Well supported by large community of designers, developers and hosting companies.
- Great platform for content rich sites (i.e. Church websites)
Choose a WordPress Friendly Host:
Because of the popularity of WordPress (it runs roughly 30% of the world’s websites), many hosting companies have created dedicated hosting plans for WordPress. If you don’t know what that means it’s ok. Trust me, it’s awesome. Less work for you and more free features out of the box. Here are my favorites:
P.S. – all of these offer automatic backups, caching, CDNs, great support and custom features that WordPress webmasters will love. Speed is also a critical element to SEO & user experience. All of these hosts help you build lighting fast sites.
Are these the cheapest hosting solutions? Nope. But you will avoid many headaches in the future by going with a company that gets WordPress sites. You’ll get better security, speed and less down time.
Choose a Theme:
This can be a daunting task and is typically where I receive the most questions regarding setting up a Church site on WordPress. My advice is if you don’t want a heavy amount of customization, go with a theme that is already built for Churches. You’ll get most of the features you want without having to fuss with creating a custom theme. The nice thing about WordPress is that you can always change it later without losing your core pages/content. I have a list of Church themes on my resources page.
Tip: Make sure you choose a theme that allows you to create an individual url each time a sermon is added to the site. I’ve written about this before. Each sermon should have it’s own page on the website.
2) Optimizing the Website
This can be intimidating for sure. But, this is why we start with a solid website platform as a foundation. I’m going to assume that you took my advice and started off on the right foot. Otherwise, this could be a 10 page guide on onsite SEO which is really no fun for anyone. 🙂
Here are a few tasks to get you started:
- Install Google Analytics. You’ll want to get to know your site audience. There is no excuse for not spending 5 minutes to set this up as quickly as you can.
- Set up Google Webmaster Tools. A no brainer. This will help you identify problems with the site as it relates to search engines in the future. Easy set up.
- Add a custom meta title to the home page. If you use an SEO plugin (details below), this will be very simple. There are 2 important details to remember about the meta title. It plays a huge role in ranking and it is very important for branding. In other words, you’ll want to include the Church name as well as a phrase that you want the website to rank for. Example <title>My Church Name – A Church in Littleton, CO</title>. Notice, the Church name at the beginning, and the keyword phrase at the end. 70 characters is the maximum.
- Add a custom meta description. The meta description shows up in the search engine results pages. It’s the text that appears below the title. It’s not used as a ranking factor, but is very important for branding and is valuable real estate for describing the Church. 160 characters is the maximum.
- Include your keyword phrase somewhere on the home page. In my example above for the title tag, the keyword phrase was “Church in Littleton, CO”. Include that same phrase somewhere in the copy on the home page.
Since WordPress is such a popular platform for Churches, here are a few specific tips:
Some WordPress SEO Tips:
Install an SEO plugin. There are a bunch out there but my favorite is made by Yoast: Yoast SEO Plugin. There are more to choose from on my resources page. These plugins make life SO much easier. In the olden days, we had to do much of this work manually or with a frankenstein mashup of a dozen other plugins.
Check to make sure you aren’t blocking search engines
This is a very common mistake. When Church Webmasters get stuck and can’t figure out why the website isn’t appearing at all in the search engines, the first place to look is in the Settings > Reading area of the WordPress site and make sure this little box is unchecked.
Update your urls to be search engine & user-friendly
Navigate to Settings > Permalinks and select “Post Name”.
3) Get the Church Set up for Local Searches (Local SEO)
People look for Churches online. Depending on how they conduct their searches, chances are they they are going to come into contact with locally focused results. These are search results that include listings with a name, physical address, phone number and a website. In the biz, this is referred to as NAP (Name, Address, Phone number). They look something like this:
The reason local SEO is important is not simply because people might find you in Google… these listings are everywhere from GPS devices to Yellow Pages style websites, local directories, mapping tools and a hundred other places. It’s important to have a presence that has local signals. Here’s how to get started:
If you are planting a brand new Church, you’ll need to actually create some new listings. The most important is Google Places for Business. Once that listing is created and established, it will start showing up on other sites as well and you’ll be able to start using some tools to help you propagate the listing.
Submitting to Google Places for Business:
- Set up a Church Google account. Don’t use your personal Google account. This is just asking for trouble down the road. Use a generic Church email address like email@example.com.
- Visit the Google My Business page.
- Do a search for your Church (hint: it won’t be there yet)
- Follow the directions to set up a new listing.
- Complete the listing as much as possible. Description, photos, hours of operation, etc.
Local SEO Tips:
- Consistency is the most important principal in Local SEO. Your Name, Address & Phone Number (NAP) must be EXACTLY the same everywhere. Tip: if you are using a temporary phone number or don’t have a relatively permanent location yet, I would recommend not setting up your Local SEO listings yet. It will be a massive pain in the future to have to clean up your various listings around the web.
- Make sure to include the NAP in the footer of the website. Remember, everywhere it’s listed needs to match exactly.
- Tip: if you run a WordPress website, I highly recommend the Yoast Local SEO plugin. It will do all the technical stuff for you like adding markup to your NAP (hint: that is awesome).
- Once your Google Business listing is live, you can use a tool like Moz Local. This thing is sweet. It will find all of your local listings on the web, help you clean up errors and submit your listing to all of the big players. Currently, it will cost you $84/year, but it could save you dozens of hours of work. I highly recommend it!
- Tip: If your Church has been around for a while, you probably already have listings out there on the web. Don’t bother submitting to Google in this case. Use a tool like Moz Local to find out where you are listed. It will then walk you through how to claim those listings, clean them up, and submit to new ones.
If are a DIY kind of person or don’t have the budget for a local SEO tool, you can always manually submit your Church listing. Here is a list to get you started:
- Google Places for Business
- Bing Business Portal
- Neustar Localeze
- Yelp for Business Owners
- Yahoo Local
- Best of the Web Local
- Here PrimePlaces
- Yellow Pages
- Citygrid Media
Last: What NOT to Do
Here are some examples of what not to do:
- Don’t set up multiple domain names. Make sure all content appears on the new domain – no blogs, sermons or content on secondary websites if you can help it.
- Don’t submit your website to Google. The search engines will find your website without your help. Note: this is different than submitting the Church’s NAP as described above.
- Try to stay away from proprietary platforms. There are many out there that build sites specifically for Churches. Know what you’re getting into before taking the plunge. There are many platforms out there that are just plain bad for SEO. Sorry CloverSites.
The bottom line for Church planters is that you embarking on a great adventure of faith. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the details of of the ministry and neglect the website or look for shortcuts. Stick to the essentials and you’ll come out ok.
Sharing is Caring
This is the point in the post where I ask you to share this article with your Pastor, Church/Ministry webmaster, creative director, and just about anyone you know that manages a Christian website. I believe that there are massive opportunities being missed because of a lack of understanding of SEO. No hidden agenda here. Just want to be a helpful free resources for Churches and ministries. Thanks for your support.
Leave a comment if you have any questions or need help implementing what I described above.
Grace & Peace,