Grow your church by using a bulletproof local SEO strategy.
How can a local church attract more people who live 15 minutes away? This article discusses one of my favorite options: online with local SEO.
Local SEO Strategy for Churches
According to a 2017 Baylor University Religion Survey, the average church-going American lives between 6 and 15 minutes from their place of worship, and only 9 percent of worshipers travel more than 30 minutes to attend a service.
“The gap (or distance) between a person’s place of residence and their place of worship has implications.”
“Half of Americans who live within 15 minutes of the place of worship report attending religious services weekly or more. As the distance from the congregation increases, the likelihood of weekly attendance decreases.”
Reading the results of a survey like this makes it abundantly clear why the local church is so important. And we know the scriptures support this by declaring that she, the Church, is Jesus’ body here on earth (see Ephesians 1:22–23), is where the believer is equipped and grows (see Ephesians 4:11–14), and is where Christians can be watched and cared for (see Hebrews 13:17).
As the survey highlights, and which should be obvious, is that those who have a short commute to their church, have a greater likelihood of being discipled, and becoming an active member of the body of Christ.
So, how can a local church attract more people who live 15 minutes away? This article discusses one of my favorite options: online with local SEO. To be clear, local SEO is just one of many methods that the local church can use to increase their visibility online, and attract people who are nearby.
Local SEO can be a very effective tool, especially for the local church. Why? Because there is no added cost and only requires a volunteer who is able and willing to learn: two ingredients the local church has.
Let’s dive into how local SEO can help your church reach the local community online.
Local Intent Searches
What do distance, church attendance, and Baylor’s Survey have to do with local SEO?
These 3 are connected because Google, Bing, and other search engines all consider distance one of three major factors considered when search results are presented to one of their users.
Remember, those looking for a church (according to this Baylor study) are more likely to remain in attendance and become members for years to come if the church is local. In other words, online searches for a church or church service, in most cases, have local intent.
Local intent means that when a search engine receives a query like, “church service” or “church service times”, the search engine assumes that the user is looking for church services in the general location of the user. If the user doesn’t specify the city or state, then their location is gathered from their device’s IP address or location service.
Below is a screenshot of how Google estimates your location based on your device’s IP address.
Before we continue, I think it’s important for me to define a few more terms. This will help you understand the wider scope of how online search works, and what you’ll need to do to improve your church’s visibility in online searches. Let’s start with the most important term: Local SEO.
What is Local SEO?
Local SEO stands for Local Search Engine Optimization. Local SEO is the process of improving an organization’s online presence in order to get found online by local searchers. This includes getting found in search engines, map apps, social media, and other online communities.
To better understand local SEO, let me break down the rest of these terms:
Local: In the context of SEO, the meaning here includes something pertaining to a small geographic area. However, it also has to do with the intent and purpose of the searcher. In other words, the person searching online for a term like “Christian Church Service” is likely intending to find a “Christian Church Service near me.”
Search Engine: Sites like Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo are all search engines. A search engine is a website or application that crawls, interprets, and indexes information found on the web. Think of a search engine as a giant Rolodex or database. Search engines copy data found on public web pages and add it to their database to make it easy to search that information. So, when you search Google, you’re really not searching the internet, just a copy of it on Google’s servers.
Optimization: In the context of SEO, the O stands for ‘optimization’ or ‘improving’ the quality of a web page so that a search engine can discover, crawl, and index the content on that web page. This is done in order to improve the chances of the web page appearing in the search engine results, which can lead to more organic web page visitors.
When it comes to local SEO, the overall objective is to make each web page relevant to the local audience. In the case of a church, as the study from Baylor University indicates, it is made up of the people living within a 15-minute radius of that church.When it comes to local SEO, the overall objective is to make each web page relevant to the local audience. As the study from Baylor University indicates, it is made up of the people living within a 15-minute radius of that church. Click To Tweet
Improving Church Visibility Online
I want to treat local SEO strategy differently from local SEO execution because, in local search or local SEO, the strategy is the big picture. The strategy for us, thanks to Baylor’s Survey, is to get your local church discovered by people online who live within a 15-minute commute.
To meet the objective of the strategy, you will have to execute local SEO tasks. Before we start, we have to know what tasks will work. Thankfully, Google and other search engines have told us what is factored into getting your website to appear in local searches.
According to Google’s documentation, there are three factors to getting your church to appear in their search results. You’ll want to address these factors in the execution of the overall strategy. The factors are:
- Distance – This considers the distance between the searcher and the search result.
- Relevance – Closely connected search terms that someone might use to find a church.
- Prominence – How well known a church is online through links, articles, and directories.
It’s helpful to link each task you perform with one of the factors above, thus noting it as beneficial to your strategy. For example, posting on social media will likely help with prominence, because others will hopefully like and share that post, leading to the church getting mentioned more online.
So, how does a church improve its local visibility online? Instead of overwhelming you with dozens of items, let me focus on just 3 tasks that will have the biggest impact on your local church.
Website focus: 4 Important Web Page Elements Your Church Should Be Using
3 Local SEO Tasks for Your Church
Below are 3 local SEO strategy tasks every church can do to improve its visibility online to searchers within a 15-minute commute.
Even though you can do these in any order you want, I’d strongly recommend you do them in the order they are presented. Spending the most time on your church website first will only help make the other tasks easier to complete.
Update On-page Content
Updating on-page content simply means updating the copy included on each page of your church website.
Location, Location, Location
The first item is to update the content of your website by including the physical location of your church. This is done by specifically naming the city and state your church meets in.
Naming your church’s city and state in the page title, page description, and in the copy of the page itself makes it abundantly clear which “Christian Community Church” you are, and exactly where you are located.
Below are a few examples of what adding the city and state to your page title will look like.
- Christian Community Church of Allentown, PA
- Evangelical Church of Allentown, PA
- Saint Augustine Church of Allentown, Pennsylvania
Then, add more context to the location of your church within the home page description by adding details like the county, region, and community that the church serves. Below are more examples of page descriptions.
- Located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Saint Augustine Church offers weekly sermons, Bible studies, and community outreach for those living or visiting the Lehigh Valley. Sunday services begin at 9 AM with coffee and fellowship beginning at 8 AM.
- Christian Community Church of Allentown, PA, is an Evangelical Christian Church located in downtown Allentown across from the PPL Center with services at 7 AM, 9 AM, and 11 AM every Sunday.
- Come and worship Jesus with the Evangelical Church of Allentown, PA, where we share what the scriptures teach about Jesus, and how the people of Lehigh Parkway can respond to His loving offer to follow Him and receive forgiveness from our sin.
The same information can be included in a separate location page for each physical location of the church. For example, a location page can include the contact information for that specific location like the street address, phone number, parking instructions, hours of operation and so on. This is certainly applicable to a church that has multiple buildings or locations.
It may not make sense to add the church’s location to every page, especially if it does not fit naturally within the content. Instead, I recommend including the Church’s Name, Address, and Phone Number (aka NAP) prominently in the footer of the website.
+The reason I recommend adding the Church NAP to the footer is 1) the footer is rendered as part of every HTML page (search engines index web pages, not websites) and 2) visitors expect to find that information in the footer. Let’s not reinvent the wheel! An expected element of a website is a footer with contact info.
When adding the church contact info or NAP to the footer, one rule-of-thumb is to avoid requiring visitor interactivity. What I mean is to try and avoid having the visitor click or hover on an icon or a collapsible menu to reveal the information. Instead, use large text in a readable font so the information is easy to read.
In the example below of a church’s website footer, you can see the Name, Address, and Phone Number prominently displayed in the footer without the need for the visitor to click or hover to see it.
Identify Your Audience
Mark Dever, senior pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and the president of 9Marks, summarizes that every local church, no matter its location, has three purposes.
“The proper ends for a local congregation’s life and actions are the worship of God, the edification of the church, and the evangelization of the world. These three purposes, in turn, serve the glory of God.”
Tim Challies, pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario, further explains why the local church exists.
“The local church exists to glorify God through worshipping him, edifying his people, and evangelizing the world.”
Both Mark Dever and Tim Challies expound on what the scriptures tell us in Paul’s epistle to the local Church at Ephesus in Ephesians 4:15-16.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Thus, it is important to identify the people who make up the congregation as followers of Christ who live within a 15-minute commute to your local church. The opening verse of Ephesians says, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”
Within your church website, make sure to identify who your church is serving. Addressing your audience within the content and copy of your website will add relevance and context.
Please do not misunderstand me, I am not comparing the content of your website with scripture, I am just giving you an example from scripture of how the church can write to a local audience.
Use your website as an opportunity to clearly communicate who you are, what you teach, to whom and when you teach it. Below are examples of what this content may look like.
- List times and locations of worship services, bible studies inside the content:
- Worship services are at 10 AM in our sanctuary located at 1 Main Street, Allentown, PA.
- Our Sunday school is at 9 AM in our fellowship hall located at 1 Main Street in Allentown.
- Our church office is open 9–5 M–F and is located at 1 Main Street, Allentown, PA.
- Small groups meet in homes across the Lehigh Valley.
- Name the physical locations where events and ministries take place:
- Bible distribution ministry event will take place at 6 PM at the Allentown Fairgrounds.
- Special Christmas Concert will be at 7 PM at Miller Symphony Hall, in Allentown, PA.
- Coffee Fellowship Hour is every Sunday at 8 AM at 1 Main Street, Allentown, PA.
- Youth Group outing at the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix.
- Blogs, articles, and locally relevant content:
- Blog about outreach events and how they show the grace of Christ to the community.
- Share news of the church's baseball or softball league and the location of the game.
- Announce new sermon series, or special events, and share them with local news outlets.
Updating on-page content with locally relevant information and physical locations will take time and require constant review. Doing so lays the groundwork for having your church website appear in more local searches online.
Now that you’ve improved your website, let’s move on to adding listings.
2) Add Listings, Directories, and Citations
A listing, also called a citation, is the mention of your church in an online directory. Most citations will include the name of your church, the street address, phone number, website, and hours of operation.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of online directory websites. I am sure you are familiar with sites like Yelp, Super Pages, or Nextdoor. I must caution you to avoid claiming dozens of online listings for your church. There's really only a few relevant listings that will have an impact. For example, have you ever heard of My Huckleberry? Neither have I (shhh).
Something to keep in mind is that businesses often use listings to improve their visibility, so many listings don’t have fields for service times or categories for churches. This just means you’ll want to keep only the most helpful and relevant listings. Here are the 3 I recommend getting started with:
Google Business Profile
Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business) is a listing that will help your church appear in the Google Maps App, and help your church to appear in the local map pack in Google search.
It is important to accurately portray your church information. This means to list your church name, phone, address, website, and hours of operation accurately.
This also means selecting an appropriate category for your church. The category field helps Google qualify your listing for relevant searches. There are a few options here, so, make sure to at least select Church, then add secondary and tertiary categories only if they match.
Google Business Profile Categories
iOS users will likely be using Apple Maps for navigation and finding organizations from their mobile devices. In order to appear in those results, you’ll need an Apple Map listing for your church.
To claim or add your church to Apple Maps, you’ll need to visit the Places on Maps website at https://register.apple.com/placesonmaps.
Keep in mind that Places on Maps has replaced Maps Connect. If you manage business places in Maps Connect, you will need to use the same Apple ID to sign in to Places on Maps to continue managing your places.
Apple Maps is also used in the map pack of DuckDuckGo.
Again, make sure to list accurate information for your church’s name, phone, address, and website.
One of the larger and more prominent online directories for churches is ChurchFinder. This online directory may not get as much use as Apple Maps or Google search; however, it is certainly more relevant and will help online users who are looking for a church to find a church. So, you’ll want to be included in their list.
In order to add or claim a listing you will need to visit https://www.churchfinder.com/church-staff/register, and sign up for a ChurchFinder account. Once your account is created, you can proceed with creating a church listing.
Below is a screenshot of ChurchFinder.
If you want to build more listings, I’d recommend using expressupdate.com and update 10 listings at once for no cost. There is a threshold where more listings will yield little to no results. Instead, turn your attention to the next task, which will take a lot of effort over a long period of time.
Now, let’s talk about the most difficult and time-consuming local SEO tasks, building backlinks.
3) Build Backlinks Online
Link building for churches is one of the most difficult tasks because it takes time to find opportunities and establish connections with whom you’re working.
What do you mean build backlinks online? Here is the short version of what a link is, and why it matters. A backlink, also known as a link or hyperlink, is an HTML element that directs the user to another HTML element when they click on it. In other words, when you click on a link, it takes you to another web page.
Example: This is a hyperlink to The Bible Project's website.
To build links is to earn a link to your church website from other websites out on the internet. For example, your city or town’s municipal website might have a list of churches located in the town. If you can click on the church name and get directed to the church website, that is a backlink.
The exercise of getting a backlink from your city or town will look like the steps below:
- Look up and find the municipal website for your city or town.
- Check to see if they have a church listing page.
- If they don’t, contact the Town Clerk and request they do, nicely.
- If they do, contact the Town Clerk and request to be added to the list.
- Once added, verify the link works.
- Lastly, promote that specific page on social media, and other outlets.
Follow steps 5 and 6 for every new link you earn as it helps promote that web page.
As I mentioned earlier, to get your church found in local searches, its prominence needs to improve, and one way to do that is by adding inbound links to your church’s website.
Beyond adding your church to your town’s website, here are my recommendations to build more links.
We have already discussed this method of adding and claiming citations. Each listing or citation on a service like Google or Apple Maps includes a link back to your website.
Here are a few more relevant listings that you can add your church to and get a link back to your website.
- 9marks: It is important to note that your church must abide by the terms or “9 Marks” in order to get listed. You can read more about that here: https://www.9marks.org/about/the-nine-marks/.
- The Gospel Coalition: This directory requires an account agreeing to their terms of service.
- Faithlife: These pages are free and get indexed under the subdomain wiki.faithlife.com.
Try searching online for terms like ‘find a church’, ‘church directory’, ‘church listings’, and look through which directories you want to add your church to.
Anytime your church is hosting a special service or community event, publish a press release to get the word out in local news publications.
Remember to also release that news on your own website as a blog post.
What news or events are worthy of a press release? That depends. Really, if it impacts your community, and you think your neighbors should know, then write a press release about it.
Here are some PR-worthy announcements to write up and release.
- Christmas and Easter Services
- Local prayer services and events like National Day of Prayer
- Sporting events like softball or basketball leagues
- Fundraising events for local charities and ministries
- Community announcements like service time changes
Press releases often get released in online syndications of local news websites and social media channels. Those posts will have links back to the news source: your church website.
The local news outlets where you make those announcements will vary from city to city and town to town. Connect with your local news and TV outlets to find where you can send press releases. Usually, they’ll provide you with an email address or website to submit them to.
For a church, there’s a right and wrong way to promote content on social media. Unfortunately, many churches rely solely on social media to distribute their content. Instead, try to avoid relying on social media to host your content by linking back to your website from social media.
Why? For two reasons: One, not everyone has a social media account, and may not be able to see your content, and Two, you’re competing with all the other ads and content. Your church website has less distraction and no ads.
For example, instead of creating an event on Facebook, create an event page on your website, then share a link back to your event page for people to sign up and attend. This allows visitors to engage directly on your website and then share that page with others.
Pro Tip: Avoid free signup platforms (e.g. SignUpGenius, SignUp) as they collect and market to the addresses they collect and avoid social media events as they require accounts to signup.
Also, remember to create an organizational profile instead of an individual profile on the social networks you choose. And with online citations, make sure to include your church Name, Street Address, Phone Number, and Website information on the profile.
Below is a list of social networks that allow creating a business or organizational profile instead of individual or personal profiles.
Create Good Content
Writing locally relevant and spiritually helpful content that equips local church members is not an easy task. Between controversial topics, slipping into an opinion piece, or coming across in a cruel or indifferent tone, it is easier to just avoid writing anything at all.
However, as a spiritual resource for the community, it is important to write encouraging and insightful content that will encourage and teach others about God’s work in your local community.
To help you along, below are ideas for content to write and share on your church website:
- Write detailed accounts about recent events like a church outing, sporting event, or sermon.
- Share photos and videos on your website, then share that link on social media.
- Create content with email list sign-ups for updates and alerts on future events.
- Write detailed accounts of local ministry and showing God’s love to the community.
- Share how neighbors can help support the local ministry, where to donate, and how to volunteer.
- Share testimonies from those involved and affected by local ministry.
Local content adds context and makes your church seen as part of the online community. Challenge your church to write something new every month.
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Word of Caution
I want to warn you of the treasure trove of “link builders” online who offer very tempting services that in many instances violate the search engines guidelines and policies. My recommendation is to avoid dishonest shortcuts and, instead, obey the authorities who are put there by God Himself (see Hebrews 13:17, Romans 13:1).
In the context of the internet and local SEO, those authorities not only include local and federal governments, but also the terms of service that private companies, like search engines, put on their products.
There is a lot to do here and making this part of a team’s responsibilities is a big part of a local church’s ministry to the people in their community. Specifically, those people who live within a 15-minute commute of your church.
Making your ministry easy to find and easy to engage with online is just as important as welcoming a new visitor into your church building on Sundays and throughout the week. And one part of this ministry that I know I have neglected is what every ministry desperately needs more of, and that is prayer.
What now? Start by praying for your church to find those willing to serve in this area. Pray for someone who is both willing and able to learn more about local SEO, and who wants to reach the community online by making the church website easy to use, packed with powerful content, and designed specifically for the people in your community.
May the Lord bless your local SEO strategy efforts and enable your church to bring the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to your community.