*Updated for 2011*

SEO For Your Church or Non-Profit Organization

This post was originally launched in 2008. One of the key leadership development organizations for non-profit and mostly church organizations released a document a while back outlining their keys to SEO for churches. While we are thrilled SEO is finally getting a bit of attention, we also want to contribute to Leadership Network’s SEO top ten list because we feel it’s incomplete.

Admittedly they did a good job, the information was/is mostly current. However, they missed some glaring and crucial components to SEO. Here is an updated version of the basic yet crucial SEO aspects every website needs to have (for 2011).

SEO is merely a subset of your overall marketing endeavors. In the case of SEO it is exclusively online marketing initiatives. Now, SEO (search engine optimization) or SEM (search engine marketing) is divided into two major sub sets: one is the structural framework of the web site–which in itself doesn’t necessarily help your web site, and two the quality and related incoming web links.

There are SEO firms that can help, but frankly, given the markets that 95% (if not more) of churches compete in, you should be able to do some major search engine ranking damage on your own. (Please you have tech savvy teens in the congregation so give them something to do….)

Your number one focus is NOT keywords, meta tags, flashy designs, etc. No, your primary and only focus is focused content. That is, web copy directed to your target audience (which likely is no larger than your city, but probably your local community). That bodes well for churches since the competition online for local churches is practically zero.

Huge corporate firms may be interested to know about their keywords because they are trying to find the right market that people are already search for. You do’nt have to do that since it’s pretty self explanatory what your primary keywords are (church name and city).

First Methodist Church in San Diego

The vast majority of churches only need to be searched for their church name and general searches for church + community location.

That means your number one focus is a tie between 1) Unique, relevant, and regular CONTENT, and 2) Incoming Web links (other web sites linking to yours).

I cannot stress these two components enough. You could theoretically forget about all the little knick knacks of SEO so long as your have better links and content. CONTENT AND LINKS ARE KING.

Seriously, do not look further. So of course the next question is how to get links that are relevant. Well let me give you two tips that will put your church web site on the road to city/county/state/province/ wide recognition.

1) Most congregations have–wait for it–congregants that surf the net, and many have their own web sites, blogs, etc. Ask them to link to the church in the bulletin….. Done.

2) Many cities, etc., have directories for churches in the area, get listed.

By the way, those two strategies are generally free. Something churches seem to enjoy, free things (like free salvation, ha).

(Most churches really don’t care much to go state wide with their web site, the local obscure community is exposure enough. A few links from congregants will go a long way to make, “Church + Community” searches in Google display your church.

Get regular content posted on your blogs. Don’t have a blog, get one, post regularly, have fun with new folks coming into your church doors. Here are some additional brief comments on the topics included in the Leadership Network post.

A tip:

Avoid heavy use of frames, graphics, or flash – especially on the front page. Google doesn’t crawl the text embedded in flash files, images, or java applets. If you’re going to get fancy, realize you’re taking a hit in search-engine friendliness.

There is NO problem with heavy flash web sites, IF they are supplemented with ample content elsewhere. Best case scenario is to NOT have your splash page (index/homepage) exclusively flash. Use in moderation.

Another tip for the more advanced webmaster is to use redirects.

Use 301-redirects to point churchname.com to www.churchname.com. This consolidates any links that might go to either URL, and it clarifies the “right” home page for Google who might be confused with duplicate content on different URL’s. This should also be done to default pages like churchname.com/index or churchname.com/home

Google won’t confuse the websites, but at one point they treated the two names as two different web sites. They are getting better and will likely treat the canonicity issue as the a non-issue. You should 301 redirect through your web server (most web servers are Apache (unix) based,) using your .htaccess file. Google that or get a techy to do the quick fix. If you’re illiterate when it comes to computers than you can redirect in Google Webmasters. This is not a 301 redirect but tells Google you prefer a certain version and they’ll remove the other version from their index (search results).

The point of 301 redirecting is because people link to your using http:// or http://www versions of your web site. No point 301 redirecting without incoming links! Oh yes, pick one version and be consistent throughout your own web site, don’t use both.

Speaking of linking version, let’s talk about urls.

Clean URL’s. Keep your URL’s descriptive yet brief. Try to use keywords in the actual URL, and show the file structure and hierarchy in the URL. For example, churchname.org/media/sermons/the-prodigal-son/ instead of churchname.org/m=040507&s=9am&mode=short

Again, true, but not more important than content and links!

Perhaps the single most important aspect of on-page SEO, what you can do to help your own rankings after CONTENT and LINKS is the TITLE ELEMENT.

Ensure the information within the title element <title></title> is clear and concise. Google uses the title element as one of the most important pieces of info to judge a page’s content. The is also displayed on the search engine result page.

Optimize your description. Your meta description (or snippets of it) is what gets displayed under the title on a search result page. Use 1 or 2 sentences that contain some of your keywords and elicit a call-to-action (to entice people to actually click-through to your site) Although you can adjust your meta description tag nobody really has time to worry about something that doesn’t affect your rankings.

Create a sitemap for Google to easily crawl all your pages. The ideal sitemap should link to all of the internal pages in your site. If there are more than 100 links on the sitemap, create a hierarchy of sitemaps through categories. And then put the top-level sitemap on the homepage so that every internal page is at most 3 clicks away from the homepage.

Use H1 header tags to make a keyword-rich headline for your pages. This is not necessary but if you can build your website with clear header tags then that’s just good practice.

Called ‘header’ tags and used in the HTML code if you have access and/or expertise. They do a bit, not much, but useful to have if for no other reason than to make it clear to readers what’s a heading and what’s not. You can use on H1 per page, then progressively use h2, h3, and downward for less importance headings. Technically when you code (design) your web site your CSS (cascading style sheet) will have certain font sizes and colors for the various header number tags.

Use the alt=”” tag to describe pictures with the appropriate keywords identified in #1. Alt tags are designed to give a 1-3 keyword description of a picture. So tell people what’s in the picture. ‘My Church Name Building’, or something like that. You’d be surprised how much traffic you can get with correct alt tags.

No matter how much you ‘sprinkle’ these small pieces  in if you don’t have incoming web links with the specific keyword in the link you’re probably not going to rank. Oh, and by the way, 200-400 words is bogus, the page can be as long as you want, Google really doesn’t really care (well, they don’t want a novel….). 200-400 may be just a comfortable margin for marketability–people usually loose interest after a certain point. You can see how long people stay on your pages by looking in your Analytics account.

Since churches love free, here is an absolutely crucial tool that you should have running: Google Analytics. You can get Google’s powerful analytics tools to learn more information then you really need.

Remember, typically churches don’t have to focus in on keywords. You may want to hire a marketer/SEO person if you’re branching out into some missional endeavors that take your topics and ‘markets’ further than the closed–I mean open–doors of the church. Otherwise, it’s generally common sense what people will search for your web site.

Life online is about clear, concise, and unique content coupled with great incoming (or heck, just SOME incoming web links). (By the way, don’t promise to link OUT to anybody unless it’s the denominational body……save yourself the trouble.)

CONTENT AND LINKS ARE KING. Don’t forget :D You’ll be surprised how far you’ll go just getting some folks in the congregation linking to you. Let us know how you fair with the tips!