Websites: Search Engine Optimization

It’s been a while since I last wrote for this websites series, partly due to the lack of promotion on it, and partly due to other interruptions. But I’m back.

Last time, we discussed evaluating how people will find your website, and gave some pointers on how to go about writing text to support that. Before I continue today’s topic, I’d just like to take a moment to point out that strategic planning is a good and valid concept for churches. I’ve never been privy to the strategic plan of any of the churches I’ve been in until now. Nor did I realize how important it is. After all, if your leaders don’t know what your local church is about; if they have no objectives to measure their performance against; if there is no plan on how to accomplish your church’s mission, then how will it succeed. A strategic plan helps the leaders and members of the church understand what the church is now, what it aspires to be, and how it plans to get there. Having agreement and buy-in on the plan helps create momentum in the direction you want your church to go.

But this blog isn’t about church formation and leadership, and while having a written plan will help define how the website fits into the plan, I’m going to leave that topic for people who are more qualified than I to discuss it.

March 2, 2011 update: I ran into this video blog about strategic planning that might be helpful too. Monday Morning Coffee: Strategic Planning Is a Sacred Activity

Today’s topic is essentially more complicated since it deals with constructing certain page elements.

Myths about the Page Title

For years, page titles have held the organization’s name and sometimes the page name in addition to the organization. The problem is that search engines look at the title for the search keywords and increase your ranking if it finds them. To compound the problem, most of them look only at the first 60-65 characters of the title. So to really be effective, the title has to contain the most important keywords that you identified based on what we discussed last time.

Let’s take an example. If the name of your church is Springs of Grace and you use that in the page title, what kind of search ranking do you think you’ll get if someone searches for “Christian Church”. Honestly, while the name gives a Christian a nice picture of mercy and forgiveness, to a search engine it might as well be a girl’s water fountain. I don’t mean to upset anyone–that’s just reality. To really be effective, you’d want those key words and church location in the title–“Christian Church in Colorado Springs” for example.

The Page Description

Hidden in a section of the page that visitors don’t see can be a description meta tag. The beauty of this tag is that if formatted properly, search engines will display it instead of whatever text they find first on the page. So remember that paragraph we talked about last time–the one that defines your church. Now you need to boil that down even further for the page description. The biggest obstacle, other than finding the words to begin with, will be the length. Like the page title, search engines limit the size of the description. In this case, 160 characters. Honestly, that’s not much for describing your church for its home page. But that’s all you have.

Watch out though, some punctuation and special characters will cause the whole description to be ignored.

Search Engines Like Page Consistency

Now before you decide you have exactly what you need, you also need to consider how it all works together. While you can do virtually anything on your website that makes sense to you, search engines aren’t so forgiving. They look at the page as a whole–the title, the description, the headings, and the text. And they don’t just take the words and index them–though they do that. They also compare what is in each element of the page. Having the same words and phrases in the title, description, headings, and text makes your page rank higher when those words and phrases are searched for.

So I’m going to expand my earlier example, while knowing virtually nothing about the church except it’s pastor. To make our website home page rank higher, we might compose it like this:

Title: Christian Community Church in Colorado Springs

Description: Springs of Grace is a Christian church in the community of Colorado Springs. We emphasize mercy, forgiveness and grace, celebrating the love God has for us all.

Heading: What Is Springs of Grace?

Springs of Grace is a Christian church serving Colorado Springs and surrounding communities. Our mission is to share the love of God for everyone. Our teaching is Bible-based and emphasizes mercy and forgiveness, helping our member to be free from their past to move toward the future God has planned for them.

That Seems Like a Lot of Work

I didn’t claim to have an easy approach to setting up a website. But if you want your website to be more than directions for those people who find it through our church locator on the website or a business card that you personally handed out, than you really have to do the work. Your website is essentially free advertising for your church. It’s free in the sense you don’t have to pay anything to have it running. It does take work to get the information on it right so it will be an effective marketing tool.

The people at “Javascript Kit” have a nice cut and paste character counter here that you can use to see how long your title and description are. It beats hand-counting the characters yourself.

And if you run WordPress on your website, you’ll need a plugin like SEO Ultimate in order to fill in the page title and description. Besides the title and description, most of the other SEO Ultimate settings aren’t that useful.

Next time… other things you can do to help your search engine ranking.