How people find a new church

(Updated on 2/17/2011)

In the past when a family was looking for a church they would talk to their friends or maybe check the yellow pages for churches in their area.  Then they might visit several of those churches until they find one they like.

The Revolution of Local Search:
Google Places

Over the last several years Internet search engines have made tremendous improvements in what is called local search, that is the search for businesses or organizations in a specific geographical area. Now if you search for something and include a city in the search phrase you’re likely to see results that include a map with some virtual push-pins in it. With one click you can get a phone number, driving directions, pictures, and even read reviews of the place of your choice. As a result, people have been ditching their yellow pages in droves and searching online for restaurants, retailers, and even churches.

In fact, way back in 2008, a survey showed that for the first time more people were using search engines (31%) than a physical phone book (30%).  However, the results revealed something bigger.  When all the Internet sources were added up (search engines, local search, local review sites, social media), over 60% of all people started their search for information about a business or organization online.  That was in 2008.  Today a much greater percentage of people go online to find things.

Today someone who is looking for a church – let’s call him Bill – will most likely start his search online.  Bill uses a search engine like Google, Yahoo, or Bing, to find the listings of churches close to his home.  He looks at their listings starting with first listing and reads the reviews he finds in the search listing.  Then he visits many of those church’s websites.  Based on what he reads, hears, and watches on those website’s Bill quickly rules out most of the churches without ever stepping foot in them.  Then he picks 2 or 3 that seem to be most like the kind of church he’s looking for.  He attends a Sunday service at those churches.  Hopefully he likes at least one of them and gets involved in that fellowship.

Let’s take a closer look at this process

When Bill searches for a church how does he do it?

First, he goes to his favorite search engine.  Or perhaps he has a search engine toolbar installed in his web browser, so he can search directly from his web browser.  Bill’s favorite search engine is probably Google, as Google performs about 65% of all searches in the U.S. (just under 2% of those are results it supplies to AOL), followed by Yahoo at about 16%, Bing around 13%  and Ask around 3 1/2%.  No other search engine cracks the 1% mark.

If you’re a pastor or church web administrator why should these numbers matter to you?

Because Google is so dominant, how your church website ranks in Google is much more important than any other search engine.  When assessing how your church website is doing in search engines, focus primarily on how its doing in Google.  Improving your search rankings in Google will bring many times more visitors than improving your search rankings in other search engines.  It should be noted, however, that Bing now serves Yahoo’s results.  So, the total share of the market Bing has is really around 30%, if you add Bing and Yahoo together.  So, even though you should primarily focus on Google, don’t ignore Bing and Yahoo.

Next Bill types a phrase into his favorite search engine.  But what phrases?

  • If Bill lives in Nashville he might search for “church in Nashville,” “church in Nashville, TN,” “church in Nashville, Tennessee,” churches in Nashville,” “Nashville, TN churches” or some other variation.
  • If Bill lives in the southern part of Nashville he might also search for “south Nashville church,” “Oak Hill churches,” or “Brentwood churches”
  • If Bill is Baptist he might also search specifically for “Baptist churches in Nashville” or “Nashville Southern Baptist church.”
  • Bill might even search for a church specific to his ethnicity or language like “black churches in Nashville” or “Nashville Chinese church”

Why is this significant?

  1. People who are looking for a church probably won’t search for your church by name.  A lot of church webmasters have told me how excited they are that their church is #1 in Google.  But after further discussion it turns out they’re #1 for the name of their church.  Well, I would hope so.  How many churches are there in your town with the same name as yours?
  2. People search using a lot of different phrases.  That means you can’t accurately assess your church website’s visibility in search engines based its rankings for a single phrase.  Furthermore, even slight variations in the search phrase can produce different websites in the results.  “Church in Nashville” may be different from “churches in Nashville” which may be different from “churches in Nashville, TN”.
  3. Not all search phrases are created equal.  Some phrases are searched for more often than others.  You can use Google’s Keyword Traffic Estimation tool to see what Google estimates the traffic for various keywords is.  You’ll probably find just a handful searches that actually have an estimate and the rest will be zero or won’t appear in the results of their tool.  But that doesn’t mean people aren’t searching for those other phrases. There just aren’t enough people searching for those phrases to show up on Google’s radar.  However, if you add up the search traffic from all those seldom searched phrases, you actually end up with a majority of the search traffic.  So, I suggest you also try to use your intuition as to which phrases are most common and what phrases you want your church known for.

The challenge for the average church webmaster is to strike a balance.  Track too few phrases and you can get a distorted picture of how your site is doing in search engines.  Try to track too many phases by manually looking up each phrase, and you’re likely to spend all day at it and go insane from boredom in the process.  If you’re manually tracking your own search rankings you probably want to track 5-10 phrases.   There are also search ranking reporting software options out there which can produce reports of your church’s website’s rankings for hundreds of keywords.  If you want to track a lot of keywords, I suggest using one of those tools or hiring a service.

Bill’s favorite search engine returns a list of websites.  What does he see?

The results probably look something like this:

Google General Results

In this screenshot there are 3 different types of results displayed.

  1. Web search results. The first results are church websites listed in Google’s general search results.  In this case you’ll notice the websites listed here are actually church sites but often times you may find websites listed that have directories of churches.  If the screenshot were a little larger, you would see that there are also web search results below the local search results.
  2. Local search results. Just below the general search results are local search results.  These are the local results from Google Places and are separate listings from Google’s general search listings.  There is also a map with virtual push pins on the right-hand side of the results.
  3. Sponsored Links. On the far right under the map you see a list of “sponsored links.”  These organizations are paying to have links to their websites there.  They pay a fee each time someone clicks on their link.

Why is this significant?

  1. The websites listed in each of these 3 types of results have been selected in different ways.  That means 3 opportunities to get a link on the first page of the results.
  2. Local search ranking results are determined based on one algorithm, while web search results are ordered by a different algorithm.  If you want to do well in both you have to understand the factors that go into the rankings of each.  Or if you hire a search marketing company you want to go with one that has experience with local search.
  3. If you’re #11, you’re really #16 or higher.  This is because the top 10 local search results and top 5-10 web search results are both shown on the first page of results.  So, if your church is not in one of those top 10s, it will be at least the 16th site seen by a searcher.  And that does not include the sponsored links.  That makes it even more important that a church be in the top 10 rather than 11-20 or worse.
  4. The sponsored links are ordered based primarily on which organization is willing to pay the most per click.  A church could pay to have a sponsored link if they’re having trouble getting their site in the top 10 local or web results.

Next, Bill starts checking out the church websites.

There are many elements on a church website which tell a prospective visitor – especially a visitor who is not yet a Christian – whether they would really be welcome if they came for a Sunday service.   In fact, there are so many factors and they are so important if you want your church to be one that communicates the Gospel to unbelievers that it deserves it’s own article.

Learning points

  • Most people start their search for a church using Internet search engines.
  • No matter how good your church website is, if it doesn’t rank well in search engine results, people searching for a church will never see it and never visit your church.
  • People use a lot of different search phrases when searching for a church.  So, think broad.
  • You can’t manually track all the phrases people use when searching for a church, so track a handful of the most popular phrases if you track them manually or either use a search marketing service that provides regular search rankings reports or use a search ranking reporter tool.
  • Local search, web search, and sponsored links offer 3 ways to get on the first page of the search results.

Note: This article focuses on how people use search engines to find a church.  There are several other online ways people find a church, including local review sites, social media, and church directories, but we’ll address those topics in other articles.

About the author

Paul Steinbrueck


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