Church Website Optimization: Wait, They Said What?

Community Connection Series: Part Three

I071f there is anything worse than not knowing where you stand with your church constituency, it’s finding out.

It can be disheartening to hear unkind, unfiltered opinions. You’ve made significant sacrifices and life decisions to serve a group of people. It can be demoralizing to be faced with negative comments and criticisms about your organization after you’ve worked so hard to succeed.

But there is something worse than hearing this feedback, and it is coming your way. It is online feedback posted on social platforms for you and everyone else to read and easily share universally. For businesses and organizations, this typically takes the form of reviews.

Since reviews have become the new norm, more and more types of business, organizations and even ministries are receiving online comments by a fast-growing portion of the population. It’s a growing trend, and it isn’t going away any time soon. Like it or not, online feedback about your church is coming, and this is no time to wait and watch how it plays out before taking action. Here’s why.

Google recognizes the significance of reviews and has tied this into their ranking algorithm for local rankings. In other words, winning at the “review” game will have an impact on how many searchers may actually find you next year. While you’re taking a “wait and see” approach to this whole matter, your church may lose important visibility and fall well behind others who have stepped up their efforts.

People read and are influenced by reviews. Comments written by local peers tend to have even more influence as readers identify with and trust the author more than a “distant” stranger. A recent study done at Berkeley produced such strong evidence of the impact of online reviews that it was used as admissible evidence in a court case involving Yelp.com, a popular online review site. Reviews influence people, and as we all realize, they’re not always fair. It’s a new reality every responsible leader needs to embrace—now.

There are a few steps you should consider. The first is to set up a system to monitor any mentions of your brand. Check into Google Alerts if you haven’t already, and be sure to be the first to hear if people are talking about you online. Next, set up a “release valve” for your constituency. Having a simple feedback form on your website or in another “touch-point” with your community might capture some random venting or unpleasant opinions and keep them from being posted publicly. Many businesses and organizations are taking pre-emptive action in the review area by asking their constituents to write reviews. Done well, this is a great strategy, but without careful understanding of how review sites operate, it will likely get you in trouble if you attempt to manipulate your review profile. For example, encouraging people to use a computer station at your location will not work because review sites will recognize multiple posts coming from your one IP address. Asking a group of people to write reviews won’t work because it interrupts the expected number of reviews a site would normally get for your type of organization. The reviews won’t be posted and will be marked as spam. Asking someone to write a review on Google+ will be frustrating for that individual if they don’t have an active gmail account. Posting reviews about yourself and asking friends and family to fabricate reviews on your behalf can be risky as well. Review sites are using amazing technologies that find and filter out fabricated reviews from ones they perceive as authentic. The author’s trustworthiness, based on their review history, is another factor, as is the choice of words used in the review. New technologies are quick to spot superlatives commonly used by your best friend trying to do you an online favor.

Managing your online reputation, making sure your church website ranks in search engines results, taking care to maintain accurate NAP/W (name, address, phone/website) information across the web is complicated, constantly changing, yet increasingly important. But don’t look at this as yet another overwhelming aspect of your job. Instead, deal with it straight on, even if technology isn’t your thing. You may find that getting the help you need with these specialized issues is well within reach of your budget.

There’s a growing number of Internet marketing firms that specialize in all things related to local search optimization, including review management. Start with the company that built your church website and ask for referrals. Remember that you are looking specifically for local search optimization expertise, not traditional SEO (search engine optimization).

Alternatively you can do it yourself or take it in-house. Budget several hours a week for ongoing learning, and be ready to make an ongoing commitment for continuing education in this area. Once you know what you’re doing, plan on dedicating about ten hours a month for working on your online presence. But, before you rush into doing it yourself, remember that wise leaders delegate and smart leaders outsource specialized services, especially when the landscape is changing rapidly. Also, keep in mind that every minute that you or your team is focusing on this, it means time away from focusing on your church’s core mission.

If you do seek outside help, be prepared for multiple “computer geeks” to self-qualify and recommend themselves. It might be awkward to tell your secretary that her nephew isn’t your first choice even if he’s been writing code since he was four years old. But managing your online NAP/W data is complicated, specialized, and seems easy only to the uninformed. Your online presence is very important and worthy of hiring the right help and allocating appropriate financial resources.

Author bio: Steve Wolgemuth is CEO of YDOP, Inc, a Christian-owned company dedicated to helping businesses and organizations reach a proximate target audience. Their Near-user marketing approach incorporates local search engine optimization, discovery optimization and social strategies to create phone rings, email dings, and door swings.