Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

As a church leader, you want your ministry to show up on Google, because you know that's the first place many look when looking for a church.

But you don't have the time, energy, or expertise for a massive website overhaul, nor do you have the resources to publish the "relevant and original" content Google seems to prefer in its organic search results. Moreover, you know that searches for "church" are on the decline, with more ministries vying for fewer clicks. The "Search Engine Optimization (SEO)" game seems to be a losing proposition.

Searches for "Lutheran church" have declined nearly 50% since 2004.

Accordingly, the fastest way to the top of Google's search listings is paid advertising via Google Ads (formerly AdWords). With Google Ads, you can rocket from the basement of Google's "organic" search listings (the unpaid search results) to appear front and center when it matters most. You'll select the specific searches where you want your ministry's ads to show up. You'll target a specific geography, write some basic ad copy, and the visitors will start showing up.

While some church leaders are reluctant to consider paid online advertising, fearing costs and maintenance requirements, my experience has shown local Google advertising to be cost-effective and easy to implement. With clicks on the search term "church near me" averaging about $1.45 USD (source: Google Keyword Planner), most ministries can generate hundreds of site visits per month on a lower budget than what they use for mileage reimbursements!

Search results for "church near me" - the word "Ad" indicates paid listings

Set up for success

When I worked at Google, I helped nonprofits and small businesses set up and optimize their online advertising. Most of these organizations operated on a shoestring budget and had no tolerance for wasted ad spend. These organizations, undoubtedly like your ministry, required highly-precise ad campaigns targeted to just the right searches. While Google Ads has countless targeting settings to adjust, most churches will find value from the following:

First, be specific with keywords. Rather than focusing on the generic term "church" or "church near me," choose denomination and geographic-specific terms. For a Lutheran church in Madison, WI, I would only use the following keywords, set to "phrase match" to exclude irrelevant searches:

  • "Lutheran church"

  • "Madison Lutheran church"

  • "Madison WI Lutheran church"

  • "Lutheran church near me"

Second, be ultra-concentrated with geography. By default, most search advertising targets too broad an audience. As a church, your primary audience is hyper-local. Use a specific radius around your church building to only show the ads to those within a short drive of your ministry. I recommend that most churches start with a 20-mile radius.

Third, opt-out of Google's extras. I've seen too many new advertisers burn through their budget because they didn't opt out of Google's "Display Network," which extends your ads to sites like blogs and YouTube. While it's important to advertise on mobile phones (which account for half of all search volume), the "branding" potential of the Display Network leads to big trouble for immediate-response advertisers like churches!

For more on setting up a Google Ads account, check out this resource (from Google) and this resource (specifically for churches!).

Mistakes to avoid

In my experience helping nonprofits and small businesses with Google Ads, I've noticed a few "trendy" mistakes that detract from online advertising success. I wanted to share them here so you can avoid making these very mistakes!

Mistake #1: Expecting an immediate response. While Google Ads drive immediate traffic to your site, they're unlikely to drive immediate engagement with your ministry, particularly in the form of attendance at worship services. Like any "path to purchase," the decision to engage with a church requires multiple "touchpoints" or interactions with your "brand." One ad click does not lead to one worship attendee. Chance are, you'll need those who clicked your ads to visit your site or social media accounts seven total times before they show up to one of your events. If your pews (virtual or otherwise) aren't filling up after you activate your campaign, be patient. Give any campaign at least 1-2 months before passing judgment.

Mistake #2: Too many starts and stops. Many well-intentioned church leaders tend to "tinker" with their ad settings a little too much. Often, they'll start and stop their campaigns haphazardly as their ads are just getting off the ground (Ads campaigns can be activated or paused at any time). Google's algorithms are geared towards delivering you high-quality web traffic. Let the algorithms do their work, give them enough time to do their thing!

Mistake #3: Not reading the fine print. Google goes to great lengths to document, explain, and teach advertisers how to succeed on their search engine. Pay attention to their resources, especially those that you will see within the Google Ads interface when you set up your first ad campaign. With so much to learn, it's important to move methodically through campaign setup. Take your time, don't rush. And remember that the budget you set is for each individual day and is not in fact your monthly or annual budget!

Find a Partner

Some ministries have the desire but not the time and energy to begin advertising on Google. If you consider yourself to be in this situation, I recommend reaching out to a Google Partner, a trusted and certified advertising agency that can set up and run your campaigns, often for a small fee. These agencies have proven their knowledge of campaign management best practices and have demonstrated a consistent ability to generate success. Unless your church plans to spend big bucks, look for the agencies that specialize in small business advertising. Find a partner today through Google's Partner Finder app.

Google Ads during COVID-19

With many church buildings closed, some may be reluctant to advertise on Google, or on any new marketing channel. But there's never been a more important moment for the church to actively reach out and form new (virtual) connections in their community. This pandemic is the great psychological, emotional, and spiritual crisis of our times. People need grace, they need prayer, they need to know that God is near. Searches for "prayer," "meditation," and even "church near me" are up year over year. Church leaders are called to tell the Gospel story in a way that spreads. Google Ads is a first step in fulfilling this call. The world needs a word of grace. Get your ministry online so you can proclaim that word to an anxious world.

  • Ryan Panzer

Former Google executive (and by extension, my former Google co-worker) Kim Scott suggests a compelling and intuitive remedy to many performance issues in our organizations. When someone's not cutting it, tell them. But demonstrate you care about that someone long before it comes time to deliver the direct feedback. Scott's book, "Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity" is well-summarized by her catchphrase "care personally, challenge directly." An important read in organizations that struggle with difficult conversations, Radical Candor is especially valuable for these days of asynchronous digital communication and work from home.

The concept of radical candor comes from Scott's 2x2 grid of caring and challenging. When we care personally about our peers and challenge them directly, we exhibit "radical candor." Conversely, to challenge directly without caring personally is to exhibit "obnoxious aggression," something far too common in techy, start-up environments.

Scott suggests that caring personally without challenging directly is an example of "ruinous empathy," a practice that perpetuates poor performance while entrenching a culture of passive aggression and back-stabbing. Finally, to not care and to not challenge directly is to exhibit "manipulative insincerity."

The Radical Candor framework is effective for its simplicity. Anyone who has ever worked in an organization can attest to the times when poor performance went unchallenged. Many can relate to the instances in which the only critical and constructive feedback came from the most aggressive, dislikable personality in the room. But few will be likely to describe a time when a deeply trusted, respected colleague provided timely, meaningful, and actionable feedback. It is likely that we all would benefit from more constructive coaching, not from some anonymous or untrustworthy voice, but from the voicest closest to us. And that is the foundation of Kim Scott's work - to turn us away from passive aggression, while steering us clear of aggression, to inspire us to have the necessary conversations with those whom we admire, respect, and love working with.

Having spent my career in the technology industry, I have plenty of experiences with "ruinous empathy." The tech industry creates desirable workplace cultures because teammates genuinely care for one another. As a co-worker of mine described during a weekend social outing (at an archery range!) during my Google years, we weren't so much co-workers, as we were "a group of close friends who happened to work together."

While this altruistic attitude creates an environment that anyone would want to be a part of, it causes friction in feedback conversations. It's far easier to give necessary criticism to a casual acquaintance or stranger. It's far more challenging to share that same criticism with a colleague that plays on our volleyball team and meets us for a happy hour every Thursday.

"Radical Candor" is effective not just in its diagnosis, but in its prescriptions. The second half of the book includes tools, templates, and conversation starters for implementing radical candor in one's organization. With so many tools for so many scenarios, the ideas of "Radical Candor" can be as meaningful to readers working in the tech as it can be to readers within the non-profit sector. The wisdom of this book can be just as applicable those working for a large enterprise as to those working for a small LLC.

Still, the book is not without opportunities for improvement (would I sincerely be reviewing a book on feedback if I left out areas for development?). At times, the author is prone to name-dropping. One wonders if she, a leader of Google's AdSense organization, really engaged Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt as frequently as the book implies. And while the tools and frameworks in the book's second-half are intriguing, the section makes for slow reading at times. Much of this content would have been better suited for an appendix or as a digital supplement.

The book also skews too far towards addressing "obnoxious aggression." While this quadrant of Kim Scott's framework undoubtedly exists, it's my experience that passive aggression is far more common than aggression, that the real challenge in an asynchronous, virtually-driven workforce is that of ruinous empathy. Further revisions might choose to focus on moving from ruinous empathy to radical/compassionate candor in a distributed workplace.

Finally, using the word "boss" in the title suggests that this is a book about management. It's better understood as a book about conversations. Holding a management position in an org chart is not a prerequisite to reading and applying this book, regardless of what the title might infer. The insights are too important to be confined to those with managerial responsibilities.

Those who invest the time to read this book will be challenged to work more effectively, to become more coach-like, to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable to the highest standards. Amidst this pandemic, many leaders are reexamining the workplace, re-imagining the future of work. During this time of discernment and consideration, it's time to expect the best from one another as we commit to deeply caring for each other. It's never been a better time to put Radical Candor into practice.

This is the first post in a new series on digital marketing for churches!

For all the attention that churches focus on their website, there's another (easier!) tool that determines how, when, and where you show up in Google's search results.

And no, I'm not talking about Google Ads, or paid listings in the Google search results. I'm talking about Google My Business (formerly Google Places), the app that feeds a church's address, phone number, website, and operating hours into Google's all-powerful search engine. Google My Business (GMB) is a free service that helps organizations to increase website and foot traffic by providing key pieces of information to people searching for local resources.

An animated GIF showing local search results taken from Google My Business

In this article, we'll explore why Google My Business is so critical to a church's online presence, especially during COVID-19, and how you, the church leader, can make the most of this free technology.

Google My Business: An Essential Marketing Tool

Perhaps the fastest-growing category of web searches is for services "near me." When searchers turn to Google for information, they increasingly do so with the intent of finding directions, operating hours, contact information, and customer reviews for nearby businesses and organizations. This matters a great deal for churches.

While searches for "church" have stagnated or declined in the past decade, searches for the query "church near me" have increased by nearly 100x since 2013.

This shapes church marketing tactics because the search term "near me" tells Google to search Google's own local search data, listings that are populated from Google My Business.

From the standpoint of acquiring web traffic, today's church leader will find more value from claiming and optimizing their Google My Business listing than their own website! Unfortunately, 56% of all local organizations (those with some brick-and-mortar presence) have not claimed their Google My Business listing. Among churches, where tech adoption usually lags businesses and other non-profits, this percentage is likely much higher.

The information you include in your church's Google My Business listing will show up on It will show up on Google maps. It will tell searchers if your ministry is open or closed. It provides photos, answers user questions, and lists user reviews. It is critical that today's church leader keeps this listing accurate and up to date!

An unclaimed Google My Business listing with little to no information about the church

GMB doesn't require much active maintenance. It's likely far less work than your church website. All you, the church leader, must do is to:

  • Claim your listing. You'll need a Google (ie, Gmail) account. Google has thoroughly documented the steps involved in claiming a listing, and they're fairly easy to follow. While it can take several days for Google to complete the verification process, most church leaders I have worked with have no difficulty with this step.

  • Ensure an active church leader has access to edit the listing. It's important that an active church leader be listed as a GMB owner, meaning they can make changes when needed. For this reason, it's advisable to log into GMB with a church email address, one that remains within the church during staff transitions. Transferring ownership is, again, a simple process that Google has documented.

  • Upload core church information. Add business hours, update addresses and phone numbers, link social media accounts, and include recent photos. Logos, cover photos, and additional photos don't just make your listing more visually appealing, they also help with boosting your ranking in Google's search results.

  • Update the listing when you change worship times, operating hours, or contact information.

Updating Google My Business Listings for COVID-19

COVID-19 continues to disrupt church operations, especially with regard to worship. Since your church's Google My Business listing continues to show up in search results, it's critical that this listing accurately reflect current operations. Updating your listing for COVID-19 makes it clear to searchers how they can engage with your ministry, while likely boosting your search rank on Google's search engine.

Some churches have marked themselves as "temporarily closed" on Google My Business. I would advise against this. A "temporarily closed" flag on Google My Business suggests to searchers that your ministry is offering no services at all at the moment, either online or in-person. Unless your ministry has completely shut down (ie, no online worship, no online community whatsoever), you shouldn't use the "temporarily closed" flag.

Instead, use the "Online Attributes" feature within Google My Business to highlight what your ministry is up to online. Online attributes don’t show when a business is marked "Temporarily closed." When logged into your church Google My Business account, navigate to the "Stay connected during COVID-19” dashboard card. You'll have option to provide information about online worship, virtual events, and other aspects of the digital community within your congregation. GMB managers should also consider adding a brief "COVID-19 Post" to provide the search engine with a synopsis of how your ministry has adapted.

What To Do With Reviews

Creating, updating, and changing a listing for COVID might seem daunting, but each of these tasks can be accomplished in one or two sittings. But there's one area of GMB that requires some active maintenance. As a church leader, you'll want to regularly check your Google My Business listing to engage with new reviews. From a user's standpoint, searchers want to click on listings and explore ministries with a high rating. This makes Google more-likely to feature the listings with the highest reviews atop its rankings.

To that end, I recommend the following three practices for handling Google My Business in a way that is empathetic, pastoral, and aligned to the realities of search engine marketing. First, encourage your community to leave a review for your church by clicking the "Write a review" link atop your search listing. Second, regularly respond to most, if not all, reviews. Thank your positive reviewers for their affirming message. Invite your negative reviewers (if you have any) to contact a pastor for a follow-up conversation. Every organization has some negative reviews, churches are no different. What matters is that you try to turn negative reviews into a conversation. Third, flag reviews that are inappropriate or dishonest. Churches can be targets for trolling and cyber-bullying. Take the time to report malicious reviews to Google.

Google My Business does not require hours of active maintenance or strategic thought. It doesn't take a web marketing guru to curate an effective Google My Business listing. By following the steps in this guide, you'll help your ministry to stand out in this digital age, during COVID and beyond.


Leadership developer for digital culture. Author of "Grace and Gigabytes," now available wherever books are sold.

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