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.
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!
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:
"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!
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.