Forget SEO For Your Parish Website: It’s About Functionality

Any website designers reading this are probably shaking right now after reading that headline.  SEO is short for ‘search engine optimization’ and relates to where your website will show up when people search for things.  For designers, SEO and websites go hand-in-hand.  SEO is about discovery through searches, and for business this is very important to be competitive.  But for parishes, we’re not in the competition game . . . we’re in the service game.  Therefore, functionality is what the website is all about for a local parish.

So what should a parish website look like?  What are the core things that should be included?  To better see what this looks like, you want to model your parish website after your office.  The best purpose of the parish website should be to create it as an extension of all those services your office provides to visitors.  So, yes, an attractive appearance is just as important as it is when people enter the parish office.  Here are the core things your parish website should have:

  1. Welcome/Home page should have the parish mission and announcements.  Announcements are a great way to alleviate reliance on the bulletin.  We all have space constraints in the bulletin and everybody wants their thing in it.  An announcements section provides another avenue to highlighting events in a quicker way rather than waiting until Sunday.
  2. Clergy and staff directory page. I prefer this to have photographs of the individuals because it’s more personalized that way.  The directory should include phone and email contact information and can include a short bio if you wish.
  3. Ministry Directory page.  Most parishes have several ministries and by listing all of them on the website with who to contact provides for a very easy way to keep the list organized and up-to-date.  It should include who to contact in regards to the ministry as well.  We enhanced this at our parish and also created individual pages for each ministry as well and linked to those pages in the directory for visitors to get detailed information in regards to each ministry.
  4. Parish calendar page. This should be an embedded online calendar.  I’ve seen parishes do this as a PDF document that pops up and am not a fan of this.  The reason is that it is too many steps.  An embedded online calendar such as Google Calendars allows the information to updated by any volunteer or office staff which automatically updates on the website.  Enter once and use everywhere approach.
  5. Mass schedule page.  This again should be an embedded calendar that is separate from the Parish Events calendar.  The reason is that most of the time Masses remain the same times, but Holy Days and holidays are obviously different.  This makes for a very neat and organized way to communicate alternate Mass times.
  6. Parish history/information page. This is typically the “About” page you see on most websites.  It should have the generic address and phone contact information.  You can also include an embedded satellite map from services like Google or Bing maps.  This way, out of town visitors can easily get driving directions.
  7. Catholic Links page.  There are a ton of great Catholic websites.  Create a page that links to them and organize the page by categories.  Link to your Diocese, the Vatican, USCCB, etc.

Those are the basics, and they allow you to mimic the information parishioners can get when contacting your office.  Once you have those pieces in place, then you can further enhance the website to automate administrative tasks and provide further services.  Online forms are a great example of this.  By moving forms such as new parishioner registrations online you can then make them available for download by visitors.  This in turn reduces requests to the office saving time and saves money that is normally spent on printing and mailing.  In turn you do not need to worry about storing blank forms since if you did need to provide a copy to someone visiting the office, you can simply print one from the website.

Sounds great, but what could hold this back?  People and the willingness to change.  You obviously have to continue to provide the same things from the office for those without internet connection, but the goal is to reduce the need to go to the office for information.  You’ll need to refer to the website for about 30 days as requests come in.  Refer to the information contained on the website in announcements in the bulletin.  After about 30 days people will begin to “get the picture”.

What are your thoughts?

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Author:Brad West

I live in Palm Coast, FL with my family and have assisted my local parish with our website and communications. Our parishes today can benefit a great deal from technology. Whether it's improving communications, community building, evangelizing, business operations, and much more; we have the tools today. To help provide some direction and advice to parishes and parishioners, I wrote and published an eBook titled "The Connected Church" which is available through Barnes and Noble (Nooks and Nook apps) as well as Amazon (Kindle and Kindle apps).
  • http://adrims.com Adrienne

    Great post, Brad! You make a very valid point, but I think in buying into this mentality, we are underestimating the power a parish website can have.

    Why limit ourselves to simply informing when every visit to a parish website can be an opportunity for evangelization? With good SEO (and subsequently higher visibility) more people are likely to visit the site, even if only by accident.

    This presents an opportunity to touch the hearts and minds of people who may not otherwise see the site if it is hidden on the 17th page of a search. Does that mean the content on most parish sites needs to be updated to articulate the Catholic Church’s message, and even the individual parish mission more clearly? In most cases, yes.

  • http://www.creativecatholiclearning.com Eric

    I agree with Adrienne. I have been working with parishes and SEO for a long time now. The basics that you talk about require minimal consistent efforts from both the parish staff and the webmaster. The New Evangelization calls us to use what is there and work to evangelize to those who are already Catholic, but not really living it out. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone who was struggling with their Catholic faith was searching for answers and happened to find an answer straight from their own parishes website. Not through the website, but through Google. When they doubt the Catholic Church is really out there trying to help them, they find it’s right where they visit every Sunday.

  • http://catholicservant.com Craig

    Brad. I really like your list of seven there. Great stuff.

    If I could add a couple things…

    With a sprinkling of SEO…there are a couple not so obvious side-benefits…

    1. If you create a valid sitemap xml and submit it to google webmaster tools, Google will have an easier time indexing the site. Also, if the site content you mention above is laid out well, they may even provide ‘sitelinks’ in the search results with a link to each of those sections.

    2. I am constantly amazed at how much traffic I get to my sites from people who don’t remember the site URL and just google part of the name in hopes of finding it.

    Thanks for the post! We need to keep prodding our local parishes to build a web presence.

  • Brad

    Great points, but this is where I think things are getting too confused. Yes, there is an evangelization component to Catholic websites. But should evangelization be the main focus of the local parish website? I see that when we focus too heavily on just that we miss out on opportunities to leverage the parish website for more beneficial things which frees up time and resources that can be put towards evangelization elsewhere in more more effective ways. Should the parish website provide information on services it can provide to the local community and highlighting those efforts? Absolutely.

    Here’s the main problem I find when there is too heavy of a focus on “getting traffic” to a parish website (as well as in business), the benefit to the visitor is missed. Because SEO gets to be about competition. National Catholic websites are always going to dominate in regards to search engine rankings as they should. Just like the Vatican voice will resonate louder than the local parish voice. You essentially are putting the cart before the horse and fighting “losing battle” when trying to compete for search engine rankings. Build a website that is truly beneficial to the community it serves first. The traffic I feel that you truly want to get is your local parish community and maximizing that. Then use tools like Facebook pages to further the evangelization.

    Great points. Thanks.

  • http://www.travisboudreaux.com Travis

    Brad,

    The end of a parish website should be to improve the sharing of information about what’s going on in the parish with parishioners, but also there is a dimension that involves welcoming people to the church.

    I think SEO for a parish site needs to be focused on the local level. It shouldn’t be dismissed, and it doesn’t have to be antagonistic towards functionality. No parish should be trying to get on the first page for the keyword “catholic”, but they should strive to be the first result for the combination of there city name and “church” or “christian church”, or even “catholic church”.

    In an “unchurched world” many people are going to research churches in there area before even thinking about getting in the car to drive over.

    In regards to your question about is the goal of the parish website to evangelize, I don’t necessarily think it is the primary goal. Yes, there should be plenty of information about the faith, but I don’t think a local parish should spend thousands of hours trying to recreate good catechetical and evangelical material online, when there are so many good places for that already.

    Those hours would be better spent developing relationships, and personally mentoring people who are curious about the faith, and providing an incarnate witness who is always ready to give reason for his hope.

  • Brad

    Travis,

    Great points. One of the main goals of this post was to get some conversation going which we’ve had and I fully appreciate everyone taking the time to share your thoughts. It’s a benefit for me and everyone who reads this.

    We are seeing valid purposes for many tech tools within the Church and parishes. No real “model” exists yet for the most effective ways to use these tools in combination with one another which is one of the great advantages of this site which Craig did such a wonderful job creating. The ability to learn from another, express individual perspectives, share experiences and results, and learn from one another is invaluable. My perspective is that the tools allow us amazing new avenues to address and overcome barriers all parishes commonly deal with. The website in my opinion allows for many solutions such as automating/reducing administrative workloads, reducing costs, and improving communication within a parish community.

    One of the things that sparked the idea for the article was noticing that many parishes do not have a website. Of those that do, many are formatted as more of a “yellow pages” like ad. After numerous conversations about various barriers in my own parish and seeing our site was being way underutilized, we approached the website from a far more functional perspective and redesigned it (www.stelizabethannsetonpc.org).

    I 100% agree that “thousands of hours” should never be spent on a website. Websites build and change over time. Our site and the setting up of email for office staff and clergy, as well as online document storage took initially about 10 hours. I spend maybe 4 hours total per month updating. The cost for everything . . . $10/year since we chose a system called Google Apps. We get far more power and functionality and are saving about $300 on the hosting and email solutions from what we had before. Granted we are currently not taking full advantage of all that was put in place, and if we were could be saving much more in terms of printing and mailing costs. Little steps sometimes. From this angle, we not only free up resources such as time by reducing workloads but also money which can be better utilized towards fulfilling our mission. All the while improving communication amongst our parish community and beyond.