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Google update could decrease churches’ web traffic

NASHVILLE (BP) — A change in Google’s formula for prioritizing search results could keep churches without mobile-friendly websites from being as visible online to potential visitors.

Starting April 21, Google updated its algorithms for searches done from mobile devices to give higher placement in the results to websites that are compatible with such devices. That means churches with older, more basic websites may not appear among the top results when, for example, mobile phone users search for “Baptist church” and their city.

“Why is this a concern?” asked Michael Magruder, director of LifeWay.com for LifeWay Christian Resources. “Google estimates that over 60 percent of search queries currently originate from mobile devices. The biggest question businesses and organizations ask is, ‘How do I know if my website is mobile optimized?'”

Tony Boes, the Missouri Baptist Convention’s webmaster, told Baptist Press there are simple ways a church can determine whether its website qualifies as mobile-friendly. First, pull up the site on a mobile phone. If it fits the screen well and has buttons that are a clickable size, the site likely is mobile-friendly.

For a definitive answer to the question of whether a site is mobile-friendly, a church can visit Google’s “Mobile-Friendly Test” website, Boes said. Simply enter the URL of your congregation’s website on that page, and Google will tell you whether it is mobile-friendly as well as provide links to information about how to improve the site.

Mobile-friendly sites, according to Google’s Webmaster Central Blog:

— Avoid using software that is not common on mobile devices, like Adobe Flash Player;

— Use text that is readable without zooming;

— Size content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally to view the site; and

— Place links far enough apart that the correct one can be tapped easily.

Because as many as 40 percent of websites fail to meet Google’s mobile-friendly criteria, some experts predicted the algorithm change would have a major impact, a scenario they dubbed “Mobilegeddon.” But Baptist tech experts said several facts mitigate the change’s effect on churches.

For one, churches in small towns with unique names in those towns should still be relatively easy to find in a search. If someone searches for such a church’s name and its town, “Google is probably going to want to give you what you’re looking for more than they want to give you something that’s just mobile-friendly,” Boes said.

In addition, the change only affects Google searches done from smart phones and some Android tablets. “If you are searching from a desktop or most tablets, the search results are not expected to change,” Magruder told BP. He noted that searches in Apple Maps and Google Maps will still display results in order of proximity regardless of whether a church’s site is mobile-friendly.

Finally, Chris Thurman, a Kentucky-based web designer who works with the Kentucky Baptist Convention and churches across America, told BP he has “not noticed a huge difference in the [Google] rankings from some of our clients [in the business world] who did not optimize for mobile.” He speculated, however, that Google may be rolling out its update gradually in a way that does not affect all industries simultaneously.

Still, experts agree that some congregations will be affected by the change and church websites ought to be mobile-friendly. Boes said a knowledgeable staff member or volunteer should be able to make a site mobile-friendly “relatively fast.”

Churches that used a content management system like WordPress to design their websites need to make sure the “theme,” or template, they have chosen is mobile-friendly, Boes said. A potential theme can be tested by viewing it on a smart phone or entering it in Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. If a site generated through a content management system is not mobile-friendly, a simple change of theme should fix the problem, he said.

Another option is to use LifeWay’s Twenty:28 content management system, in which all themes are mobile optimized.

Regardless of the change to Google’s search algorithm, Boes said it is important for churches to optimize their websites for mobile traffic. Since the Missouri Baptist Convention made its website mobile friendly in October, Boes said mobile traffic to the site has doubled and the number of users who leave the site without clicking on any links has decreased.

Becoming mobile-friendly “is only going to get more important for any website that’s out there, whether or not you’re a church, as more and more people look to the cell phone as their primary Internet device,” Boes said.