How To Do Church Keyword Research the Right Way

Table of Contents

Keyword Research — Essential and Tedious

keyword research

One of the most important elements of SEO is keyword research. For those church marketers new to the concept, keyword research is the practice of discovering keywords people use to discover your church online using search engines like Google. For those who have done keyword research, you probably don’t like it any more than I do because it’s time-consuming, tedious, and can be a confusing mishmash of art and science..

But the fact is, you can’t create relevant content if you don’t know how people want to discover it, or whether Google will deem the content worthy to be discovered. In other words, you can’t optimize webpages on your church’s website without knowing which phrases to optimize for. That is why we do keyword research and what makes it so very important.

In the earlier days of SEO, when Google matched keyword searches with exact match words or phrases on the webpage, that’s all you had to do. You would cram a repetitive list of relevant keywords, sometimes awkwardly, into the text on your page and Google would find it — fingers crossed. That not only made for really bad content, but a user experience that proved less than useful.

Today, Google’s algorithm is much more sophisticated and does not reward “keyword stuffing.” The current logic is entity-based and your SEO strategy should conform to intent-based search. What this means is that you do not have to match keywords exactly, but you do have to understand user intent and how to optimize content around a conceptual entity rather than exact keyword matches.

In essence, this tells us that it is very important to not only understand what keywords people are using to find a church or ministry like yours online, but to understand their intent when searching. Effective keyword research helps you understand the concepts with which the searcher resonates — that is, the things they are looking for, the things they care about, and how they go about finding answers. Easy, right?

Keywords and phrases are scored based on popularity. There may be a laundry list of keywords relevant to one of your church ministries, but only two or three that are searched far more often than others, and ones that rank much higher in Google search results.

Once you have done your keyword research, created your keyword list, and ranked it in order of priority, you should know exactly how to create content that attracts your target audience like a magnet — and equally important, that the content is deemed relevant by Google’s search algorithm.

Keyword Research — Where To Begin

google search seo

You should begin church keyword research with questions. Here are the questions you need to ask:

All of these questions and their answers have to be aligned with a definitive goal.

The mistake most church marketers make with keyword research is wanting to move past the mundaneness of the research part and jump right into creating content they feel they already know like the back of their hand. The problem with this is that it could compromise your entire SEO strategy! Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Most marketers (not just church marketers) do this.

We often find that churches believe they know the concepts important to their audience — usually determined to be the church family — and not only does the church family not care much about the content presented, the content has no chance of reaching an audience outside of the church family.

It is very important to focus some content on the POTENTIAL audience outside of church walls, understand exactly what they are looking for, and what they care about. This goes back to the importance of asking questions BEFORE you start your keyword research.

A Church is Not Always a Church

You may believe that a church is a church. Anyone interested in biblical teaching would seek out a church, right? Or, maybe you believe that your Methodist church is just a Methodist church, so your audience would be the people looking for a Methodist church. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people searching for support that a church or ministry provides aren’t looking for a church. But, they are often looking for answers to felt-needs, and it’s up to the us in church marketing to be there (online) to provide those answers, with intent of leading them to the church. Every church is different, and every ministry has a unique gift and encouraging word to offer.

felt needs despair

Most church websites hit the high points — the necessities: a welcome page, location information, service times, a beliefs page, a staff page, maybe an events calendar, and even a media page where visitors can hear or view sermons or messages. This is great, and necessary, but it’s a pretty low bar and does little or nothing to grow the church or reach the unchurched.

The most important, and often omitted, aspect of the church website is content reflecting the outreach ministries the church supports — ministries like parenting, counseling, addiction recovery,  feeding the poor, and other community needs. Those ministries that are a result of the church’s love, care, sacrifice, and support are most often overlooked when it comes to the church website. This is where a thoughtful, well-crafted content and keyword research strategy can explode your church growth. Understanding what felt-needs are in the community, how people are searching for answers to these needs, and who those people are, can literally change a declining church into a magnet for new visitors. It can accelerate the growth of a new church. And, it can bolster a strong and growing church

It's More About People and Less About SEO & Keywords

Putting SEO and keyword research aside, you probably already have a pretty good idea of the makeup of people in the church and the people who are drawn to specific ministries in the church. If not, it is worth understanding who they are, why they gravitate to a specific ministry, and their motivations. It is also imperative to define and understand the goal of the ministry itself. Are there anticipated outcomes? Are these outcomes quantitative, qualitative?

church group

Answering these questions is the beginning of understanding how to create content for a specific audience. If you create content that addresses broad, general concepts, you will likely fade into the backdrop online and only those who already know you will ever benefit from the content.

Just like in business, answering your audience’s questions is a critical success factor for effective online content. Google rewards content that meets the needs of the user, not the creator of the content. Creating ministry content that simply talks about the ministry is what most churches do. Creating content that attracts an audience by answering questions is what savvy, growing churches do — those who understand the power of optimizing content and digital marketing.

Query Intent

Now that you have asked all the right questions, fully-understand the purpose of the content, and its importance to the target audience, it’s time to start building your keyword list. Before you dive into creating the list, let’s talk about why searcher intent is so important.

Search results produced by Google are based directly on what Google has determined to be the searcher’s intent. It’s no longer as much about the keywords as it is the meaning behind the search. As you build your keyword phrases, you need to understand how intent will influence your keyword list and the searches related to those phrases.

search intent

Searcher Intent

In Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines, they describe four major user intents: to know (informational), to query, a specific website query, and a visit-in-person query. So, how does this shape user intent?

For an informational query, the user is looking for a specific bit of information. These are difficult to rank for because Google has gotten really good at just displaying the information right on the search results page. For instance, if you typed in who wrote 1 Timothy, you would just get an information box right at the top of the search result that says Apostle Paul.

google search bible

No need to go any deeper if that’s the answer you are looking for, right? Same result for a question like, how big was Noah’s Ark? Google simply provides an answer box from a source they believe is authoritative. Very difficult to knock off these results using your own SEO efforts.

For informational queries, there are other examples like transactional queries (looking to buy a product or book a reservation, for instance), location based queries (looking for something in a specific location, in which Google uses location-based information), or a specific local search as in, church in (my city). Location-based searches are a challenge in and of themselves, but a local SEO expert can help you to be found in that context.

I recommend focusing on more detailed keyword phrases to start. This will give you a chance to be specific and garner ranking quickly rather than competing for the more saturated informational keyword territory.

Experiment With Sample Searches

Before finalizing your own keywords, you can experiment using sample searches in Google to better understand user intent behind those searches. For example, some searches have mixed intent, like just searching on the word church. You may find a list of local churches, a Wikipedia reference on church, and even links to Church’s Fried Chicken. This is a clear signal that more detailed targeted search is where we want to be, and why it is important to understand your audience and their intent when searching.

Creating Your Keyword List

keyword list

You’re ready to build your keyword list! Using the knowledge gained from the question exercise, start by creating a list of relevant topics that are important to the ministry or subject for which you are creating content. The list should include what’s important to the ministry and what’s important to the audience.

Separate your topics into similar groups and use your knowledge of the ministry to prioritize the groups. For each group, you will create a list of keywords that are relevant to the target audience’s needs. These keywords are relevant to what the ministry is and/or how the ministry helps those who have questions. Do not be concerned with refinement here — you’ll do that later. Just like a brainstorm, list anything that seems to make sense.

Time To Put Your Nerd Hat On

It’s at this point that you need to get a little nerdy. Using whatever keyword research tools you have at your disposal, find out which organic keywords your church or ministry currently ranks for. You will probably also want to check other churches similar to yours to find out what they are ranking for. If other churches are ahead of you on SEO strategy, it’s perfectly acceptable to do the research and borrow, so to speak, what is already successful. There is no value in reinventing the wheel when it comes to a successful keyword research initiative.

Work through variations of your search phrases. Use Google’s “People also ask…” widget (at the bottom of a Google search result page) to understand the different ways people search for a specific answer. You can also use SEO keyword research tools like SEMRush to gain incredible insight on how people search and volume related to those searches. This data will help you begin to prioritize your keywords.


As you begin to prioritize your keyword lists, it is important to understand the difference in fat-head keywords and long-tail keywords. Fat-head keywords are not fat, but usually short. An example might be marriage counseling. A long-tail version of that might be marriage counseling in Atlanta for couples with teenagers. The fat-head version will have many more search results (more volume) and will subsequently be much more difficult to rank for. Fat-head keywords are very competitive! The long-tail version will have fewer results (less volume), but will be much easier to rank for (less competition), therefore providing you with a reasonable chance of garnering an audience for your content/ministry.

The bottom line is to balance your keyword phrases using volume (traffic) and difficulty, and correlating that with user intent. Just because a keyword gets more traffic doesn’t mean you should be using it. Any good keyword research tool will help guide you in choosing and prioritizing the right keywords for your content, discover what similar churches are doing, and craft your content strategy most effectively. The last point, and it’s an important one, is that the more competitive the keyword, the harder it will be to rank for that keyword and the longer it will take to achieve success, if success is even possible.

I don’t want to dissuade you from going after more difficult keywords. A common strategy is to do both. It is perfectly acceptable to create content around short keywords that are difficult to rank for, assuming that success will come in time, and to also create long-tail phrases to achieve shorter-term success. Also remember, just because you pick a long-tail keyword to go after doesn’t mean it will get any traffic at all. Thats why we go through this whole process — to find keywords that do produce traffic, are relevant to your content, and are within our competitive capability.

Competitor Analysis

competitor analysis

Wait, did you say competitor analysis? We don’t often think of churches as being competitive, in the truest sense of the word, but let’s face reality — churches compete! We all think our church is great, if not the best. Churches, including yours, invest significant resources to stand out in the community. Can we agree this matters, and it’s competition?

With that in mind, let’s talk about doing competitor research in the context of keywords and SEO strategy. If you are new to SEO and keyword research, this is even more important. Why not piggyback on those churches who have already blazed the trail?

Maybe a similar church has already gone through a rigorous keyword research process. They’ve build content, built backlinks, and they have been working on optimization over a period of time to boost their church’s website performance.


piggyback competitive analysis

I’m not talking about plagiarizing the work they’ve done. That would be wrong and ineffective. But, you can find out where they have been successful by knowing for which keywords they rank and get traffic. This goes a long way in determining how people want (intend) to find similar content, which also helps you when creating content for your own church website. We call this piggybacking.

On a similar note, you can use your keyword research tool to find out if a similar church is using paid ads, as in Google Ads. Many churches now use paid ad strategies through the Google Ad Grants program (contact us to learn more). You can determine which keywords other churches are targeting for their paid ad campaigns and that, in turn, will show you that those keywords are likely working if someone is willing to pay for them, especially the keywords with high CPC (cost-per-click).

When comparing similar church paid ad campaigns, also note the content of the ad. When writing content for a Google ad, you are compelled to boil down the topic into its essence, so you can really get a good idea of what is probably working, evidenced by the fact a church is willing to spend money on the ad.

Competitor Backlinks

As a part of competitive analysis, it also pays to do comparative analysis on backlinks. Using a tool like SEMRush, you can find out exactly which backlinks similar churches have gained and make a list of sources that you too may want to target for backlinks. Pay special attention to the traffic that comes from the backlink as well as the domain authority of the host where the backlink appears. Backlinks equate to authority in the eyes of Google. The more authoritative backlinks pointing to your church website, the more Google transfers that authority to you and rewards that authority with better search result rankings.

While backlinks is a deep subject in its own right, I will offer a final word of strategy. When looking at competitive backlinks, look one level deeper to see what content on a similar church website is being linked to. If you are seeing a specific page (or pages) on the website with recurring backlinks, it is very likely that content is highly-relevant to a particular audience. Do a manual review of these websites. Analyze the content and determine what themes appear most compelling and determine if your content strategy will effectively compete for viewers.

A few things to look for in similar content are:

Also, for the very nerdy, check the code under the page (easily accomplished using Google Chrome or Safari by viewing the page source). Determine how the pages are structured, whether or not they are using schema markup, metatags, header layout, etc.

These are all potential Google ranking factors and you may as well not reinvent the wheel. Take a clue from similar content, use similar attribution, but make your content work for your church and your audience.

Creating the Content

content creation

Finally, we’re ready to create content for your website. But, let’s not forget that without keyword research you are just writing for fun. Keyword research is the foundation of your SEO efforts, and only with an effective SEO implementation can you hope for your content to be found, much less read by visitors.

First, you do not need a separate page for each keyword. Earlier we discussed bundling groups of keywords based on subject or topic. Because Google recognizes keywords based on concept, you can use multiple keywords for a concept on a single page — in a single landing page or blog post for instance. It is important to create a page for every concept. It’s fine to mix conceptual keywords on the page as long as they stay encapsulated to the concept. Otherwise, Google finds it difficult to understand what you are saying and which question you are trying to answer.

pyramid content structure

Content should be structured from high-level to more detailed. Think of a pyramid shape. It’s very easy to use the example of a shopping site where you might first search for a TV. Then you could drill further into TVs by brand or screen size. From there, you might start drilling down into more specific criteria like 1080p, 4K, or 8K. And, from there you might even look at real detailed specs like number of inputs, scan rate, apps included, etc. While you begin with a search for TVs, you end up with a search for 55” Sony TVs with 4K and 4 HDMI inputs. You get the idea. Your church content should be structured similarly where it makes sense.

When creating your content, avoid repeating keywords over and over. Use conversational language and synonyms for your keywords and phrases. Google will understand what you are doing if you do it right, and will likely reward your efforts with better rankings.

Once your content goes live, make sure you are analyzing the performance so things can be adjusted as needed. If your website is not connected to Google Analytics, drop everything and do that right now. This will give you a wealth of data on which pages are being visited, who is visiting them, from where they are coming, which device they are using, and so on, and so on.

Wrapping Up

This may seem like a lot, and it is. If your church is not doing this type of work, don’t worry, you’re in the majority. My goal is merely to make you aware of the possibilities and let you know that my agency, Delegal Digital, can help. We work with church clients on web design, building content strategies, keyword research, and creating content and landing pages that will help increase visibility and deepen engagement with their target audiences. Church growth is our end goal.

Most churches already invest significantly into missions, community outreach, and ministries that help others. Why not use digital marketing to tell the world, or at least the community of unchurched people in your area? Our felt-needs landing page solutions can help your church grow by attracting the unchurched with better answers to their questions and guiding them to ministry support as a better alternative to secular support. This all begins with great keyword research, effective SEO, and thoughtful content.

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