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Local churches have faith in ... Google

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Posted at 7:01 AM, Jan 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-09 12:37:13-05

If you’re new in town and you want to find a church home, or if you’re just not happy with your present church, what do you do in the age of the Internet?

You Google “Cincinnati churches,” of course.

What happens when you do? Which church websites do you see?

The results vary from day to day, depending on which churches have put up ads with Google AdWords and how many people have clicked on their ads. The first church listed, though, isn’t generally the biggest church around.

On Jan. 4, Vineyard Christian Church in Florence was No. 1 at the top left of the search results page. It was followed, oddly enough, by Real Life Church, a megachurch in California — the state of California, not the Cincinnati neighborhood.

The next day, those two churches were topped by Movement Church, a new church that meets at Woodfill Elementary School in Fort Thomas. On the right hand side of the page were eight other local churches that had placed ads.

Vineyard was at the top of the paid results because Charlotte Hegge, the church project coordinator, had applied for a grant from Google to place an ad with Google AdWords. Google gives such grants to nonprofits, she said. It covers the cost Google normally charges when someone is directed to a website by clicking an ad.

Since the ad was placed in July 2014, more than 20,000 people have seen it, Hegge said, but only about 10 percent have clicked through to visit the church’s site. Some who do end up visiting the church in person, she said, but it’s hard to determine how many.

“It’s really hard to know exactly how much we benefit directly” from the ads, senior pastor Mark Ladoucer said. It’s something the church might find out months later in a casual conversation with a new member.

So what is a California church doing on a list of Cincinnati churches?

Google’s AdWords ties clients’ ads to particular search terms. Real Life Church uses “churches” as one of its paid Google search terms, said Danny Caudillo, the Real Life’s communications director. If there are not a lot of targeted ads in a particular area, then Real Life’s ad pops up wherever anyone searches for churches, he said.

Not to worry. One can live in Cincinnati and attend Real Life virtually: Services are streamed over its website. Virtual attendees don’t have to fight the church’s more than 5,000 weekend visitors for a parking space and can chat online with the church’s online pastor.

“It’s the way of the future,” Caudillo said.

Movement Church, the Northern Kentucky startup, pays Google for each time someone clicks on its ad, founding pastor John Tandy said, but there’s a cap of five clicks per day. If there are more than five clicks, the ad doesn’t appear for the rest of the day — but the church rarely exceeds its click limit.

He could quickly think of at least three families whose first contact with the church was a Google search, he said, and it wouldn’t surprise him if up to 20 percent of the congregation had the same experience.

The service costs between $80 and $100 a month, but he said the ad is well worth the price. “It’s definitely an investment, but we feel like it’s a strong investment for us.”

Google ads help get the word out about the church “without being too draconian,” which is one of the obstacles all new churches face, Tandy said. The church, which began in March 2014, now has about 100 members, he said, and in March plans to begin meeting in the former St. Mark Lutheran Church, at Eighth and Monroe streets in Newport.

Below the ads, among the unpaid-for search results, some of the larger churches in Cincinnati, such as Oakley-based Crossroads church, Vineyard Cincinnati and Montgomery Community Church, appear. There also are some outliers, such as another Oakley-based church, New City Presbyterian, which according to its website, started as a small group in 2009.

A Google ad or a search-friendly website doesn’t do a church much good if its website isn’t up to snuff, however. That’s why churches spend money to spruce theirs up. “It’s definitely a window for people for seeing into the church without having to walk through the doors,” the Vineyard’s Hegge said.

Movement Church paid a designer to create its site and in October rolled out an app that includes a digital version of a connection card, the cards that one puts in the collection plate during a real service to let the church know you need prayer.

A good website gives potential visitors a measure of comfort with the church that makes it more likely they will visit, said the Vineyard’s Ladoucer. That’s particularly true if they have connected online with someone at the church, whether through the website, a Facebook page or other digital platforms like Instagram or Twitter.

“It does serve as a means of lowering people’s guard and some of their apprehension about showing up,” Ladoucer said. “They don’t feel completely out of place, because they have connected with someone.”