Reviews are the lifeblood of any online presence. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling widgets through an online store or running a dog grooming service in the middle of the Ozark mountains, if you have a website, you need a Google business listing. And if you have a Google business listing, you need reviews.
Why? Because reviews tell other people what to think about your business – or in our case, your church. Before they even step through the doors into your congregation, almost everyone will have searched for you online first – 70-80%, in fact — and if the reviews are plastered with negative comments — “nobody talked to me,” “preaching wasn’t Biblical or relevant,” etc – then those people will skip right on past you.
What are Google Business Reviews?
Google your church. Underneath the pictures and tabs that say “Website,” “Directions,” and “Save” is a series of stars – one star is the worst, five stars is the best. A good rule of thumb is that unless the visitor had a negative experience, every review should be five stars. Unfortunately, most people don’t view it that way. I’ve read several three-star reviews on various businesses where the person praised the establishment and had absolutely nothing negative to say, but still gave them three stars nonetheless.
As a church, your goal is to get five stars across the board. The higher the star rating, the more Google likes your listing, and the more likely it is to show you in search results. Reviews aren’t the only factor in those rankings, but it is a pretty huge one.
How Many Do I Need?
There’s no hard and fast answer to this question; a lot of that has to do with where you live and how many other churches in your area are trying to advance their digital footprint as well. Small towns with very active churches (or church plants) can have 200+ stars, whereas urban areas with 100 different churches may have much lower competition. It all depends on your unique geographical area.
Generally speaking, the more people that live in your town or suburb, the more reviews you’ll need to compete for search results. The city of Lubbock, TX, for instance, has a population of about 250,000 people. A simple Google search for “Church, Lubbock, TX” reveals a local pack (the top three churches in search results, pictured below) where the highest ranking church – Trinity Church – has 115 reviews with an average rating of 4.7 stars. Hillside Christian Church follows right after with 20 stars and a 4.7 average, whereas Church on the Rock has 96 reviews and a 4.9 star ranking.
Alternatively, if you go to the very bottom of the local search results, you’ll see the exact opposite. No reviews, no stars, and no real profile to speak of.
Jumping back to the top three positions, you may be curious as to why a church with only 20 stars ranks higher than the church with 96. It can’t be the ranking level – both have a very respectable 4.6 or 4.7 average – so what else could be happening?
By Google’s own admission, several things play into the algorithm. Reviews are important, to be sure, but also important is about a hundred other factors, such as distance. Lubbock has other small towns near the city proper that may or may not be considered part of Lubbock, but still may appear in search results for Lubbock. Shallowwater, Idalou, Slaton – if you live in those cities and search for churches in Lubbock, Google will slant the results towards those closest to you.
Sidenote: This is why some businesses list several different service areas on their web site. It’s not to take up digital real estate, it’s so they can rank for all the different geographical areas with the same web site.
Another factor is off-line prominence. Everything else remaining the same, a big brand such as Best Buy will usually rank higher than Joe’s TV and Cable Sales. Also, how closely the business profile matches the searcher’s intent affects the search results.
But reviews are important. In fact, your church won’t show up in Google rankings at all unless you have at least five reviews (although there’s some evidence that Google is showing churches with only a couple). Don’t forget that Google aggregates reviews from sites such as Facebook and Yelp as well. Even though those won’t be listed under the official “stars” that Google shows, they’ll be displayed right next to it and can factor into your overall ranking as well.
The good news is that you don’t need a ton of reviews in order to start seeing people arrive at your church’s door. According to one study, 28% of people trusted a business after reading 2-3 reviews, while 36% trusted it after 4-6 reviews. Humans won’t generally trust a solitary review, due to our cynicism with online shopping, but if they see a 5-10 from different people, saying different things, it lends more credibility to the end user.
How Do I Get More Reviews for My Business Listing?
Before we go any further, allow me to issue one gigantic disclaimer: You cannot buy reviews for your church. Since reviews are so powerful to local search rankings, several businesses have taken to offering an “incentive” to people who want to leave reviews, usually in the form of a coupon or promotion. Taking it a step further, some companies have straight-up bought reviews from a service that promises five-star reviews. This is a sure-fire way to get banned from Google forever.
As Christians, there is a moral standard by which we operate, and so the best way to get reviews for your church is to just simply ask. Send out an e-mail to all of your people, or mention it to a few people after services, or just approach a few people directly that you know might do it. Try to wrangle up five reviews for a month, and then focus on getting 2-3 every month after that. If you ask everyone in your church to leave a review, and everyone does, it will signal to Google’s algorithm that something fishy is going on. They might suspend your account, or worse, ban you indefinitely while they investigate. They may reinstate you or not, but it’s ultimately their platform and they can do what they want.
Here are three rules to employ when trying to gather reviews:
- Keep it Simple. While it may be tempting to ask people to leave reviews on Google, Yelp, and Facebook, don’t ask people to do too much. Focus on Google, and once you have more than ten, start branching out onto other platforms.
- Keep it Direct. The more hoops people have to jump through in order to leave the review, the fewer people you’ll have leaving a review. Here’s a guide that will show you how to create a review link; give the link to people to create a single-step process.
- Keep it Positive. While you can’t necessarily tell people to give you five stars, you should absolutely explain what the stars mean. Anything less than five stars is seen as a negative, so if people feel compelled to leave five, ask them why and try to solve it. Even if the situation isn’t resolved, you may still get five stars for trying to help.
The key issue to keep in mind in gaining reviews for your church is to be honest. People can smell fake feedback a mile away, and trying to manipulate the system will only end up poorly in the long run. Think of review acquisition as a marathon, not a sprint. By even getting those first few crucial reviews, you’ll already be placing yourself miles ahead of other churches in your area, which may result in a few extra souls added to the Kingdom.