SEO and the church

As you will have discovered by the end of this sentence, this post has nothing to do with the recently married royal couple. Your search engine didn’t know that, though, and landed you here anyway. A few years ago there was a lot of feather ruffling in the media about the fact that a metallurgy site with the word Britney Spears in its title was attracting hundreds of thousands of hits from people who had no interest whatsoever in the study of metal.  Since then, the science of search engine optimization (or SEO) has moved on. Not only that, but a Washington Post article earlier this week pointed out that the Mormon church has embraced it wholeheartedly. They have done this so successfully that a Google search for ‘friend’, ‘young women’ or ‘church’ or even ‘family’ is liable to bring them out near the top of the list. They have experts employed in the field, and are educating their congregations in the importance of links and clicks to keep them near the top of internet searches. Industry professionals are holding them up as an example of how to play the SEO game.

Savvy or cynical, do you think? I’m all for churches being media savvy, and new media savvy in particular. Not only that, but I am delighted if people looking for definitions of family or friendship find some spiritual content in their search. However, I can’t help the feeling of some undue manipulation here. To me, social media is an open, unfettered conversation place, where ideas can be aired and exchanged freely. When religious organisations start to get too involved in SEO, it feels as if the goalposts are being moved, somehow.

Years ago, when I was a student at St Andrews University, I attended a training session for an upcoming mission. The speaker told us that we should find ways to ‘turn the conversation around’ to the Gospel. From that moment onwards I switched off from everything else he had to say. It struck me that if you are listening to your interlocutor only with a view to turning the conversation around to your particular topic, then you are not really having a conversation anyway. By your secret agenda you have trampled on the delicate ground of  conversation and made the flowers of truly human interaction wilt.

Surely if we want people to read what we have to say about family, or friendship, it must be based on  the quality of what we have to say? Our contributions on these subjects should be of such a high calibre that they want to read it. If they then find out more about us and our other work, then we become the best kind of hyperlink to the church.

What do you think?