This is another post I wrote for for the North Point Ministries’ “Starting Point” leader blog, so it is only tangentially related to The Conditions of Success. But it was fun to write, and it deals with tactical steps toward success in this area of my life, so I consider it worth posting here. Hope you enjoy. -Fred
“Search Engine Optimization and Starting Point”
Last night was our Starting Point group’s first meeting, and my first experience as an Apprentice-Leader. Among the many comments from participants regarding “why they are here,” one received the most agreeing head nods from others in the room: “This church is relevant to my life.” As leaders, and likely long-time listeners to Andy’s sermons, we know that at an almost instinctual, maybe even taken-for-granted level.
God, and the church, must be seen as relevant to today’s Christ-followers and seekers. Relevance is neither a substitute for, nor necessarily an indication of, the presence of Truth, but our failure to take it into account as leaders of Starting Point groups, and as Christ-followers more generally, will only serve to undermine our belief and argument that ours is a God whose love does not change with time.
Having dispensed with that bit of “inside baseball,” here is a way to think of relevance as it applies to the Digital Age, and to that other (seemingly) all-seeing and all-knowing quasi-deity in our daily lives: Google.
There is an entire industry among online marketers known as Search Engine Optimization, or “SEO.” It’s the process – and an unending one, at that – of designing and populating websites in such a way as to make them appear higher on search engine rankings.
Now the SEO mavens among us may take some issue with this greatly over-simplified version of the main points of their tradecraft, but there are four widely accepted pillars of a quality website that is optimized for search engines, Google in particular. I think each of them bear direct relevance to our Starting Point groups in particular, as well as to our Biblical Great Commission.
1. Content – “Content is King,” so goes the phrase among bloggers and website producers. It’s true – there is no substitute for quality content, be it for websites, or the church. You can’t fake it (at least for very long), and you can’t create it quickly. But content that is unique, high-quality, and constantly fresh – not to mention relevant – is the only proven method for improving a website’s search ranking.
In a Starting Point environment, we as leaders must be work to present the truth of Christ’s love to each person in our group in their own way, with fidelity to scripture, and we must be prepared to do it week in and week out. There is no substitution for this step, which why it is ranked first in this list.
2. Links – SEO masters know the importance of having links on your site, as well as having links from outside sites to your own. There is both a quality and quantity aspect to this. In terms of quantity, think social media: if hundreds or even thousands of people are posting and re-posting a link to your site, that will improve your search ranking. But, like everything about social media, that is fleeting, unless you’re able to create and re-create that demand on a consistent basis. (Again with the relevance…). More permanent links, both into and away from your site, and to and from quality sources, are looked upon favorably by Google. On the “to” side, this is not easy. You can’t just call up another site owner, especially one with a lot of traffic, and get them to post a link to your site. They need reason to do so, and will want evidence that your site is of sufficient quality – and relevance! – for them to promote to their own audience.
As Starting Point leaders, we often find it necessary to create links – think “connections” – from other sources of information when trying to convey some important truth in one of the lessons. The credibility of the link or connection, in the mind of the participant we are talking to, is crucial. It could be something you’ve both read, a shared experience, or even a mutual friend or acquaintance. Rather than relevance, you might call this “relatability.” And remember: the number of links is important, as is the quality of them.
3. Popularity – the closest SEO equivalent of relevance, popularity cannot be faked. You’ve either got content that people want to view, or you don’t. Many SEO practitioners, depending on the subject matter of their website, attempt to “ride the news” cycle and create content based on what’s going on in the world. There is both an art and a science to this, and only truly quality content creators can do this both regularly and well.
As stated previously, popularity/relevance is not the determiner of Truth. The Starting Point curriculum and guide already does a great job of relating the faith to the most pressing questions of 21st century seekers, but always consider other ways that you, as a leader, can tailor the discussion to the specific needs and interests of those in your group.
4. Reputation – A good one takes a long time to create, yet it can be lost in an instant. None of us need to be told that the online world is fickle and often unpredictable. Something you wrote on a blog a long time ago could, due to some event, come back to draw positive attention to your site when you least expect it. But, once you’ve established an audience, the wrong content could ruin your reputation, and, ultimately – assuming bad publicity is actually bad, itself no longer a given – also your search ranking.
I won’t be so condescending as to give us a lengthy reminder about what your Starting Point group participants should or should not see you, as their leader, doing when you’re out and about on the weekends. I’m referring as much or more to your reputation within the walls of the Starting Point meeting room. The tone that each of us sets from the moment of first interaction, and every little action along the way, could make or break a participant’s willingness to engage further with their process of faith. I don’t mean to suggest that you and I ought to act as though we are walking on pins and needles, or to make overthink every little gesture or comment we’ve made, or forgotten to make – that’s not helpful. But this can serve as a reminder that little things can make add up to make an eternal difference.
You may have noted some significant overlap between and among the categories. They are not separate silos. Action or inaction, adeptness or ineptitude, in one category necessarily affects the others. Like SEO, our leadership in Starting Point, and as witnesses for Christ in general, requires a loving, long-term, integrated approach.