Mormons using the Web to control their own image

USA - Try this. Type “church,” “Old Testament” or even “friend” into Google, and the Web site of the LDS church, the Mormons, pops up near the top of the list.

In the age of the Internet, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has found a way to dominate what is arguably today’s most important information source: the search engine.

It’s all about Mormons controlling their own image, church officials say. They’ve been doing that for a century or more. And now, with two of their own vying for the Republican nomination in the 2012 presidential race, and a Broadway hit and reality television generating huge interest in the denomination, much is at stake.

“We’re jumping into the conversation because there is a big one going on about Mormons, and we want to be a part of it,” said Stephen Allen, head of the church’s missionary department. “When someone goes into Google, if the first 10 sites are people who hate us, we lose in terms of our message.”

Their doctrine requires Mormons to proselytize, and it would be foolish not to strategize at a time of heightened interest, church officials and supporters say.

There may be other reasons, as well. Recent polls have shown that many Americans hold unfavorable views of Mormons, who number 6 million in the United States, or 1.7 percent of the U.S. adult population. Many evangelicals, who make up a large part of the Republican base, question whether Mormons are Christian.

It remains to be seen whether such views will have an impact on the presidential campaigns of Republicans Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormons.

The Mormons, however, are leaving nothing to chance. They have always stood apart in the religious world when it comes to marketing. Savvy and aggressive, they were among the first to have a public relations shop, run public-service announcements and have a 1-800 number. The church at one time changed its logo to highlight the words “Jesus Christ,” then shifted to “Mormon” and even tried to trademark the word once it became better known.

It’s not only the official church group that’s got PR chops. This month, an independent Mormon group launched the Mormon Defense League to monitor reporting on the church. The group threatened to confront writers who it believes misrepresent the church.

The Web has boosted the small, American-born faith — but also challenged it, with critics and passionate ex-Mormons competing with church officialdom when the curious head to their search engines.

Image experts and researchers who study how people search the Web have been impressed by the church’s powerful use of the Internet. The site is the most-visited of any faith group, and Mormon church-wide conferences sometimes rank at the top of Twitter while they’re underway.

An SEO strategy

The Mormons also are the subject of publications and conference lectures for techies who specialize in the complex business of online searching, called “SEO” or “search engine optimization.”

These SEO experts debate how the church has managed to dominate the search engine box.

“They have infused SEO into their culture,” said Justin Briggs, a consultant who wrote a well-read blog post called “Breaking Down the Mormon SEO Strategy.”

The church has run multiple campaigns to educate its flock about the power of search engines, and it produces high-quality information on spiritual topics such as the New Testament, Briggs said.

While the details of the church’s Web strategy are proprietary, outside experts agree that the Mormons’ success is a combination of investment, focus and an unusually tight faith community. Adherents almost always attend their assigned local church, check in with official church announcements and zap anything written about Mormons around their very own blogosphere, called the Bloggernacle.

Some SEO experts say the church and grass-roots groups of members also conduct “link-building campaigns,” rallying lots of people to click on a link, and thereby raising its placement in search-engine results.

LDS officials declined to comment on the church’s specific SEO plan, but some of its strategy is laid out on a site set up to help church members become more SEO-savvy. It asks members to help boost traffic to a different site about church teachings on self-reliance, which covers a variety of topics, such as the importance of keeping a three-month supply of food and water, creative ways to find a job and adoption services for people considering abortion.

The SEO advice site says the church is trying to snag Google users who type in general terms, such as “employment” and “debt management.” Among other things, it recommends that people write articles that can include LDS links.

A marketing campaign

But the Web has not been the sole focus of the Mormons’ image strategy. Last year, the church launched a marketing campaign called “I’m a Mormon,” using television ads, taxi and subway signs, and billboards to introduce people from a range of backgrounds as Mormons.

The campaign bought a large billboard in Times Square, where the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” a satirical take on the religion, is a smash success. Mormon expert Jan Shipps said the church spent $1 million in Times Square alone. The church would not comment on the figure.

But the marketing efforts have drawn criticism from both inside and outside the church.

“There is a concern that public affairs, or the urge to be attractive, goes too far toward assimilation,” said Richard Bushman, a Mormon and historian of American religion. “You strain out anything that would be unusual. And for many Mormons it’s the distinctive, far-out beliefs that are the most exciting part of their religion.”

Critics point to the “I’m a Mormon” ads, which they say highlight professional women, although church leaders have always encouraged women to see the home as their sacred territory.

Others say they are concerned about the scope and apparent budget of the Latter-day Saints’ branding efforts and the notion that a faith group even needs an SEO staff and strategy.

Elizabeth Drescher, who advises mainline Protestant groups on using digital technology, was critical of the Latter-day Saints for pouring money into steering people to the church’s Web site.

“Online isn’t just a technology; it’s a place to go. It’s a landscape. It’s as though you looked down the street and all you saw were LDS churches,” Drescher said. “It’s a way to triumph over democracy. To me, it’s freaky.”

The Mormon public relations machine goes back more than a century, to the period after the church renounced polygamy and Utah was allowed to become a state. In the decades that followed, Mormons experienced harsh prejudice. As late as the 1970s, church pollsters found that some of the top words Americans associated with the faith were “polygamists” and “racists.” That’s when the church hired the best producers to shoot public-service announcements for television. Ten years later, the best-known word was “family,” Allen said.

The attempt at image control has even been reflected in the church’s name. Experts on Mormon history say the words “Jesus Christ” literally became larger in the church’s materials, with the intention of highlighting reverence for Jesus. Critics who saw the church as non-Christian used the term “Mormon,” referring to the religion’s sacred text, the Book of Mormon.

Then came the search engine box. And the Salt Lake Olympics. And Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. And the HBO series “Big Love.” And the reality that millions of people had begun typing “Mormon” into that box. Concerned that the word could be used by controversial splinter groups that celebrate polygamy, church officials pursued an unsuccessful attempt to trademark the name.

Sociologist Ryan Cragun, a former Mormon who now heads the Mormon Social Science Association, said the church now wants full ownership of the term. “They have gone after the word ‘Mormon,’ ” he said. “They want it back.”