Mormons are Taking Over the Internet!

The Washington Post has an interesting article about the church’s success with search-engine optimization, PR, and “controlling its image” online. There’s plenty of hyperbole in the article (have we really “infused SEO into [our] culture?” C’mon), some sloppy sourcing (of course a Protestant digital strategist says Mormons are taking over the web), and a misuse of the word “bloggernacle.”

But there were also some nuggets we can learn from, and plenty we should be discussing.

One of which is the effect of our own success: We’re an incredibly savvy church when it comes to online marketing. Mormon ads are everywhere online, our content ranks highly in search engines, and comment boards around the web are full of LDS commenters testifying and correcting (and arguing).

Which is mostly great, but there’s a real danger of overdoing it. Having a bunch of LDS commenters jump on a discussion board to testify at you is about like having a roomful of missionaries all try to teach you at once. It’s an outpouring of faith, yes, but it’s also really annoying. And who invited all those missionaries, anyway?

The article’s sources also point out less legitimate marketing tactics like link building (getting groups of people to click on specific links to raise them in the search results). I would add content farming and affiliate networks as well (pushing low-quality content out to hundreds of networked sites as a way to dominate search results). This stuff isn’t illegal, but it tends to boost search traffic at the expense of a brand’s public image.

And then there’s the horrible naming of the “Mormon Defense League,” which I heard about a couple weeks ago in conjunction with the FAIR conference, and which I hoped would get a quick rebranding as something less combative. It’s a big scary name that, to me, carries an implication of violence, and can even legitimize our critics—we need the defense of a league!

I’ll join with the WaPo reporter in criticizing some of the church’s more brute-force online tactics. But there’s another side to this conversation, and I’ve been talking about this with John F.: There really is an army of trolls out there who mean us harm. As John wrote me:

“The reporter did not mention that if you type in any Mormon related church term, you get hundreds, thousands, or even millions of anti Mormon hits. That is, not just neutral or uninformed websites with unofficial information about Mormons but rather explicitly and intentionally anti-Mormon.”

Our responses to those detractors might often be ham-fisted, but responses are necessary. And while I tend to disagree with tactics used by groups like The More Good Foundation, the truth is that there is an opposing force fighting for control of search terms, comment boards, and perceptions of the church. The WaPo article’s own comment board is a testament to how quickly conversations about the church can get nasty. The comments are full of trolls, along with Mormons battling them faithfully (but in many cases stupidly).

The balance for the church is the need to own Mormon-related search terms and its own public image, and at the same time avoid fighting crap with crap. We’re not selling a product, a lifestyle, a set of keywords, or a community. We’re sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our marketing tactics need to reflect the core principles of our “brand,” especially because online, the marketing tactics largely ARE the brand. If we engage in shady astroturfing, link networks, comment wars, and an overall strategy of shouting down or burying every dissenting voice, that’s what we’ll be known for online. If we feel the need to lash out and defend ourselves against every silly criticism, we will be associated with defensiveness.

Boldly, nobly, and independent—that’s how the gospel spreads. It’s possible for a marketing strategy to be bold, noble, and independent, and I do think most of the church’s current efforts are exactly those things.

But to answer the article’s challenge, it behooves any of us who feel the need to “control our image” to remember that our image should be that of the Savior. Let’s behave accordingly.

Comments

  1. Kyle,

    I’ll join with the WaPo reporter in criticizing some of the church’s more brute-force online tactics.

    Do you make a distinction between the actual LDS Church’s “tactics” and the responses of largely independent–even if affiliated/related–organizations of LDS Church members? Is there any distinction? Or do you see the same tactics being used by both groups?

  2. Don’t feed the trolls.

  3. There is a big distinction, Scott. Unfortunately, I doubt the distinction exists in the minds of the audience–the “brand” that More Good and Mormon Defense League are representing is the LDS church, despite their disclaimers to the contrary.

  4. Kyle,
    I think that maybe one of the reasons I asked is not because I actually think that the distinction exists in the minds of non-LDS people in any of those forums or doing web searches, but for this forum: I wanted to be clear on who or what we’re criticizing/suggesting improvements for–the institutional church itself, or the diverse organizations and would-be online missionaries who do not actually represent the Church. I think that, in this forum, the distinction is important in terms of setting the proper tone for discussion.

  5. observer fka eric s says:

    Great topic. Despite the ever-familiar disclaimer contained in “unofficial” media and literature, it does seem that all of those media are the Church to the audience. In that way, at its most withdrawn level, each LDS member is “the church” to the audience. So this then raises the issue of whether individuality of interpretation of faith is at all undermining the Church’s (SLC HQ people) more (for lack of a better concept term) “correlated” or unified PR efforts. In other words, I imagine that a PR “look and feel” image created by LDS members who participate on the Bloggernacle may look different than the “I’m A Mormon” campaign. I looked at the MDL website, and it has it’s own distinct, look and feel–probably different than the way many others would present it. So, paradoxically, is The Church’s suggestion to member bloggers–to participate in the dialogue–actuall adding to the apparent public’s confusion over what exactly a “Mormon” is? If so, is The Church chasing a moving target?

  6. and a misuse of the word “bloggernacle.”

    Wow, I read this piece earlier, and I (crazily enough) imagined you guys would be happy that a major national publication highlighted the Bloggernacle and even linked to you. Just out of curiosity, what’s your objection to what the article said about the Bloggernacle?

  7. Steve Evans says:

    chanson, it basically identifies the bloggernacle as some sort of unofficial mouthpiece of the church or kind of astroturfed effort. It’s fairly insulting.

  8. Researcher says:

    In the online comments to an NPR story today about Warren Jeffs and dissension among the FLDS, a commenter objected to another’s use of the word “Mormon.” The reporter, Howard Berkes, entered the conversation to address a few points that had been raised and said:

    As we have clearly stated in story after story over the years, modern polygamists are not Mormons and modern Mormons are not polygamists. The Mormon Church is unequivocal in rejecting polygamy and polygamists in modern times.

    It looks like some in the media are clear on their usage of the term “Mormon” although it may be a more amorphous concept in the general population.

  9. chanson, I would have preferred a finer distinction between the bloggernacle and the entire Mormon webverse–the bloggernacle doesn’t really engage in the SEO wars, and I think we’re a bit more clear about not speaking for the church. It’s a nit though–you’re right to call it out.

    Researcher points out an example of confusion that is NOT a nit…

  10. observer fka eric s says:

    (8) But isn’t Berke even a little off in his description? For example, there are many people who call themselves “Mormon” based on culture and values but are not (or no longer are) active in the CJSLDS. It’s a battle over identity based on a single word. So wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say, “polygamists are not [members of the CJSLDS]” instead of saying, “not Mormons.” Many polygamists consider themselves Mormons, no? And I think it would border on hypocritical for the CJSLDS to claim who is and is not “Mormon” like the evangels want to claim who is and is not “Christian.”

  11. This comment by Elizabeth Drescher in the article caught my eye. Looking at the Church’s efforts at SEO, she complained that indeed we may have gone to far, comparing it to looking at a street and seeing only LDS churches:
    “It’s a way to triumph over democracy. To me, it’s freaky.”

    This from a consultant who advises Protestant churches about technology. What does she advise them to do? Ignore the internet? It seems a bit like a sore loser.

    I will echo your observation that we need to remember who we are, and act accordingly. We all hate trolls, so let’s not become one ourselves.

  12. 10) You ask a good question, one that I’ve wondered myself: DO polygamists call themselves “Mormon?” Does anyone know?

  13. Wraith of Blake says:

    I must be missing some nuance here. So, OK: the article mentioned Mormons. And in this present blog post and thread, this media mention is discussed–by Mormons. And, the article itself had said that in the bloggernacle, media mentions of Mormonism tend to be discussed by Mormons–with the word bloggernacle a link that leads to an aggregator whose by-line says it is the “Gateway to the Bloggernacle”… that, sure enough, aggregates blog posts, many of which discuss mentions of Mormons in the media. Which assertion in the article is essentially inaccurate–because—-?

  14. I do think it is important to control the message. At the same time, it is a very fine line between a sincere effort and what some might portray as manipulation of whatever – be it rankings, emotions, etc. For example, as a missionary, we were taught to try to help invoke good feelings in people, tell them that was the spirit testifying of the truth of our message, and try to get them to make specific commitments based on that – up to and including baptism. It seems a pure way of sharing something that is important to us.

    However, this same method is actually commercialized and trademarked by the Church. As the for-profit subsidiary of the Church, Bonneville Communications, promotes on their website here:

    Our unique strength is the ability to touch the hearts and minds of our audiences, evoking first feeling, then thought and, finally, action. We call this uniquely powerful brand of creative “HeartSell”® – strategic emotional advertising that stimulates response.

    So, organic and natural placement on the internet or in teaching or in getting across who we are can be successful. But if it is seen as manipulative, it will backfire and actually do more harm than good.

  15. Chris Gordon says:

    Anyone want to weigh in on what form the “official” church’s strategy has affected their local unit? Here in Denver we’ve been told that we’re one of the markets in which the church is going to be investing a bit of extra dollars in terms of TV and radio space, and I presume SEO efforts. Accordingly, we’ve been encouraged to set up Mormon.org profiles, I assume in response to additional traffic by folks in Denver responding to the marketing.

    Before that, we’d received just general encouragement along the lines of Elder Ballard’s counsel in 2008 (http://lds.org/ensign/2008/07/sharing-the-gospel-using-the-internet?lang=eng) together with the invitation to set up a Mormon.org profile. To my knowledge, for about two years I was the only one in the ward to have set one up and have been given the unofficial calling to train folks who are interested.

    I do know that FTM’s like to use Mormon.org as part of their teaching. When they come across questions or concerns, ours very frequently will ask if the investigator would mind looking at some answers to the questions through Mormon.org. (If anyone doesn’t know, as part of your profile you can give your thoughts about various aspects of the gospel from your own baptism to your feelings on women and the priesthood.) Anecdotally, the ones in our area have had lots of good results with it.

    I’d be curious to hear in what other ways the tech push has manifested itself in different parts of the country. I ask because the article’s discussion about the church’s strategy included a link to the ldstech wiki which I’m not sure qualifies as a master strategy given how few people know about or use that resource.

  16. As long as the online efforts aren’t dishonest, I’d much rather have the best online approach in the world than a mediocre or bad one. I agree with kevinf that the complaint he referenced sounds like sour grapes to me.

    I’m no expert in this area, so I would like a little more basic explanation of why link building and SEO efforts are “less legitimate”. Is it just because some people might think the results are from the activities of “regular people” – or that the efforts, in an ideal world, are “supposed to be” from regular people? It just seems like smart marketing to me (and I know it’s common throughout marketing), so I’d like to hear more about why it’s “less legitimate” – and not just another example of people who are ticked off that the LDS Church is better at something than they are.

  17. Additionally, I would like to ask:

    Is the main problem one of perception – that it’s a church and not a traditional business that is so good at this? Do these same complaints occur with regard to traditional businesses who do these things?

  18. Ray, regarding “link-building” as I understand from our company’s use of SEO, is questionable due to some of the limitations of search technology. Traditional textual search can’t understand the difference between the word “dog” for example, and the same letters in the word “dogma”, which has a totally different meaning. Lots of money and the work of many people is involved in trying to come up with schemes to overcome this lack of context while searching. SEO tries to glean context from additional information peripheral to your search. That’s why you see ads popping up on your gmail page from other text you’ve used in emails or other searches.

    Link-building per se can take two forms, one of which is mentioned in the article, by having people link from questionable websites (questionable in the sense that they may be totally unrelated to the topic at hand, not for inappropriate content) to your own website, or in this case, lds.org. The flip side, which we discovered using google ads, is that you can actually be charged extra for similarly questionable links related to keywords in your advertising. Again, this relates to context, which is the holy grail of SEO. HP just announced it is willing to pay $10 Billion for a company called Autonomy who claims to have made huge strides in what they call “Integrated Meaning Based Computing.” Google recently exposed some copying of search results by Microsoft in the Bing search engine, by link-building a bunch of meaningless nonsense words to raise their relative ranking. It wasn’t terribly awful for Microsoft, but it was embarrassing, and there is the potential for the church to be embarrassed in a similar fashion, even if it is not a direct result of correlated activity, but only well-meaning members who perceive this as part of their missionary outreach.

  19. Chris, I love having the “I’m a Mormon” campaign here in NYC. It uses mostly local people from the stake here, and their faces are all over–taxis, subways, Times Square. I wonder if the ad agency is planning on using local Denver people for the rollout there? I hope so–it’s a huge benefit. For instance, everyone in my office sees a coworker’s face in an ad on the subway during their commute to work. Makes mormonism and the campaign much more real.

  20. Ray, the More Good Foundation is a good example of what I’m talking about…I don’t know the extent of their strategy, but they operate a huge network of websites, which allows them to own good search keywords. They’re essentially content farming; churning out low-grade content that will grab search traffic. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content_farm)

    You can see the fruits of this approach in action here (a list of some of their websites): http://www.moregoodfoundation.org/websites

    Click around and take a look. They’re not awful websites, but they are clearly built to get search traffic, not to function as real web sites. For instance, check out the hilarious two-year span between comment and response: http://meetmormonmissionaries.org/9/seminary#comment-3520.

    My issue is that this bottom-feeder content represents my religion to anyone who stumbles upon it. Granted, I’d rather they find a More Good website than a More Bad website, but even better would be for them to stumble onto a real website run by a believing mormon with a heartbeat and a point of view.

  21. Ray,

    Is the main problem one of perception – that it’s a church and not a traditional business that is so good at this? Do these same complaints occur with regard to traditional businesses who do these things?

    I think the answer to the latter question is absolutely yes–they do. Astroturfing often gets criticized when it’s done by corporations or political candidates, and while I’m struggling to think of examples (someone else help me out here?), I know I’ve read numerous articles saying as much.

    However, I think your questions are really interesting nevertheless–it perhaps just changes the question from yes/no to one of magnitude and consequences. I’m just shooting from the hip, but it’s fairly easy for me to see a scenario where astroturfing from corporations is just seen as somewhat obnoxious marketing, whereas it can be seen as a cultish attempt at mind-control when it comes from a church with a reputation for obedience to the organization’s leadership.

    The consequences here are very different: for consumer goods, you can (reasonably quickly) change a marketing strategy, do a clever, non-obnoxious ad, and repair damage. For a religion, once you’ve creeped someone out, the door is likely slammed shut for a long time.

  22. Ray,
    Wikipedia provides an excellent list of examples of businesses, government, and others who have engaged in astroturfing. In most cases, it’s fairly clear that the actions were seen negatively by some parties.

  23. Thanks, Scott and kevin. I appreciate the information.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Is the complaint with MDL specifically what it does? If one looks at the website, mdl.org, it pretty clearly is meant to be a resource to the media when crazy things are said about the Mormons. So Huckabee says Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers, or Maher blathers on about magic underwear, and you’re a reporter and you have no idea what the hell these guys are talking about. The MDL gives a Mormon perspective on those types of things; something that it was very difficult for media to find in the past. So is that mission a problem?

    Or is the problem solely or specifically with the name (i.e., the branding)? I think the idea with the name was to be an analog to such organizations as the Catholic Defense League, so that its purpose would be immediately apparent to interested media. If you were given the assignment to improve the branding, what would be your suggestions?

  25. Kevin, I’m wondering why a group like FAIR is tackling media misconceptions directly–that’s not a challenge, I’m genuinely curious about the strategy, because it seems to heavily overlap with the mission of the Public Affairs office.

    The name is problematic for a couple reasons:
    1) It reinforces an image of defensiveness that the church appears to be trying to put behind us. In fact, the more the group is quoted in the media, the more it reinforces our defensiveness.
    2) It’s a shot across the bow of journalists (“get it right or pay the price!”). You can see the reaction in WaPo’s description of the group: “monitor reporting on the church, threatening to confront writers who it believes misrepresent the church.”

    It reads like her word selection was chosen to provoke fear in the reader–“monitor,” “threaten,” “confront.” Those words, combined with “Mormon Defense League,” make for a sinister-sounding description. I’m not sure what a good replacement name would be…”Mormon Cultural Center”? It’s a little more cuddly, and no one wants to be seen attacking a culture!

  26. Karmen (22) asks:

    DO polygamists call themselves “Mormon?” Does anyone know?

    There is a great deal of variation among polygamist groups and independent polygamists, but in general, the answer is Yes.

  27. I’ve publicly supported the idea of a “Mormon ADL” (echoing MikeInWeHo). I don’t think the MDL is a bad idea per se. I don’t think it’s appropriate for anti-Mormon websites to be the top search result in google searches for LDS terms (and in fact, I’ve personally urged bloggers to combat that trend). (And conversely, the sort of deceptive domain-hijacking that Allen Wyatt has engaged in is similarly inappropriate. When someone goes to utahlighthouse.com, they ought to get the Tanners’ site, not FAIR.)

    There have been serious implementation problems with the current iteration of the MDL, as observers including Ben Park and Ardis Parshall have noted. One underlying problem is likely to be the lack of an agreed-upon definition of anti-Mormon information or sites (and in particular, the lack of agreed-upon definition between anti-Mormon sites versus heterodox sites). Of course, some websites will clearly be in one camp or the other. But one test will be how the MDL interacts with sites like John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories, which is heterodox and is critical of some aspects of orthodox LDS doctrine, but which considers itself as under the Mormon umbrella.

  28. Romney / Huntsman 2012 says:

    The reason our church has good SEO is not because we’re savvy at it. It’s because all the evangelical churches are split up into local mega-churches, each with its own little website. We only have one website, LDS.ORG, and all 1 million website-owning Mormons link to it. There are maybe 25 million website-owning evangelicals in America, but they probably link to several thousand different little church websites.

    We’re not good at SEO. We’re just centralized. We have just one website.

  29. ” Granted, I’d rather they find a More Good website than a More Bad website, but even better would be for them to stumble onto a real website run by a believing mormon with a heartbeat and a point of view.”

    FWIW, at mormonwoman.org (an MGF-sponsored site), we respond, almost always within a day, to any comments, as well as send personal emails to let people know we’ve seen their comments. There are other sites as well with good response times. There’s just only so much a handful of people can do, though, and I think More Good has done amazing things for the small number of people who are working on it all.

    If you want to understand some of More Good’s strategy, it might help to think of the more dormant sites more like placeholders, websites-to-be waiting for people with heartbeats and hearts who want to take responsibility for the individual sites and manage them. (This post gives more info about it all.)

    In other words, I would imagine MGF would agree with Kyle’s comment above about the ideal being websites that are active, but they simply need many other hands to make it happen.

  30. Thanks for your comment, Michelle, it’s good to have you here. My concern with placeholder sites is that, from the outside, it really does have the appearance of a network of content farm sites. And every visitor to a placeholder site is less likely to stumble onto a “real” site with a community that can befriend and answer questions.

    I get why the strategy was implemented, but it has led to lots of sites that are beneath our brand.

    Good point, Romney/Huntsman.

  31. Kyle, thanks for the response. I understand and agree with the potential downsides, but I guess I’d rather err on what you said before — at least people find something positive. It also keeps the URLs from being snatched up from those with subversive motivations. Also, in reality, some people don’t want community, they just are looking for information in the privacy of their homes. I think there is enough of community out there that people can find, that, too, without much difficulty.

    I’m not trying to minimize what you are saying, but I also tend to look at this all with perhaps a little different perspective. I see it all as an interconnected effort where different groups/individuals/organizations may fill different needs ‘out there.’ Not every website is going to be a full-fledged community, and I think that is ok. That is the case in any realm. For example, as someone with health issues, I know that some sites are going to be more static, information based resources, and other places will exist for more interactive Q&A kinds of dynamics. I also know that if I want accurate information, I’m going to have to go to several reputable websites and watch for patterns to see what info has some legitimacy.

    Of course, I’m not saying anything you don’t know…just trying to use that illustration to explain my thoughts on this. I just think that unlike any other time in our history, individual consumers of information have more responsibility on their own shoulders to do their homework and form educated opinions — to really seek if they want to find out more, rather than passively consume whatever may cross their path. It’s becoming pretty difficult (at least in English-speaking realms) to say “I never actually knew what the Mormons believe” — unless the individual hasn’t actually done much searching in the first place. The combination of official Church efforts, myriad individual bloggers (prominent and not-so-prominent), blogging communities, organizations like FAIR and MGF, social media (and all that has brought to the table), and media exposure (good and bad) provide a variety of voices and perspectives and opportunities to find out more and/or connect with real-life Latter-day Saints.

    In short, I think it can all work together for the whole, all the more so because I think different people are looking for different things, and it’s becoming a lot more of the reality that they can find what they seek.

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    The main model for MDL was the Anti-Defamation League; that is where the “League” comes from.

    I know that MDL absolutely rejects the characterization that it intends ““threatening to confront writers who it believes misrepresent the church.” Defense is not attack. Yes it will monitor reporting on the Church, but its remedy will be to post explanatory articles on its website.

    Kaimi, I don’t imagine MDL will have anything to do with a site like Mormon Stories. Its focus is mainstream media, not Mormon websites.

  33. 27: Am not sure why my name is mentioned by Kaimi as having noted “serious implementation problems with the current iteration of the MDL” since I did not take part in the linked discussion. While I appreciate much of the wealth of information posted by FAIR, I am not a fan of the more aggressive tactics of FAIR (and especially of numbers of their members when acting together under umbrellas that allow them to go on the attack while claiming not to be acting in the name of FAIR), and I’m wary of MDL until they have shown whether they’ll be more courteously informative in the mode of the FAIR Wiki, or more scurrilous and vicious in the mode of some of their loose cannon members. But still, this comment is my first public comment on MDL — I have not noted “serious implementation problems with the current iteration of the MDL.”

  34. Kyle M,
    I am sure you are not in agreement, but I think the question should at least be asked: Are Mormons are Taking Over the Internet!__or is the internet taking over the Mormons?
    Are Mormons acting, or are they being acted upon?
    To me, there is kind of a materialism or competition about the internet with which I am not comfortable.

  35. Ardis ;)

  36. Steve Evans says:

    Placeholder sites are straight-up content farms. Michelle, I’m calling BS on the MGF strategy here — it simply doesn’t make sense as you’ve described. Your response to Kyle obfuscates how the existing structure actually works, with a handful of active sites and dozens more sites that are mere placeholders and linkbait. That it’s mormons doing it in defense of their faith doesn’t make the practice any less bothersome from the perspective of an internet participant.

  37. I’m no expert in SEO (I don’t think anyone here is from what I can tell), nor am I representing the Church in this statement, but I do know that for everyone I talk with at the Church, we sincerely appreciate *all* the help we can get. Some times groups like MGF and MDL and other non-church affiliated organizations are the best ways non-members (and less-actives) can learn about the Church in a way the Church itself can’t always respond. I hope more people offer to help them out (as long as they are asking for help), or seek to find other ways to help. As always, check out http://tech.lds.org if you’re ever looking for a way to volunteer, or talk to me and I can point you in the right direction. We welcome *all* expertise if you have something to offer – no calling necessary!

  38. This is such a good and important discussion — thanks for putting it up, Kyle.

    A lot of great comments too.

    This is precisely why the Bloggernacle is so important and valuable. As a grass roots effort, long before the Church had corporatized a particular internet approach, individual Mormons who wanted to discuss Mormonism online simply started blogging and writing online about doctrine, spiritual experiences, lived religion and testimony. The blog was the perfect medium for this, combining Mormons’ dual interest in journaling and proselytizing. Eventually these blogs were referred to collectively in the abstract with the moniker “Bloggernacle”, a term coined by one such participant, “danithew”, and a number of these blogs were aggregated at the Mormon Archipelago. This is what the Bloggernacle was initially and still is. This is why the WaPo reporter got it completely wrong in how the term Bloggernacle was used in the article. The Bloggernacle has never been based on any official mandate from the Church and does not function in tandem with Church corporate PR strategies or other corporate policies. It predates Elder Ballard’s suggestion at the BYU Hawaii commencement address that Mormons should consider adding their voice, perspective and testimony to the online conversation about Mormonism and the Gospel and it remains a grass-roots network of individuals doing their own thing after all this time, completely uncoordinated and uncorrelated. It exemplifies what Kyle noted as the ideal in this equation: real websites run by real Mormons with real points of view. That the end product is a broad picture of Mormons and their beliefs about doctrinal points or historical issues that is completely uncorrelated is a feature, not a bug. And it is the only way we will appear authentic (as we actually are) to the world at large. People respond to authenticity, not a polished PR image, in my opnion. In my opinion, the latter makes people uncomfortable and suspicious.

    As to the Bloggernacle, from a small, unofficial and definitely uncorrelated start, a modicum of faithful, relatively faithful and positive or thoughtfully (yet faithfully) “critical” content about Mormons, Mormonism and the Church found its way onto the internet and began to balance truly overwhelming amounts of negative, destructively critical or outright and intentionally anti-Mormon content that had already been on the internet for years by 2003/2004 when the “Bloggernacle” came into being. The content in the Bloggernacle develops organically and represents real Mormons’ thoughtful views about their own religion and faith. It is by definition authentic and very valuable in the online discussion. Thanks to Mormon blogs aggregated on the MA (i.e. the Bloggernacle) and elsewhere internet searches about Mormon topics will turn up a treasure trove of thoughtful, real content alongside the mountains of anti-Mormon content and corporatized official PR content.

  39. Ten years ago, the Church’s online presence was pitiful. There were no online scriptures (other than a few independent typers-for-God who refused to take down their pages until the LDS got their butts in gear), no free PAF, no ward pages, no music, etc. Maybe they took their sweet time because they wanted to get it right. After a long, slow start, it’s satisfying to see a decent LDS presence on the web. The complainers are akin to outsiders who wistfully envied Nauvoo’s success.

  40. John F. conveniently leaves out the truth about how, like Al Gore, I invented the bloggernacle (with an assist from Grasshopper, not Danithew.)

    I hope you all listen when I warn you about the dangers of Blogal Warming.

  41. Oops, I knew that Grasshopper coined the term. That’s what I get for writing a long comment on a blackberry.

  42. I think we flatter ourselves if we think that the internet is helping us, in the balance.

    We have a colorful and disturbing history. For most of a century (if not longer) the primary strategy for dealing with it was to hide it. Wool over the eyes. Now with a few keystrokes on a computer a curious person can find out as much as it took me 20 years to discover as a youth. or they might choose to view more smut than my peers would see in a similar period of time.

    I think that in the mid to late 1990’s the growth of the LDS church began to plateau and the number of those resigning increased. I think this correlated grossly with the widespread use of the internet.

    In my perspective what is described above is damage control and an effort to fight back. Ultimately I hope the truth will prevail even if we are forced to accept some changes in the way we perceive ourselves.

  43. Researcher says:

    We have a colorful and disturbing history.

    And we have a beautiful and inspiring history.

  44. Again__caution.
    The Chruch has been a brick and mortar-horse and buggy- paper book culture all it life. How much now is it ready to go virtual? Under their old systems, they could have years to react. The internet morphs itself or others things in days.

  45. Thanks for your comment, Jesse, and I’m not an SEO expert (I’m still waiting for a real one to jump into this conversation). I’m a content strategist at an ad agency–my day-to-day job involves telling global corporations to be more transparent and human in the way they approach PR and marketing communications. Big companies often struggle with this, but their grassroots supporters tend to excel at it. Strangely, this situation feels somewhat reversed right now with regard to the Church–the official marketing for the church actually feels MORE human and authentic than some of the stuff the grassroots groups are doing. It’d make a great case study!

  46. Bob, the internet simply is. Not embracing it is stupid – at all levels.

    Frankly, I don’t think most local units have embraced it enough – in many ways. That’s changing, as the local leadership starts being comprised of people who grew up with this type of technology – and that’s a wonderful change.

  47. I really liked your use of the term “sloppy sourcing” for Boorstein. But then I was concerned by some of the commentary surrounding More Good Foundation. I can understand Boorstein’s conclusions are from an outsider looking in, as is some of the commentary here.

    First I should state Michelle is an amazing volunteer who runs MormonWoman.org, and she was sharing her personal perspective. I do feel the need to respond, because I know how much time, effort, and care goes into those articles on the More Good Foundation websites. These websites are informative sites, written by writers with big hearts who want to share their beliefs with others. So I do take offense knowing how much MGF writers and editors put into those articles to have their efforts chalked up to content farming.

    MGF used to have thousands of comments published and responded to, typically within 48 hours. But, due to trolling, discussions taking away from the spirit of the article, and additional questions being raised, it was decided to respond to people personally, and not publish them. MGF unpublished all comments across their sites at that time. Currently comments are responded to through email, and if appropriate, passed directly to official representatives. Occasionally comments will be published, especially ones like, “I’m interested in ‘this.’ Where do I go?” so they can be informative to other readers. Most of these sites are not meant to be an interactive site with commentary like “By Common Consent,” if that is what is needed to classify a site as a “real website.” MGF writers add fresh articles to the sites and go back to older articles and revise them, which is probably why Gale was on that page to respond to and republish that comment, not noticing the time frame. Both that comment and the response in question were set to public view on August 2, 2011.

    Many of the MGF sites have a chat widget for the MTC Missionaries so people can talk to someone with a heartbeat immediately. But let’s be realistic. As Elder Ballard said, “There are too many people participating in conversations about the Church for our Church personnel to converse with and respond to individually. We cannot answer every question, satisfy every inquiry, and respond to every inaccuracy that exists.” Despite MGF’s efforts to help people find the Church, sometimes people are looking for the unofficial voice and just have a curiosity they want answered.

    We need more people like Michelle who are active participants online, sharing their beliefs. MGF gives members the tools to do this by providing free websites and hosting so members can answer the call to begin sharing what they know to be true. You can visit http://siteadopt.org to find out more.

    “We cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the Church teaches.” We’re not perfect, but we are doing our best.

  48. I echo john f.’s comment about the value of the bloggernacle. It has been crucial to my own spiritual and intellectual growth for precisely the reasons he outlines. And I have to think that, as a bunch of people having honest, organic conversations about Mormonism without any desire to follow a correlated agenda, the bloggernacle does more for Church PR than it would if it was trying to do Church PR.

  49. >36

    Also, MGF placeholder sites monopolize domain names that could be used by people who want to create pro-Mormon sites.

  50. Katya, I bet if you had a good enough idea and you approached MoreGood, they’d consider letting you use one of their domains for your pro-Mormon site. I think one of the issues for us as Mormons is we just don’t talk to each other. We’re quick to complain, but we don’t ever consider just talking to the person or group we’re complaining about.

  51. Yeah, that link to Gale’s comment was actually the first page I went to while clicking around, Heather. I didn’t see anything in subsequent clicking to convince me that it’s not a representative example, so I used it.

    Re. the flawed sourcing, she said exactly what we’d expect, right? Total sour grapes. That said, going after general keywords like “employment” *is* kind of freaky, isn’t it? It’s like that guy you know who only talks about baseball, and no matter what the conversation topic is, he’s going to jump in with some unrelated baseball anecdote.

    “I’m searching on “employment” because I’m looking for a job…why are you telling me about your church?”

  52. My caution is no one controls the Internet. You can USE it. But no one saw Amazon, Google, or Facebook coming. Nor the Smart phone or Ipad.
    The question for the Church is do they gain control how people see them by being on the internet, or do they give it up?
    Also, when you use it, you give up certain things. Some good, some bad. If you go online, you give up meeting face to face .

  53. Kyle, because the Church has one of the largest and most helpful employment programs in the world and we can probably help more than most of the sources on that page. As a Ward Employment specialist, I’m grateful for that listing.

  54. >50

    Jesse, I actually did talk to them a couple of years ago, but they wouldn’t sell me a particular domain, only rent it to me under their supervision, which was too restrictive for the purpose I had in mind.

  55. But Jesse, the employment page’s meta data specifically says the service helps members get jobs. So while high search placement might be useful for you and your ward members, it’s spam for everyone else in your community.

  56. >Katya
    They could also be used by people to create anti-Mormon sites. :)

    The Site Adopt program allows MGF to pay all the fees related to a site. I’ve never taken a site back because of inappropriateness, but have had other volunteers work on an existing site because a previous volunteer abandoned it and was okay with giving it up. None of that could be done by selling domains.

    Send me an email Katya and let me know what you had in mind. Typically you can be pretty flexible when it comes to domain names, unless you’re trying to brand a commercial site.

  57. >56

    No thanks. Like I said, I need the flexibility of actually owning the domain.

  58. I stumble across MGF sites from time to time, and other sites that aren’t Mormon-related but which seem similarly neglected or abandoned, and, frankly, it just doesn’t look good for the people or organizations behind them. With few and very old posts, and no discussion, they look like abandoned blogs, the Detroits of the internet, where people didn’t have the interest or ability to keep them going but leave them hanging around as dead relics cluttering up the landscape. MGF should really undertake an internet renewal project — when a site is not active, it should be taken down, or a simple “under construction” sign put up, or be redirected to a central and active site. I can’t see that you’re doing any good, much less more good, by leaving the husks up.

  59. Is there an online place to ask serious doctrinal questions? It seems that blogs aren’t it, and people get offended if you hit too close to home.

    There should also be a place to throw around strategic ideas for bringing about “perfection of the saints”. Something where novel ideas are discussed instead of being dismissed out of hand. My impression is that if a person understood the Great Cosmic Truths and articulated them, they would be banned from all blogs for life.

  60. Katya, I understand that, and am willing to look at what you’re requesting, but I don’t have any email from a Katya too look into what the request was before.

    Ardis, I would be interested in which ones you have found in such a state. When these sites are leading people to the gospel, why take them down? Our sites under our control have hundreds of pages, newly added content, and receive a constant stream of comments. I’m not expecting a Site Adopt website to receive the same attention as an official site, but I’m not expecting a website with little attention to be easy to find either.

    Your comment is a blanket response with no feedback on what you see that could be done to help and does not address the concern of what site people would stumble upon if an information site with older, established content was not there?

  61. Peter LLC says:

    Ten years ago, the Church’s online presence was pitiful.

    Not only that, the Mothership was hacking at the grassroots, telling members to sign up with their official ward websites and leave the internet presence to the pros.

  62. Kyle,

    My take away from some of your post, and also what the WP article was aiming at is SEO is sinister, and yet, everyone is conscious of it and everyone does it. I heard a statistic that 85% of companies use SEO. I’m assuming that means we don’t know who the 15% are who don’t. You better believe our critics use SEO. The WP post article was highly exaggerated. It played on the idea that when people hear the term SEO, they automatically classify everything as black-hat. Even this blog uses some SEO. It’s not “By Common Consent.” It’s “By Common Consent, a Mormon blog.” What’s the point of putting the effort into a website, if no one is going to read it? How frustrating is that. What’s the point of the Church creating the Provident Living resources, if no one can find it?

    In a perfect world all people who were search for information about the Church would be brought directly to a Church website, because it’s awesome. But that is far from the case.

    I think it’s a great idea that anyone has the opportunity to take advantage of the free advice and tools Provident Living has to offer. If you’re going to be talking about secular things to readers, but somethings may be relevant to resources provided by the Church, why not refer readers there? I think that’s something we normally don’t think to do. The suggestion wasn’t for a Google bomb, bait and switch. Don’t talk about employment and link people over to the get a free Book of Mormon. Rather, talk about employment and link them over to some resources on resume building and interview tactics.

  63. Heather, it should be understandable that I wouldn’t record and save the URLs of useless (useless to me, if they’re not updated and appear unmonitored and abandoned) in order to give you the precise level of detail you are demanding. I don’t know that these seemingly abandoned websites are leading people to the church, but I’ll take your word for it.

    I do a lot of googling for one thing or another, which is how I end up on MGF websites as well as hundreds of others. I wouldn’t land there if there wasn’t something worthwhile on the site that looked interesting in the google results screen. But when I see that nothing has been updated for a long time, and that there is no conversation, or at least not recent conversation, why would I leave a comment myself (or try to, in the case of websites that don’t allow visible comments)? There *are* lots of abandoned websites and blogs that died after a few entries, and leaving a comment there seems pointless because I wouldn’t expect an answer. That’s my natural response to neglected websites of all types — I am surprised to learn that MGF sites without current content are different in that regard, and that they receive “a constant stream of comment.” That truly puzzles me, to the point of skepticism.

    It is clear that you will not accept any criticism of MGF from commenters here, and that you intend to respond to each criticism with a “you don’t know what you’re talking about” brush-off. I keep my own website constantly updated with fresh material, and host lively discussions all through the week. That’s where my time belongs, not in further discussion with someone who doesn’t think any criticism is valid. Ciao.

  64. Kyle, let me repose Scott B.s first question to another sentence. When you say:

    “There really is an army of trolls out there who mean us harm.”

    Are you implying some unified command waging a coordinated attack, or are there just a lot of bigots out there taking comfort and reinforcement in each other’s echo chamber? I ask, because I remember another Proposition where the same question was asked of a different group, and it really made a difference to me. A din of independent voices does not induce anger and is best countered through patient and persistent reasoning by the grassroots, whereas a coordinated assault can easily invoke rage and bad PR and requires a much more focused and calibrated approach from a central organization.

  65. Could I offer the viewpoint of a professional SEO? The first thing I would say is that the MGF is certainly NOT a content farm. And it certainly is not full of “placeholder” websites. I believe the reason so many of you are attempting to brand them that way is because “to you” the content is not deep enough, articulate enough, or “fresh” enough as Ardis points out. But none of that equates to a content farm, not even by the Wikipedia definition as was linked to above. The MGF researches relevant topics to find out how non-members are searching for information about the Church. Then they provide content for those folks. This is SEO. This is good website strategy. This is “good faith.” A Content Farm, like E-How, Associated Content, researches very broad topics for keywords that are easy (in most cases) to target. The MAIN intent is to generate tons of long tail search traffic for the purpose of selling advertising.

    Let’s remember that just because the content on the MGF doesn’t meet our own high expectations or isn’t “valuable” to some of us, perhaps due to our increased understanding of th Gospel, doesn’t necessarily mean it deserves our harsh criticism. Afterall, I doubt seasoned historians and accomplished authors such as Ardis are even the intended audience for a MGF site. In fact, I think the audience probably isn’t many of us members. Perhaps it’s non-members searching for information or members looking for basic information. Simple information. The success metric for Ardis’ websites might be number of reader comments. But MGF might have a success metric for missionary chats. Thus, a lack of comments on an MGF site does not indicate it is not useful, valuable, or unsuccessful.

  66. #46 (Ray): “Frankly, I don’t think most local units have embraced it enough – in many ways. That’s changing, as the local leadership starts being comprised of people who grew up with this type of technology – and that’s a wonderful change.”

    I think one obstacle for local units embracing the internet is that they don’t really control their own web sites. The web site format is controlled by lds.org. Even with the revamp of lds.org, the ward’s online info really only consists of member lists, leadership lists, calendars, & lesson schedules. Basically, it’s an online ward directory. And even this info is only available to members to who log in with their LDS Accounts.

    There is no current way for an interested non-member to go online and find out what current activities the local LDS church is doing in their community. I’ve actually tested this at mormon.org. A person can find out the times of the local unit’s Sunday meetings, yes. But if he or she clicks onto the ward website, and then clicks on the ward or stake events, the “Stake and Ward Web Site Sign In” window pops up and asks for their LDS account login.

    At this point, the previously-curious seeker will probably say “Never mind”, and surf elsewhere. So even if a ward were having a potluck or service activity which the seeker would have enjoyed, that information is not being shared with the public. Which is too bad.

    I can understand a firewall being necessary to protect the privacy of ward members’ addresses, phone numbers, emails, etc. But information about events for which we want people to show up? That should be outside the firewall.

  67. Dan, I think it’s a bit of both…I’m sure someone else here has more experience with anti-Mormon websites and trolls than I do. But from what I’ve seen, there are active groups and active individuals.

    Curtis, if this is going to be SEO expert vs content strategist, I doubt we’ll ever agree. Different means and different ends. But to me, even by your description, MGF does some content farming. Analytics-driven editorial for the purpose of long-tail reach, right?

  68. Kyle, that’s not “content farming” even by your description. MGF isn’t specifically after long tail reach…with sites like christ.org, would you agree? From what I can tell their strategy is to provide content that is of interest to non-members and get them in touch with missionaries.

    Your definition of “Analytics driven editorial for the purpose of long-tail reach…” is NOT content farming, at least in the negative sense you’ve been implying. It’s web publishing strategy. Having a strategy in place to target your audience is not a bad thing. But if you’re implying that a truly valuable website does not target its audience or seek to understand its audience through research and analytics I think anyone would say that’s crazy. That’s mommy blogging. If MGF has a goal to spread the gospel online, it makes sense that they target content to people who are searching for it. I think it’s as simple as that.

    regarding the seo vs content strategist…it was my understanding this began as an seo discussion, but not many with SEO experience were chiming in. Then it seems that the content purists decided to jump on the train of demonizing SEO practices, and specifically the practice of targeting search keywords with unique content.

    Oh, and also, I would add that link building does not equal link clicking. It’s also not related to pay per click ads as was suggested by a previous commenter here. Clicking links found in blogs does not raise rankings. Neither does traffic nor the participation in paid advertising with Google.

    I’m surprise more of you aren’t working WITH the MGF…perhaps you could earn some really powerful links to your own websites.

  69. I think I will start a website called “Anti-Mormon.com and go to the head of all these lists. :) :)

  70. Peter LLC says:

    If MGF has a goal to spread the gospel online, it makes sense that they target content to people who are searching for it. I think it’s as simple as that.

    If the responses from MGF supporters on this thread is any indication, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. I’m seeing more “put something out there to raise the odds that someone might stumble across it” and less “surgical precision” in targeting content.

  71. Peter, you have a point. Some MGF supporters may not be privy to the MGF strategy. Trust me though…it’s not “put something out there just to raise the odds someone might stumble across it.”

    They’re targeting specific phrases with known (although estimated) search volume. They are spreading the Gospel in places (ie. search results) that people are looking. Nothing wrong with this at all.

  72. And then there’s the horrible naming of the “Mormon Defense League,” which I heard about a couple weeks ago in conjunction with the FAIR conference, and which I hoped would get a quick rebranding as something less combative. It’s a big scary name that, to me, carries an implication of violence, and can even legitimize our critics—we need the defense of a league!

    Is the JDL a big scary or that implies violence? Nah. The problem with Mormon Defense League is that its a wannabe name.

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