Saturday, May 31, 2008

Church websites - some pointers to what makes a good or a bad one

Church websites. Some of the first ones were fairly amateur. Hobbyists with HTML skills, making a site that could hold basic information about their local faith community.

Today, the quality of church websites in Northern Ireland is very wide. Some are still showing their amateur roots. Others have been produced by particularly talented ministers and hackers – with an eye for style, together with a head full of technical knowledge about making a website that works.

Finally, there are those churches which have paid someone to build them a site. They stand out a mile. In my opinion, they’re not always better than the ones produced by talented insiders. The people who make paid-for sites fall into two broad categories. Late teens, early twenties who earn a bit of money on the side producing websites. And small web companies who do it full time.

Presbyterian Church in Ireland - logo

I spent last night surveying a list of fifteen or so sites entered into web section of the Presbyterian Achievement in Communications Awards. I’ll link to the winner after it’s been announced at General Assembly on Thursday morning. And to protect the innocent, I’ll not link to the other entrants!

Update - Maynooth Community Church won the Internet category, though May Street won the Print category and was commended for its quality across the full range of media. (Personally - and against my criteria - I'd highly rate May Street's website too - but I wasn't the only judge ...)

I’m not someone that you’d give money to in order to generate a website. The unadventurous template that AiB uses on Blogger told you that already. But I’ve a fair idea of some of the things that make websites usable and attractive, and I’ve spent a while figuring out the kind of information that people using a church website are looking for.

Call them user stories, use cases, or scenarios. But there are a few simple reasons why different groups of people go to a church website.

  • New people to an area wanting to find out about churches in their area. They’re looking for a quick way to assess the type of church it is. Are they open to visitors? Are they engaged in their community? Is there evidence that the church is alive?

  • Make sure that your church website can be found using a simple Google search – eg, “Church Name Presbyterian”.

  • Visitors and new people in an area wanting to find the address – including a postcode (for the nefarious GPS) – and directions/map to the church. You’d be surprised the number of churches who have the address on one webpage, and a map on another. So you need to waste two pieces of paper printing out the details you need. And they want to quickly find the time of the Sunday services ... and don’t forget to mention if the time changes in the summer (and define what “summer” is).

  • New families would expect to be able to find out what time and day of the week various youth organisations meet on (Girls Brigade, BB, Girl Guides, Scouts, Youth Clubs, Youth Fellowships etc). One site had a menu of pages based around day of week and then subsequent hierarchy for the organisations meeting on those days. So to find the BB details, I had to go through Monday, Tuesday, … until finding it on Friday’s page, and then click on the BB link. Very neat, but not at all intuitive.

  • People will also want to find out who the minister is. Name, sympathetic photo and a bit about them. How can they get in touch with them. Just an email address isn’t going to be enough. If they don’t give out their home numbers, then put the church office number beside the minister’s blurb and say that you can leave a message for them on that number.

  • If you have a church website – keep it up to date. Refresh its content regularly. It’s really disheartening to find information promoting the flower festival that finished two months ago being highlighted on the front page. Or announcements from three weeks ago, but not last week.

  • So consider putting your weekly announcements bulletin online – if you can commit to keeping it up-to-date, and can edit out people’s personal details (addresses and possibly phone numbers too). Some churches hide these in a members area with a simple password that they print on the paper bulletins handed out to people in church. Others store them as images or Adobe FlashPaper.

Keep an eye on broken links. Half the sites I looked at had broken links. Some of which I found within five clicks of surfing, others that the slightly weird but free Xenu link checker picked up in the background while I visually checked out the site’s content.

And style is important - though not an end in itself. Consistency gives a website a certain feel of quality, a class if you like. Inconsistent style quickly makes the world's best content look like a dog's breakfast. So stick to the same ways of laying out pages - whether that's achieved through style sheets (CSS) or templates in your online or offline web editing tool.

Think about accessibility (and mobility).

  • Your images must have ALT tags. Does your site work with images switched off? Two thirds of the sites I looked at – including some professionally produced and paid for – had no ALT tags, or they all defaulted to “IMAGE”. Made it hard to navigate past some home pages.

  • You should make sure you can navigate the site using a keyboard (TABbing around) and not just with a mouse.

  • I’m not a big fan of menus that only work with JavaScript enabled. Or that demand Flash and don’t degrade gracefully.

  • Can the legibility be enhanced by using common browser’s menu support for increasing text size? Again, I was surprised that the style sheets some professional sites used demanded absolute text sizes. Or when menu button text got larger, but the main content stayed the same size.

  • Browser support = IE7 > Mozilla > Safari > Opera

  • Will the site be usable on a PDA device like a Blackberry (which has a tiny screen, often runs over slower GPRS and can have JavaScript disabled) or a small-screen device like an Eee PC. A coupe of sites were sized for 1024 pixel wide browser windows, requiring a lot of sideways scrolling. Boo hiss.

  • Keep the size of your home page small. Last night’s competitors ranged from 14K up to 7MB. About a third came in around 150-200K. Another third were between 500K and 1MB. Ouch.

  • Update - Make sure there's some way to subscribe to changes and updates on your site - eg, an RSS feed. People won't necessarily keep coming back to check your site, but they may subscribe and then see changes that way.

A proportion of your site’s visitors may be using a screen reader or a non-standard browser. They may have images switched off – maybe to decrease bandwidth if they’re on the move. I’ve been frustrated more than once trying to find the address for a church using a Blackberry and finding that the page sizes exceeded the handheld device’s buffer or required several minutes of frantic GPRS traffic to download the page.

PCI also has Guidelines for Internet Usage which it encourages congregations to adopt. The principles around use of photos - individuals, young people, permissions - copyright, external links etc.

That’s not a definitive list – but it covers some of the important bases. I’d be interested to hear read your suggestions, so please do leave comments below.

To close, some random observations:

  • Playing music on your homepage is a neat trick, but think twice, thrice and then pray about it for a month before actually doing it.

  • Animated icons are tiresome. As are links to pages that just say “Under Construction”. Nearly better to have no link that a fruitless one.

  • While no church based their entire site around Wordpress (expect to see that next year), some did use it niftily embedded within their sites for news items and blogs.

  • About a third of the sites offered downloads of services/sermons. One even offered live streaming as an extension of the more traditional “tape ministry” (that now features CDs rather than worn out C90s cassettes). Offering downloads which include hymns and songs may be in breach of copyright if the correct licences are not arranged.


David Lowry said...

Hi Alan
I'm a bit of a lurker. Apologies. FWIW my church site is Wordpress based and some day will look entirely the way I intended it (the old when I get finished with xyz excuse) some day.

Alan in Belfast said...

That's ok - lurking's allowed. And now you've come out of the shadows, you could be commenting all over the place!!!

Wordpress is definitely a great platform. Some newspapers - UK local and more major US ones - have cut across to Wordpress sites, and you can only tell by the make-up of the URLs.

Ruth Elkin said...

Hi Dave... didn't know you lurked over here creeping out other people ;o)

Heeeheeeee... I've been working on one for Bannside... but they're too scared of ye olde interweb to allow it to go public.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this alan, me and a couple of friends (you know harrison gilmore?) are building a website at the moment for kells PC...

Niall said...

Remind me to send you the near essay-length message I ended up writing about the main types of websites as I see them - "libraries" and "communities" (although the latter needs to include the former in some way).

Glad to see that ticks most of the user stories - some of the accessibility points are good and we probably need to do better there (although was pleasantly surprised when turning off CSS and images using Webdeveloper on Firefox)!

Alan in Belfast said...

Connor - do say hi to Harrison.

Niall - Must run KPC through the spreadsheet soon to soo how it would score. Terribly subjective though.

Spider. said...

Hi Alan, another lurker here ;-). Great post on websites in general, but especially church sites. I agree with you that music on the site should be prayed about and hopefully discarded. My preference is the burning bush website, (no I'm not FP!), I just like the site, and visit it regularly to listen to some of their sermons. I like to hear the bible preached the way they preach it.

Any website that is basic and user friendly is good in my book, but some of them are difficult to load, so I tend to stick to a few.

Tony said...

Very valuable thoughts! You may be interested in Internet Evangelism Day's church website design self-asesssment tool which helps churches see ways to reach outsiders through their sites.



Alan in Belfast said...

Tony - like your list - though I'm a bit concerned that it only just tackles accessibility (no mention of ALT tags/image descriptions).

But I feel a session at this summer's Tech Camp to get folk to think more about what "good" looks like when it comes to something like a congregational website. This will be a good basis.

Niall said...

I may have missed the post giving the winners of 'The Achievement in Communication Awards', and if so apologies for a duplicate post. In case I haven't, the winners of the four categories were:

Print -- May Street Presbyterian
Internet -- Maynooth Community Church
Audio-Visual -- Downshire Road
Broadcast -- Vicki Sandal

(from Thursday's Assembly business review)

Alan in Belfast said...

Thanks for the reminder - I hadn't got around to updating the post with the winner as I'd promised.