Introductory Remarks for a Workshop at the Canadian Unitarian Council Annual Conference and Meeting, Hamilton Ontario, May 2005

"How to Build Good Church Websites"

Presenter: Bert Christensen

As most of you know, I am Bert Christensen. I have attended over 20 CUC Annual Meetings, 18 UUA General Assemblies, and an unknown number of district meetings. These days, Iím not attending many meetings any more, but instead devote most of my time to webweaving.

I am the webweaver for the CUC, the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, The First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, Don Heights Unitarian Congregation, the UU Intergenerational Services site, the Toronto Camera Club, and my own site, Bert Christensenís Cyberspace Home. These sites receive a total of about 1 million page hits a month. So when Mary Bennett asked me to do a workshop on building a good church webpage, I thought I probably have enough experience.

I believe that the web is the most important method of communication since the telephone. These days, if people want to find out about almost anything, they turn first to Google, Yahoo, MSN or other search engines. And with good reason. A few weeks ago, I added a new page to my own web site. Within 12 hours, the Japanese version of Yahoo had it catalogued AND translated into Japanese. In the Toronto church about 20% of new members first became interested by visiting the web site, and almost all new members had visited the site. National organizations like the CUC as well as local churches must have effective web sites to be a part of the 21st century.

As part of my CUC webweaver duties, I check all the UU Canadian sites about once a month. I also regularly check UU church sites and church sites in other denominations, and while we in Canada are no worse than others, there is still lots of room for improvement. Let me briefly go through what I think makes a good church website, then weíll deal with questions you may have.

A website should have Style.

By style, I mean design. The site should be pleasant to look at, have pleasing colours, pictures and graphics, make good use of white space. Have someone who has a knack for visual design look at your site and make suggestions. The Hamilton site is an example. The green colour represents the feeling most people have when the grass first starts to grow in the spring. The maroon border and printing represent a protected warmth. The pictures at the top are of diverse people obviously happy to be a part of the church. The stained glass adds to the warmth and enhances the fact that it is a church. A common fault with UU sites is, unsurprisingly, too many words. Donít try to cover everything on the front page but have links that people can explore if they want more information. I cannot emphasize enough the need for pictures of people. Many churches have pictures of their buildings front and centre but I am much more interested in getting an idea of the people than I am of bricks and mortar.

A website should have Depth

The site has to have enough varied information to engage the viewer and encourage them to look further. A church site should have a minimum of 40 to 50 pages of material. The Toronto site has all the usual things like sermons, RE, Lay Chaplaincy, Adult Program, etc. but also has history of the church, interesting and humourous snippets from other UU church histories, pictures of a variety of other UU churches, UU humour to name but a few.

A website needs Integrity.

The site must represent the church as it is so that people donít get a different impression of the feel of the place when they visit the church in person. A good website will make people feel that they know the church even before visiting it.

A website needs to be Timely.

Nothing is worse than a site with out-of-date information. Church sites need to be updated every few days and certainly no less than once a week. Get someone to read through the site regularly for out-of-date material.

A website needs to be Inviting.

Salespeople are always taught to ask for the sale. The front page should, in some way, invite the person to attend the church.

A website should have Class.

Have your own domain name. It looks cheap to use Geocities or other "free" hosts. No banner ads, no hit counters, no cutesy animations. You want members of the church to be proud to recommend the website to friends. The web is a graphical medium so have lots and lots of pictures, especially of people who look happy to be there. The picture on the front of the Don Heights site, for example shows a group of people being successful and obviously enjoying it.

Economy

By economy I donít mean money. With domain names at $10 a year and hosting less than $15 a month for first class service, money really shouldnít be an issue. Instead, I mean economy of work to keep up the site. Use a wysywyg web program like Dreamweaver or Frontpage. Doing sites with Notepad might appeal to the geek purist but soon gets very tiring. Use master pages or templates so that you can plug in new material quickly and efficiently. Use "include" pages especially for navigation areas and headers and footers. That way, if there are changes, they can be made once only for all the pages on the site. You should be able to concentrate on content not the background mechanics.

Measureability

You need to be able to see what parts of your site are getting the most use, what parts of the site and what parts donít work. The company that hosts your website will collect huge amounts of data from each page of your website, on the number of hits and where they come from. A typical report from your host would include such things as number of successful requests, average number of requests per day, failed requests, redirect requests, distinct files requested, and even how many people have bookmarked your site.

On all my sites, I publish these statistics once a month. Your Lay-Chaplains, for example, may want to know how many hits a month their page received. Overall, youíll be interested to know which pages received the most number of hits; what part of your website is most likely bringing in the most number of visitors.

These reports also provide you with the search phrases used by visitors who found your site through search engines like Yahoo or Google. For example, people who found the Toronto First site have gone searching, using obvious words like:

"unitarian church toronto", and "first unitarian,"

but they also found us using a variety of other phrases:
"neolithic religion"
"stage of life"
"itís turtles all the way down"
"purpose of reconciliation"
"chinese symbols"
"fatherís day readings"
"wise as a serpent"
and "faithful fools"

See http://www.bertc.com/subtwo/statistics_last.html and http://cuc.ca/web_stats/webstats.htm for examples of web statistics pages. The first uses a program called Analog and the second uses Happylog, which unfortunately appears to be out of business. There are a number of others some of which are outrageously expensive. Most web hosts have their own stats programs of various qualities.

Getting Started:

When churches want a web site, they often look around to find the most computer savvy nerd in the congregation. Wrong! Better to ask an artist, an advertising person, anyone who has design flair. The technical part of building a site is not rocket science. Anyone who can use a word processor, Powerpoint or Publisher will have no difficulty using Microsoft Frontpage, Dreamweaver or other web building software. Design is far and away more important than technicalities.

Get onto the congregations section of the CUC site and look at the sites of all the UU churches in Canada. Look at them as if you are searching for a church to attend and that they are all within a few miles of your home. Write down the names of those that you would like to attend. Then get on the UUA site and pick a big state like New York or California and go through all those sites, again writing down the names of those which appeal to you. Do a Google search of churches in your town and, ignoring the theology, write down the appealing ones.

Then, go back over your list and write down the elements of those sites that appeal to you. Then, start building your site using and borrowing parts of those sites so that you will have something that can be developed further into your churchís own style and content. Resist the urge to put in fancy navigation buttons or other bells and whistles at least until the design is reasonably nailed down.

Some of you might find the Don Heights site interesting. I have only been working on that site for two or three weeks. So far, I have removed material dating back to 2002, changed a background that everyone disliked, simplified the navigation and put happier pictures on the front page. My mandate is to completely redesign the site and I will be working on that with a small Don Heights committee over the next few months. Check that site every once in a while to see the results.

Some of my favourite sites:

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego 

Elgin Illinois

Deerfield Illinois

For other well done web sites see http://bertc.com/web_stuff.htm