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Church Websites 101: Not Always Easy, But Should Be


Church Websites 101: Not Always Easy, But Should Be
3rd in a series introduced in Church Websites 101: Easy. Not Simple. Last time, we fixed the easy stuff - now you'll need a little tech savvy to take care of some of these things. If you've selected a good CMS, most of this will be easy. If you're having to edit the pages or configuration directly - not so easy.

If you've gotten this far, you are well ahead of the majority of non-profit organizations. You have overcome the hurdle of publishing online and have developed a discipline for regular updates. Now, you're getting into some of the finer details of effectively sharing content online. You may also find your choice of tools is helping or maybe it is limiting your efforts.
Headings
  1. Content
  2. Configuration

Content

All content should be browsable

PDFs are for printing.

A common practice when moving from the Gutenburg generation to Google generation, is to simply republish your print materials online. It's simple - save your bulletin as a PDF file, then upload to your website and you're done. People can download and read the bulletin 'online'. Not really.

I still find bulletins that are formatted for printing - two-sided and folded. There is no flow to reading this on the screen. Multiple columns don't work well on the screen - readers have to scroll down, then up to read your text. Plus, viewing a PDF on a mobile device is an entirely different experience. Work the other way around - format for online reading, then create your printed materials from that.

Why isn't this easy? Because it's a shift in the way you think and old habits die hard.

Have unique page titles for every page

This is big. Really big. Huge, even.

"Why?", you ask.

  1. Every page should have a clear purpose. The page title defines its purpose.
  2. The search engines use the page title in their results list. Good titles lead to more visits to your site

This really isn't something you should have to think about, but it is something you need to watch. Your content management system should be handling this for you, just check your results and find out how you can make the most of your page titles. The first 60 - 70 characters are the most important, even fewer if your site is being viewed by mobile devices.

What should be in your page title? The focus of the page and the source of the information (your church). Spend some time crafting the titles for your pages.

Why isn't this easy? This isn't about selecting the title for your latest news update or sermon posting. The page title we're focusing on is a behind-the-scene title, which is visible in your browser's title bar. If you're viewing the page source, look in the head section for the <title> tag. Modern CMS platforms will generate this for you based on a variety of elements you can control. Spend some time learning how this works and make the most of it.

Have a unique and relevant page description for every page (meta description)

This continues from the last point. Can you provide an executive summary of each page? The reasons for unique page titles also apply here -

  1. Every page should have a clear purpose. The page title defines its purpose.
  2. The search engines may use the page description in their results list. Good descriptions lead to more visits.

While you will see the page titles (look at the top of your browser), you won't see the descriptions of the pages, unless you look under the hood. Right-click on any page and your browser should give you an option to 'View source'. Select it and you'll see what your browser sees before it converts the page into what you see. Look for meta name="description" content= this is your page description. Usually, if the search engines find this description matches the visible content on the page, it will be used in the search results list. If not, the search engines will grab text from the visible portions of the page.

Why isn't this easy? First, you need to clarify the purpose of every page, Second, you need to be able to summarize it, using 250 characters, or less. Third, you need to know how to add this to your page - your CMS may have a feature to do this, maybe it doesn't.

Images need text alternatives and titles

This is another item that usually isn't visible, unless you look deeper. The easiest way to tell if your images have a text desciption is to move your mouse pointer over the image. The text description should appear as a tool tip near your pointer.

Why:

  1. Your images should relate to your topic.
  2. Search bots and screen readers (used by vision impaired visitors - which search bots are) only see text, not what's in the images.

How: The editor for your CMS should provide a way for you to add the alternate text and title for images. Look for fields labeled "Alternative Text" and "Advisory Title" or "Title" when you add images to your content. Fill them in and when you view the page, you should be able to hover over the images and see the text next to your pointer.

Why isn't this easy? Your primary focus is just adding a photo to a page to make it look nice. Most methods for doing that, even with WYSIWYG editors, don't force you to do this, or even make it a prominent part of adding the image.

Images should have meaningful names

In this day and age of digital cameras, it's easy to get images to use on your website. Just browse through the folders on your computer where you've saved your images, though. Without looking at the image, describe what is in the photo named DSC_1159.jpg. Or IMG_0049.jpg. You might get clues from the folder they're in, but until you look at the photo, you won't know what's in it. The same is true of search engines and screen readers. 

Images communicate a lot - more than words alone can communicate. In fact, photos can communicate emotions much more than words can. But, we use words to describe photos and we search using words. Make sure your images have descriptive names before and after you upload them to your website.

Why isn't this easy? This isn't something that relies on your CMS, but may be affected by your CMS. Your camera doesn't know your subject matter and gives each image a unique name, usually a set prefix with a sequential suffix (DSC_0079.jpg). Even if you rename all your images to something related to the subject, your CMS may rename the images when you upload them.

Configuration

Faster page loads (especially important for mobile)

Speed is important, not just for mobile, but also for areas that are still using old internet services that are not high speed. The increasing available of broadband internet services makes it easier to reach places you've never reached before, but it is also conditioning us to be less patient. 

In general, what can you do? Text is, by far, the quickest to load. Images take longer, especially if you are using the high resoltuion images straight from your 10 megapixel camera. High resolution images are great for printing large images, but not for viewing online. You can easily and safely reduce the resolution of images for online viewing and you should. Few screens are capable of displaying the full resolution images, anyway, and it takes a lot more storage on your site, more bandwidth to send those images and more time for your visitor to get those images. They may just get impatient and leave for another site.

There's a lot more to this than optimizing your images, but optimizing images are the easiest things you can do for yourself. Just save your images at lower resolutions. 72 dpi (dot per inch) is an optimum setting for images displayed on a screen.

Other things you can do to improve your page speed is to reduce the number of images - only use an image if it adds to the content. Every image or object on your page requires an additional request to the server, which takes more time. Your server should be configured to compress data before sending it. Your CMS theme or template should be designed by someone who knows what they're doing - pootly designed themes can increase the amount of time it takes to load your page. Don't include anything you won't be using.

Here are a few places you can go to get some numbers for how fast your pages are really loading

Why isn't this easy? The only thing you can directly impact is the number of images on each page and the size of those images. Editing and optimizing an image for the web does require a bit of technical skill and you need to remember to do it. Also, there are many other things that impact the speed a page loads. 

Links should look like links and nothing else should

The internet is as much about links as it is about content. Relationships build reputation and referals. In your effort to have a unique style for your site, make sure the actions don't get hidden - links to other content need to be clearly distinguishable for your visitors. Cloaking the links, intentionally or not, will keep people from following them. What good are they then?

Similarly, make sure no other text looks like a link - underlining text and changing it to another color is usually a clue there is a link there. If that's not the case on your site, you're losing credibility.

Why isn't this easy? As long as you don't allow a lot of formatting with your editor features (changing text color is something you definitely should disable, if possible), this should be pretty easy. 

'www' or not, your visitors should end up at the same place

www.yoursite.com and yoursite.com can actually be completely different sites. It is expected they will not be different sites, though. Make sure you can access your site using eithe form of your address. And, just as important, make sure the search engines know both forms of the address refer to the same site. Select which form will be your primary address and have your server permanently redirect the other form to the primary address. It is a simple adjustment, but does require access to the server and its configuration.

Why isn't this easy? This is a server configuration and your domain registrar may have a way to do this, but often, you'll have to have someone do this manually.

If you are looking for a tool that will help you determine how well you are doing on these items, you can visit http://marketing.grader.com/ and get a report of several of these items for your website.

Are you running into some difficulty getting all these accomplished? If you'd like some help with them, I am available.

<< Church Websites 101: Fix the Easy Stuff Church Websites 101: Set Goals >>
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