Help for Church Webmasters
Issue 20 4/08/03
Have you ever been to a truly beautiful website? You know the one I am talking about, the gorgeous graphics, dynamic colors, and great layout. You know, the “perfect website.” Now, how many times have you gone back to that perfect website? “If” you did go back to it, why did you go back? Was it to look at the great design? Or did it have information that you wanted?
There are some truly wondrous websites out there; unfortunately most of them aren’t church related sites. But when we stop to think about it, we don’t become repeat visitors at a site because it looks good. We are repeat visitors because it provides information that we desire. Example, Google.com. It’s not a site that I would call beautiful. In fact it is mostly white space. But it does two things. It loads quickly and provides the information you want. Can you say the same thing about your church site?
Now there is nothing wrong with having a high design site that looks good. But there are some things to consider, if you were doing a site for an art gallery or an architect firm, I would expect a different design and layout than if you were doing a site for a construction firm or a hospital. The design somehow needs to match the focus of the site. Religion has a long history of great art, so there is nothing wrong with having a church site with a great, artist design. The problem is that I posses the art skills of the average 7-year-old. So I went to Google and searched for web templates and low and behold, for a paltry fee (and sometimes even free) there were a plethora of designs just begging to be used. Now there aren’t tons of religion based templates out there, but there are some. Here’s one place I found some. http://www.helendesign.com/cgibin/modex.cgi?religion
This seemed like a great deal, beautiful design, wondrous graphics, bold color and in some cases even flash animation. Woooohoooo. So I started intently looking for a design that I could use. I even spent time looking at non-religion based templates figuring I could modify it for my own use. I found some possibilities and my hopes were soaring. Finally the church was going to have a site worthy of our divine calling. As I sat down with some blank sheets of paper (see issue 11 - http://www.downeychurch.org/BackIssues/Issue11.html) to start redesigning the site, the wheels fell off. I ran into all sorts of problems. First of all, the design was great on the main page, but it didn’t work so well on the other pages in the site. I didn’t want to devote that much screen real estate to design. Secondly, the navigation schemes didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get all my links to other pages included. Thirdly, there wasn’t enough text on the page. Let’s look at these issues a bit more deeply.
1. Screen real estate. The designs I looked at were great. But they used a lot of screen real estate. This was an issue, but I could deal with it on the main page (see item 3 for more on this), but I wasn’t happy with this design on the other pages in the site. It’s like I needed a lite version of the design for the other pages. Now in all fairness, some templates do include a second template for the other pages in the site (not the main index.html). But even then I was not happy with it. I didn’t really like that design for the Kids Zone, or for the newsletter page or for … etc. You get the idea. It worked in some cases, but not all of them. Also, many templates do not have white background, so many of the graphics that are inserted on the website would have to be converted to transparent gifs. This is not the end of the world, it is just more work.
2. Navigation. I write a lot about navigation, because this is a VERY important part of your website that is often overlooked. What good is it to have great information if people can’t find it? Also, the search engines are going to need to be able to navigate your site to find all the pages, if you’ve “hidden” your navigation scheme from them (with frames or a flash animation, for example), you’ve really hurt your rankings. Many templates used graphics or flash for the navigation scheme. This can limit the number of pages you can link to and also hide your navigation from search engines. I don’t like making my users having to make multiple mouse clicks to get to a page. It’s not that multiple mouse clicks are so difficult, but if I have to click two or three times to get to something, that usually means I couldn’t tell this item was available from page I started at. I had to discover it. Websites shouldn’t be a treasure hunt.
3. Enough text on the page. It is very important to have text on your page. The search engines use the text on the page to determine what your page is about. Not only that, but it is very important to use your key words in the text. The closer to the top you use your key words - the better it is. Many of the templates don’t allow for a lot of text. And most of that text is for news items or announcements of up coming events. So your page is going to be ranked by your Easter service announcement, instead of other important information. I was not so thrilled with this!
So where am I now? I’ve come to the conclusion that a template based site might be good if you want an online brochure for church and you don’t plan to change it too much. It’s a couple of pages that look good, but there’s not really current information and not a lot of in depth resources and information about the church. Of course, this is my personal opinion and you may come to a different conclusion. In fact, I would really like to hear from anyone who might be using a template for his or her site.
Does that mean templates are useless? By no means! I learned a lot about design from this exercise and I am still tossing around ideas in my head. Will anything come form this? Only time will tell. Remember, it’s wrong to steal someone else’s design. It is not wrong to look at someone else’s design and be inspired to do something – even if it is similar. So there is value in looking at these templates, even if that value is just to inspire you to improve your site. Not to mention, someone might find a template that suites them and their site just perfectly.
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