It is the last day of 2007, so like every great media outlet I figured why not go through the archives and come up with a list of those topics that produced the deepest and most memorable mental scars. Below is my list of the top ten mistakes I’ve seen on church websites over the past year.
Mistakes I would hope that as a body we would resolve to remedy, though I suspect like most new year’s resolutions are destined for abandonment by about the 14th of February.
So with limited commercial interruption, I offer Mean Dean’s Top 10 Church Website Design Mistakes of 2007:
- Believing you are your user:
Unless youâ€™re writing a church website for a bunch of blogging pastors, frustrated graphic artists and/or â€œâ€¦ burned out computer geeks, your user isnâ€™t you. â€¦ This is very hard to get through somebodyâ€™s head; itâ€™s very hard to get rid of this notion that what you like your user is going to likeâ€¦ Again, your user is not you.â€
For the most part, people arenâ€™t seeking the church experience online – rather they are shopping online for a real-world church experience. Those church webmasters that fail to realize this, fail to realize the full potential of their church website.
Flashination is a term I give to (church) websites that seem to be overly fascinated with Macromedia/Adobe Flash. What many church web servants fail to realize is that â€œ.. fancy media on websites typically fails user testing â€¦â€ at least according to Jakob Nielsenâ€™s recent AlertBox entitled â€œLow-End Media for User Empowerment.â€
Where I see Flashination most often is on banners, headers, and home pages of church websites – usually in the form of scrolling images from the Church. A visual effect that is cool precisely ONCE and from then on becomes a bandwidth consuming annoyance.
In response, allow me to quote some sage advice from Dr. Nielsen who wrote in his 1996 ‘Original Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design:’
Never include page elements that move incessantly. Moving images have an overpowering effect on the human peripheral vision. A web page should not emulate Times Square in New York City in its constant attack on the human senses: give your user some peace and quiet to actually read the text!
Without getting into a raging debate over speaking in tongues, those in charge of getting out their church’s message need to understand that, at least in the U.S., 1 in 3 adults is unchurched. Meaning 1 in 3 adults don’t understand the church-speak that ‘bables-up‘ scribed in expensive color brochures, sermon videos and web sites.
Fact is, the church website isn’t about offering online brochureware nor a meas to show how cool a computer geek you are. The purpose of your church web page design is to convey the Christ that is in your congregation to the World by addressing the needs of seekers and members … AND by disciplining the same with the solid food of the Gospel.
If you do both these things then I can guarantee that you will not have to spend $5k on a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) expert, nor will you have to worry about justifying your churchâ€™s online marketing expenditures.
- Turning your Homepage into a Splash Page:
What does it profit your church or charityâ€™s website to have the most beautiful web pages ever designed if it doesnâ€™t convince people to visit your church, engage in your ministries, or at least inquire for more information? Yet more and more often I review a graphically and technically impressive church website that is more an art project than effective ministry tool.
In the worse cases, the home page has become such as testament to the web designers Flash and CSS skills that the home page loses its effectiveness as an introductory and central point of navigation – degrading into a sometimes technically adept and entertaining splash page.
And if you don’t know what’s wrong with having a splash page – regardless of the webmaster’s displayed technical prowess – then we need to have a long email correspondence.
- Thinking you’re Spurgeon:
There is something to be said about Shakespeareâ€™s oft-quoted assertion from Hamlet:
‘â€¦ brevity is the soul of wit â€¦‘
Or as usability expert Jakob Nielsen writes his 1997 post entitled “how people read the web:”
People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.
Or as I say in my post “George Orwell: 12 blogging tips:”
If all else fails, just remember this tried and true adage: â€œYouâ€™re not Spurgeon, quit trying to write like him.â€
- Image Bloat:
The <img> tag in HTML should be treated with the same suspicion one glowers upon all those slickly packaged low-cal cookies we see in the diet food aisle of the grocer. Both promise to avoid a gluttonâ€™s guilt â€“ but in both cases it smoke and mirrors, leaving you feeling bloated and sluggish.
One of the most perpetuated sins of church web design is image bloat â€“ most often perpetrated in the form of thinking that somehow, the height and width argument of the <img> tag somehow magically and physically shrinks an image file. It doesnâ€™t â€“ it only appears that way. Or in in the immortal words of usability and marketing guru, Vincent Flanders who wrote in his Father Flandersâ€™ Sermon for Sunday, July 13, 2003:
Just because Jesus miraculously turned water into wine doesnâ€™t mean he can miraculously turn your 1280- x 1024-pixel image whose file size is 1.8Mb into an image whose file size is only 74Kb just because you changed the WIDTH= and HEIGHT= attributes to WIDTH=â€420â€³ and HEIGHT=â€336â€³.
This mistake is so common that itâ€™s beginning to be as annoying to me as the confessions of the students of the young men of my Jesuit high school were to Father Ambrose â€œFor your penance say three Hail Maryâ€™sâ€ Forsthoefel.
In English, just because I write: <img xsrc=â€mychurch.jpgâ€ height=â€160â€ width=â€240â€> does not magically or physically make my 920k image posted straight from my brand-spankin’ new digital camera load like a 20k image. Instead it means I make a page that should load in about 8 seconds take 188 seconds!
- Using Religion is a ‘Chruch:’
We all know know at least one atheist, agnostic or skeptic who boldly (and often blindly) asserts religion is a crutch. Much in part due to the overbearing legalism and spiritual abuse that goes on in a minority of cases.
That said, I it is my prayer that the Church on the whole prove these individuals wrong, not only with Christian love and charity, but also with correctly spelled <title> and <header> tags.
Especially those whose message is unintentionally geared at a dyslexic demographic with typos such as “baptsit chruch.”
- Missing the usual suspects:
Let me translate the above point for those of you who still think a long animated Flash splash page leading to a huge image of your churchâ€™s empty parking lot is the way to go â€¦ more and more individuals shop for church homes online, the greater the risk your church runs into never seeing them visit if your church website sucks!
Yeah, pretty brutal â€“ but enough of the â€˜memeâ€™ that God content is important, that aesthetics arenâ€™t important. In other words solve their problems; donâ€™t show off your fancy-schmancy solutions. Solving their needs is as simple and common sense as making the following information easy to find, read and render in print:
- Church denomination
- Geographic location
- Days and times of services and studies
- What stuff you have for their kids
- Example sermons that show youâ€™re not some slathering cult
- Smiling, inviting faces instead of stony facades
- Email contact
- Phone number
Yeah, youâ€™d think the above list is obvious â€¦ but don’t get me started.
- Using graphics for text:
What does it profit a charity to have the coolest web site design of all time if it canâ€™t be found via a simple, context-related search on Google or Yahoo?
That’s what you bargain for when you opt to use an image file, a Java applet or Flash to render the title and slogan of your church and/or charity website.
A situation made much worse by those who go one step further and render their menu navigation using the same bandwidth busting technologies – in the day and age of CSS.
- Games, Gimmicks and Gizmos:
I donâ€™t know about you, but to me the Cross is an â€˜emblem suffering and shame,â€˜ which is why I find the spinning animated version of it so offensive. It not only trivializes what happened to our Lord on that painful day, but it also makes your church website look cheap.
So do â€™special effectsâ€™ such as cursor trailers, pop-up windows, scrolling marquees and Flash-intros. Yes, they may look slick the first time and all your geek buddies will think youâ€™re cool, but such contrivances quickly become annoying hindrances to individuals who are actually in need of some compelling content.
Don’t get me wrong – donâ€™t be afraid to use various technologies, just make sure there is a legitimate need.
rule of thumb #4: Just because you can, doesnâ€™t mean you should.
rule of thumb 4.a.: you’re not allowed to have a spinning gif of a gold lamÃ© cross on your website unless you have the same atop the roof of your church!
And we’re done. I’m sure some will disagree, and that’s fine – some will add to the list, and that’s fine too. Just remember if you leave a comment, leave it in love so we can all benefit and learn from it.
Now go out there and have yourself a great 2008!