Today’s YAITS is Homeowners Associations

In putting together this mornings post “A beginner’s budget for Brenda” I reviewed several HomeOwner’s Association (HOA) websites in search of a few good examples. What I found were some passable sites amid a sea of some real suckers … Daily Suckers that is.

So I shot of an email to Vincent Flanders that essentially said “I think we’ve got another YAITS” … Not only did he reply in agreement, he made it the topic of his immensely useful usability blog today, where he begins with:

YAITS stands for “Yet Another Industry That Sucks.” I find it fascinating that the web sites for certain industries / businesses contain a high percentage that are really awful. Today’s YAITS is Homeowners Associations.

He goes on to list the reasons why such sites … uh … stink and even finds a few good examples of good design, followed by some good examples of bad design. Please take note of the latter, make sure this NEVER happens to your church website!

Go ahead and visit, I’ll be here when you get back.

Posted in Uncategorized

A beginner’s budget for Brenda

So I’m walking to the worship service when Brenda E. stops me, a woman at church who knows enough about computers where acronyms such as FTP and RDBM aren’t a big, scary deal. Through some horrible twist of fate, she explains to me that she is about to enter the cruel world of creating and maintaining a website, specifically for her homeowner’s association. As Brenda begins to ask me questions about domain names and web hosting when I rudely interrupt her and ask here to email me her questions.

Sorry Brenda, but it wasn’t that you were being an imposition, but rather I immediately began thinking how your questions would make for a relevant and useful article. Thanks so much for sharing them:

I’ve recently agreed to take over our homeowners association website , which is badly in need of updating (your recent discussions on maintaining current content don’t apply just to churches! …more on that later…)

So my questions are…
1. Where do I start with finding a host and registering a domain? I’d like a name that is a bit more obvious, like www.norbeckgrove.com
2. What kind of budget should I plan on (most likely will come out of my own pocket, but I can try to scrape a few bucks from the HOA)
3. I discovered Web Page Wizard in Word 2000 and have actually made a page and put it on the web. I’m debating trying to edit the existing code of our association website or starting over from scratch. Suggestions?

If I were a betting man, I’d wager a dinner at the Hard Times Café Chili Parlor that Brenda’s questions strike a familiar chord with some of you newbies lurking about this site. Go ahead, leave me a corroborating comment, I’ll still pick up the tab!-)

Five-alarm heartburn aside … or should I say speaking of angina … getting a website started and hosted can be a worrisome task to someone who hasn’t done it before. Like driving for the first time, you’re eager to do it. You know you can, but it all seems so overwhelming at first.

First things first, a quick and important clarification, Registering a domain and hosting a domain are two different things. I know this can be confusing because there are domain registry companies that sell hosting, and hosting companies that sell (or bundle) domain name registrations.

For example, most of my domains are registered with GoDaddy.com. It costs $8.95 per year, though currently they’re running a sale on ‘.com’. If you visit their site, you may also notice that they offer some rather inexpensive web hosting options at around $3.95 per month, as well as a $4.95 per month subscription to an online web site generation and maintenance program. When you consider the cost of web editing software such as $199 for FrontPage or $399 DreamWeaver MX, and another $35 to $80 for templates (I’ll describe later), the $47 + $59 per year GoDaddy is asking isn’t all that bad budget-wise.

Oh sure, I suppose you can just get the domain, and then host the site (here, here, here or here), and then use Web Page Wizard in Word 2000 to generate some pages, but if you go down that road, you’re new site is going to be as “crufty” and unmanageable as the existing site. In part because Word does some unusable and inaccessible things to HTML … but also in part because you should always drive your hardware and software decisions based upon your needs. And you’re not going to know your needs until you sit down and redraw an information architecture for the site.

So step number one, register the domain before some squatter gets a hold of it first, then just park it while you proceed to make your mistakes on paper first.

Step two, plan diligently. That is, gather all the documents you can, and organize them. Keep the outline relatively simple, that is don’t go more than two or three levels deep. After that, pages get hard to maintain and users get lost. Some suggested top-level categories might be “about us,” “events,” “activities,” “news,” “regulations,” “homes for sale,” “directory,” and “contacts.” Everything else can fall under one of the above.

It might also help to look at some other sites, though to be quite honest, most of the homeowner’s association sites I visited while preparing this post belong as good examples of bad web design over at WebPagesThatSuck. That said, here are a couple that are passable, including Calumet Ranch, Missouri, Paxton Lake, Horsethief Canyon, CA or Brittany Park and Tarpon Trace Homeowners Association Daily News. All of them have flaws, but it’s the best of the bunch I could find for now.

Then interview users and contributors. Then tweak your hierarchy. What you’ll probably find is that your calendar and your news are going to be the most dynamic elements of your site. That’s not a bad thing because there are a number of weblog and/or content management systems that can help you publish and maintain your website. The problem is that in most cases, you need to know your way around MySQL, PHP and/or Perl in an Apache server platform. Yeah … you knew there was a catch.

So rather than dealing with the learning curve of domains, hosts, servers, languages, databases and other fun stuff that’ll make a full-career out of a volunteer effort, my suggestion is looking at a web host that includes content management or a weblogging system as part of the price of hosting your site. This gets your site online quickly, and leaves you with a framework in which you can walk through self-paced tutorials such as the Yale Web Design Guide at your own pace.

The first host fit the bill that comes to MY mind is pMachine Hosting. For $9.95 a month, you can host your site and have access to a rather powerful weblogging/publishing tool named pMachine that Mike Boyink recently used to effectively create and maintain the Ridge Point Community Church website. And while I myself use MovableType, pMachine not only includes an easy way to post news items, but also provides you with a calendar and a forum.

Yes, that’s a bit more money a month than a free site at Tripod/Lycos, but nothing says trouble like a pop-up ad for an online casino when your kids are trying to find out when the pool is open. You get what you pay for.

That said, there is an interesting offer currently ongoing at 1&1 Internet which allows you to host your site for free, and gives you access to their online website creation/management package, for three years. After that you have to pay. My only concern is that any company foolish enough to give away all that bandwidth may now be around in three years. You get what you pay for.

The other way to go is to purchase a web editing tool, which will give you complete control of your code, but then that also means you’re fighting getting the site online along with trying to learn how to program HTML. This is why I usually recommend that FrontPage users purchase a $35 to $50 template from PixelMill, in part because it saves them buckets of time, in part because the templates that come bundled with FrontPage stink. A good example of someone who benefited from this advice is Frank Ramage who maintains the Burtonsville Baptist website (more good things about him and his site coming soon in a future post).

Personally, though I own Dreamweaver MX, my weapon of choice is TopStyle. $79 bucks for all the CSS you can eat! That said, if you really want to go down that path, then consider purchasing a template from Project VII for $60 to get you started.

Remember, CONTENT is king. Avoid the temptation to gratuitous graphics, gizmos and other kitschy cliché’s. For a good example of what not to do, I would recommend Vincent Flanders’ Son of Web Pages That Suck … and a visit to StrongBad’s Website lesson.

Hopefully that gives those of you who are new to the game a place to start. Remember though, the web is not TV or Movies. Users are goal oriented and totally mercenary when it comes to surfing. Don’t do anything that gets in their way. So keep the design simple at first and concentrate on good writing, good content and good navigation. Then go back and ruin it with non-functional graphics and Flash animations.

If nothing else, remember, it is always easier to make mistakes on paper first.

Posted in Uncategorized

This Week’s Links :: Internet For Christians

Since Friday, my referrer logs have been making me aware of yet another resource you will find useful in creating and maintaining your church or ministry’s website, Gospelcom.net’s Internet For Christians. Each week they provide useful recommendations to a variety of online resources such as using RSS syndication to keep your readers abreast of what’s new on your site, or taking a bite out of the spam that afflicts us all.

Yeah, okay, I’m obliged to say many nice things about them after declaring me “This Week’s Link” along with Zeldman’s A List Apart. Talk about being mentioned in good company … yes, that’s my blushing red cheeks warming the room.

Anyway, I’d recommend visiting them, or better yet, adding their RDF to your aggregator as I found their articles relevant, accurate and devoid of any commercial favoritism; not a claim I can make for some other Christian computing ‘zines I know of.

Oh, and on a personal note, thanks Peggie, Andy and whomever else may have had a hand in bringing me some wonderful new visitor. It is very appreciated!

Posted in Uncategorized

The OSIS Bible Tool

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for anytime will know that I’m passionate, in fact almost rabid, about using the Internet to get the Word of God out to every corner of the Earth. So naturally I was quite excited when I discovered that the CrossWire Bible Society, the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Bible Society are combining IT resources to create “… a free, evolving open source tool for exploring the Bible and related texts online… ” appropriately named “The Bible Tool.

Having experimented with the website over the past week, I would like to offer this mini usability review as ‘The Bible Tool‘ is currently a work in progress. Hopefully, both through this review and through your comments, we can provide these obviously capable Java programmers some feedback to their awesome work. Yes, class I said after YOUR comments. This means you have homework over the holidays. Sometime after you read this review, I’d encourage you to also experiment with ‘The Bible Tool,’ leaving feedback here so this site can be tweaked to perfection.

‘Tweaked’ being the operative word here, at least for the ‘mechanics’ of the site. You see I have a problem, a vision problem. Specifically I have a problem with their rendering of this electronic Word of God with an ‘orange-brown parchment color background image‘ that is not only hard to read, but at least to me, is a bit “kitschy.” And this is what truly bugs me as this site is all about the text!

Think about it. We have been blessed with the ability to shine God’s word electronically to a lost and dying World, yet we hide it within a grainy and distracting background that discourages individuals from spending lengthy amount of times pouring through all the wonderful documentation this site has to offer. Go ahead, try reading their parallel Bible for any length of time.

Fortunately, The Bible Tool provides the user the ability to “change styles,” which I did almost immediately from “parchment” to “washed-out.” Why they didn’t pick the latter as the default is beyond me. Then again, why anyone would think that God’s Word needs to be dressed-up is beyond me.

Why would I pick the “washed-out” skin you might ask? Glad you asked! First, it gives more of my browser back to me. The parchment version consumes the first 50% of the frontpage that is above the fold with a swirly title underscored by a picture of the Bible and pen that is gratuitous at best. I mean, the name of the site is “The Bible Tool,” do we really need a non-functional 22 kb image to inform us what the purpose and personality of this site is?

The Parchment skin also consumes more bandwidth, which means longer load times for you the user, and more expensive server costs to host the site. Contrast this with the “washed-out” style and you have a site that is fast-loading, easy-on-the-eyes as it is to the server’s bandwidth, and in my humble opinion, makes the Word of God look relevant, exciting and up-to-date.

In other words, before I spend any further resource on graphic design, I would encourage the developers to bring somebody in to perform usability testing. This is where individuals are brought in off the street (or from down the hall), put in front of the computer and with little instruction, walk through a site while a facilitator records responses, keeps the interview from slogging down and makes sure certain questions are asked.

I suggest usability testing not only because of the parchment problem, but also because of some of the navigational issues I ran into. For example, the very first time I visited the site, I entered the word “frog” (note the singular). I got zero responses though I knew that there are about 14 occurrences of “frogs” (note the plural) in the Old Testament. It wasn’t until I guessed that I needed to click on a translation other than the NASB that I got partial finds … provided I clicked on a translation that included both Old and New Testament.

What I would suggest is giving the user quite a bit more instruction when errors or made or empty sets return rather than leave the user to figure out what the meaning of “0 result in the text of New American Standard Bible.” If nothing else, give the user the “power search” so they don’t feel like they’re wandering in the wilderness; though I would prefer a link to and/or a short how-to find things.

Another search/navigational feature that the developers might find needs tweaking is what happens when they click on Glossaries or Essays. My assumption was that when I clicked on Essays and then entered a search query, that the search engine would query the essays. Instead, the selected/default Bible translation was searched. In other words, the programmers got the really hard and hairy stuff nailed-down cold, now they need to double back and idiot-proof the system for people like me.

Finally, I noticed that the menu options on the left changed as I changed modes. In other words, once I committed a search, I could no longer change styles. To do this, I had to use recall instead of recognition and remember that I had to go back to the home page due to this lack of navigational consistency.

As I said near the beginning of this review, this is a stellar work of programming. It is brilliant and I want to strongly encourage those who have developed “The Bible Tool” to continue their good work in Christ. That said, I think they’re making a huge in “dressing-up” God’s Word with the default hard-to-read parchment interface.

Yes, I know I’m beating a dead horse, but this is going to become a huge obstacle to any first time visitors. I say this because survey after survey indicates that web users are goal oriented. That they don’t so much as read text but scan it. That is, they don’t want fluff. They want their data and they want it now in concise and scannable format that meets their goal-oriented tasks. And since this site is all about the written Word, I would focus my work on making the interface, especially the navigation, easy on the brain as it is on the eyes … in the words of common-sense usability expert Steve Krug “Don’t Make Me Think.”

In other words, folks, it’s a Bible Tool … it’s all about the Text. Whatever gets in the way of that purpose should be put aside.

This said, I want to encourage all of you to visit and test this site, then report back with your findings. I’m turning on the HTML for comments so you can be as specific as you need to be. Hopefully, we can provide these very capable programmers with the usability input they need to make “The Bible Tool” the sledgehammer for God I know it can be.

Posted in Uncategorized

Using Cron with LWP::Simple and XML::RSS to retrieve news feeds

Originally published on March 24, 2003 when the war in Iraq was heating up and I found direct links to popular RSS news feeds were effecting the speed in which pages loaded on a friend’s blog whom I help maintain. I’m re-posting this article for reasons that will become obvious later this week. Until then, enjoy this “Spidering Hack!-)”

Adding some syndicated news feeds is a nice way of adding some compelling content to your site.

The problem is that sometimes the news feed gets overrun during heavy news days, go offline and/or suffers a host of other connectivity issues that make YOUR site load slow because the software holds your user hostage while the feed retrieval portion of the application has to wait to timeout. You see this alot with PHPNuke and PostNuke sites.

A simple way around this problem is to use a program that periodically retrieves the feed, slices-n-dices and effectively caches it into an easy to include file on your host. Doing this achieves five goals:

  1. user page loads are not penalized when feeds go down
  2. failures to connect do not harm the existing include file
  3. multiple attempts to read the feed to not penalize user
  4. feed can be mirrored for local/private use
  5. content can be formatted to taste

Below is a little program I wrote Thursday to grab news feeds from an AP Wire I found via Scripting.com for inclusion on a the website of a friend who makes his living in the political area.

Using the following CRONTAB syntax, the program is executed every 30 minutes:
30 * * * * /home/YOURPATH/getap.pl>/dev/null

The nice thing about this approach is that this particular feed does “get busy” from time to time and at one point on Friday went offline. My users did not notice because in most cases, I was able to get by the “busy signal” on the 2nd or 3rd attempt out of 10. In the case where the feed site went offline, my users merely viewed and older include file without interruption or delay.

Anyway, since I haven’t posted anything worthwhile in the past few days, I figured this was a good penance:

[perl]
#!/usr/bin/perl -w
# ———————————————————————–
# copyright Dean Peters © 2003 – all rights reserved
# http://www.HealYourChurchWebSite.com
# ———————————————————————–
#
# getap.pl is free software. You can redistribute and modify it
# freely without any consent of the developer, Dean Peters, if and
# only if the following conditions are met:
#
# (a) The copyright info and links in the headers remains intact.
# (b) The purpose of distribution or modification is non-commercial.
#
# Commercial distribution of this product without a written
# permission from Dean Peters is strictly prohibited.
# This script is provided on an as-is basis, without any warranty.
# The author does not take any responsibility for any damage or
# loss of data that may occur from use of this script.
#
# You may refer to our general terms & conditions for clarification:
# http://www.healyourchurchwebsite.com/archives/000002.shtml
#
# For more info. about this code, please refer to the following article:
# http://www.healyourchurchwebsite.com/archives/000760.shtml
#
# combine this code with crontab for best results, e.g.:
# 30 * * * * /home/YOURPATH/getap.pl>/dev/null
#
# ———————————————————————–
use XML::RSS;
use LWP::Simple;
# get content from feed — using 10 attempts
my $content = getFeed("http://www.goupstate.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=RSS04&mime=xml", 10);

# save off feed to a file — make sure you have write access to file or directory
saveFeed($content, "newsfeed.xml");

# create customized output
my $output = createOutput($content, 8);

# save it
saveFeed($output, "newsfeed.inc.php");
sub getFeed {
my ($url, $attempts) = @_;
my $lc = 0; # loop count
my $content;
while($lc $outfile") || die("Cannot Open File $outfile");
print OUT $content;
close(OUT);
}
sub createOutput {
my ($content, $feedcount) = @_;

# create new instance of XML::RSS
my $rss = new XML::RSS;

# parse the RSS content into an output string to be saved at end of parsing
$rss->parse($content);
my $title = $rss->{‘channel’}->{‘title’};
my $output = "GoUpstate/AP NewsWire\n";
my $i = 0;
foreach my $item (@{$rss->{‘items’}}) {
next unless defined($item->{‘title’}) && defined($item->{‘link’});
$i += 1;
next if $i > $feedcount;
$output .= "<a>{‘link’}\"&gt;$item-&gt;{‘title’}</a>\n";
}

# if a copyright &amp; link exists then post it
my $copyright = $rss-&gt;{‘channel’}-&gt;{‘copyright’};
my $link = $rss-&gt;{‘channel’}-&gt;{‘link’};
my $description = $rss-&gt;{‘channel’}-&gt;{‘description’};
$output .= " <a>$copyright</a>\n" if($copyright &amp;&amp; $link);
$output .= "";
return $output;
}
[/perl]

Of course, now I need to go ahead and practice what I preach and do the same here!

Posted in Uncategorized

‘Confusion’ about the Body online

What a great week. You guys (and gals) have really carried the ball in some excellent discussions of what it takes behind the scenes to get and keep the content on your church website current and compelling. As you can see, I just sat back and took it all in … which is good because it was the last comment by Ken at Apex Community Church that got me thinking when he wrote:

We decided to take the approach that our website was an extension of Sunday morning and Wednesday night. Just like we wouldn’t just hand the microphone to just anyone then, we don’t just hand the “keyboard” to anyone on the web. And, in reality, we do. We just take time to approve it. Any issues that arise from this aren’t just swept under the rug, we just deal with them offline.

This reminded of the Apostle Paul mentioned in his first letter to the Corinthians when dealing with the issue of order with regards to the public use of Spiritual Gifts, in which the man from Tarsus writes:

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. – 1 Corinthians 14:33 NIV

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. – 1 Corinthians 14:33 ESV

With that in mind, what approach then should we take to publishing content online? Should we as webservants become the singular conduit for getting information online, thereby creating a bottle-neck from a single point of view? Or should we open the gates wide and allow anyone to post anything on any topic without regards to the purpose and personality of the church?

Yes, I realized I just cited the radical extremes, but in showing them, I’m hoping we can all figure out some middle ground. For example, do we offer forums for prayer requests? If so, do we moderate them so we don’t have people dominating it with requests for their kitten with the sniffles? Similarly, I mentioned getting staff involved, but not all staff is all things to all people … or websites. Is it wise to cut them loose, or worse, let some post their own content why denying others?

Again, I’d be very interested in your responses. Oh yeah, and about that. They’ve all been sooooo good I suspect this weekend I’m going to pick and summarize some in some sort of post so you can discuss these on your own blogs as I think the more we talk about it, the wiser we become as a Body online.

Thanks again for all the intelligent, thoughtful and respectful debate. You make running HYCW such a joy!

Posted in Uncategorized

Wanted : someone who’s got some dedicated server experience

Either my registrar has botched the domain I’m going to use for a hostname, or I’ve totally messed-up WHM.

If you’ve set up a dedicated server before, then leave a comment. I’ve got some questions.

Here’s what I get when I enter the following command … though the names and IP addresses have been mangled to protect the site:

# nslookup 123.45.67.890

Server: 123.45.67.890
Address: 123.45.67.890#53

Non-authoritative answer:
170.179.79.66.in-addr.arpa name = NS1.BOGUSNAME.US.

Authoritative answers can be found from:
179.79.66.in-addr.arpa nameserver = ns1.mangled.com.
179.79.66.in-addr.arpa nameserver = ns2.mangled.com.
ns1.mangled.com internet address = 66.55.444.1
ns2.mangled.com internet address = 66.55.444.2

Yes, I did register my nameservers with my registar.
Yes, I did ask my hosting company to establish a reverse DNS for my namesevers.
Still no joy.

If the above sounds like old hat to you, then leave a comment.

Posted in Uncategorized

Front Page Back End Issues

Not surprisingly, yesterday’s review of the Ridge Point Community Church website yielded some good comments. One that particularly caught my interest was made by Frank Ramage, the talented webmaster over at Burtonsville Baptist Church just a 20 to 30 minute drive from where I live. Frank hit an issue I bet is a sticky one for all of us when he wrote:

Like the three-column format… bet it requires considerable time to keep it fresh…

Wonder if Mike needed releases for the “talent” in the banners (e.g., church members/visitors)?

Can I hear an Amen from the choir? Now from the congregation?!

Yes my friends, brother Frank has brought to the forefront the ugly back-end issue of maintenance to the our discussion. An issue that even plagues me over at my beloved Redland Baptist. An issue that dogs all of us, no matter how well we can Perl together MT-plugins or render perfect tableless cross-browser CSS frontpages … maintaining that dynamic compelling content on your home page that keeps people visiting and pushes your site atop search engines is a royal pain in the ‘patootie.’

Personally? I’ve entertained the thought of allowing trained church staff to use client-based blogging tool such as w.bloggar to post to our MovableType-driven church web site. A thought that has yet to come to fruition because I’m too busy working a paying day job to install and train the staff on the software. That and I’ve been burned once too often by training someone who leaves … or loses interest.

That said, my youth minister is pretty good at posting his own content. Perhaps I could train him to train others? I dunno. One problem is that some of our printed matter is developed using Microsoft Publisher … a rather nasty piece of software that imports various documents just fine, but exports … well that’s another story for another long winey post. Another thought is to build a macro into MS-Word to post to the site using XML-RPC, but all my experiments with it ran afoul with unicode issues.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that perhaps what I need to do is convince the church staff that OpenOffice is the way to go, then build scripts that would post documents, spreadsheets and data into the system, again via XML-RPC … or even SOAP at this point … I just want a solution.

Honestly? The way it goes down now? If I see something in a bulletin or newsletter I want to put online, I have to contact the staff to cut-n-paste the text and email it to me … or handjam it.

Similarly, the calendar of events, I have to ask for a comma-delimited dump from their Outlook-based schedule … then run some nifty Perl to clean-up the inconsistencies and shove it into MySQL.

What about you? What are your back-end issues? Moreover, what have you put in place at your church to overcome them? I’d like to know.

Posted in Uncategorized

Ridge Point Community Church, Holland, MI

If all the church web sites were as well thought-out and designed as that of the Ridge Point Community Church, Holland, MI then there would be no need for HealYourChurchWebsite. It is one of a number of sites I would hold up as an example of the church online done right. A personal and heart-felt congratulations and kudos to Mike Boyink, the mastermind behind this good work in Christ!

I realize it sounds like I’m gushing a bit, but consider the many good attributes of web design built into the Ridge Point Community Church. A site built, by the way, using the pMachine blogging/publishing tool as a content management system. A site that scores well against any measure of usability heuristics:

  • Effectively communicates the website’s purpose … the site is well branded, with navigation who’s roadmap is well marked and easy to travel.
  • Effectively communicates the purpose and personality of the Ridge Point Community Church in both the essential information such as time, location, dates and places, but also provided me with enough about the warm faces and ministries they provide if I were to visit the church.
  • The content writing is effective, concise, devoid of circular logic and church-speak. Most importantly, it takes into consideration the fact that people scan webpages, as opposed to reading them.
  • The page reveals content through examples, for example, on the homepage you get six examples down the middle column that lead in into other ministries, events and elements defined and described by the website.
  • The ability to access past/archived content is possible through a variety of means, including an opt-in email alert for updates (an idea I’m going to steal), a forum, a search engine and archives links right on the homepage.
  • Links are look and feel like links. They are scannable. They are rendered using information-carrying words (instead of “click here”).
  • The Navigation works. The primary navigation area in a highly noticeable place, right below the nice pictorial banners. About my only real concern is moving the “contact us” information down to the main navigation bar as it tends to get lost due to “banner blindness.”

    That said, the site does an excellent job grouping items on the homepage by similarity. Check out the effective use of three columns on the home page. The right gives links to the essential information. The center offers you navigation by what is up and coming by ministry. The right column, by date.

    The header title of each sub-page matches the navigation and is encapsulated and emphasized between search-engine friendly <h3> tags.

    Generally, names for categories aren’t “made-up,” instead, easily recognized words and phrases are employed, though I might use “Sermons” instead of “Messages.” And not a single, kitchy icon used. Now if Mike would only deactivate links to the homepage the homepage itself, it would be perfect!

  • The search feature is easy to find and easy to use… though I’d use “search” instead of “find.”
  • Tools and task shortcuts to the most common and/or most sought after information are are provided on the home page, as I described 2 bullet points up in the effective use of 3 columns of compelling content on the homepage.
  • Images are used judiciously. Gratuitous animation is avoided. Warm, well-done images rotate for the banners, though I would consider strongly not re-rotating the image for any page visited by a user during a current session. At least not for the home page. This way, it doesn’t look like they’ve gone to a different page when they hit the back button. That said, the selection of images show real content, that is what is really going on at Ridge Point Community Church.
  • Graphic design elements, such as font-size, font colors and backgrounds are limited to less than six colors, are consistently used across the site and most of all, are driven by the content. That is, Mike does a great job in using various design elements as the last step in drawing attention to compelling content, as opposed to enslaving the content to various color and/or graphic novelties. Also, a nice use of liquid layout, even if it isn’t tableless (inside joke folks, just move along).
  • Widgets are uses sparingly, and only when compelled by the nature of the content. Again, I might use the word “Search” instead of “Find” next to the easy-to-use search box, but that’s a religious argument. I would leave less space between the search box and the “Find’ button so they’re almost touching, and thereby even more closely coupled.

    I do think a bit of instruction or “what is about to happen” information is required for your “log-in” and “register” widgets. As it stands now, I’m not clear why I would want to register. A good example of something that screams “what’s in it for me?” would be that email-update form I really like.

  • Window titles match the content. Heck, they match the breadcrumb navigation! I do think however I might change the delimiter in the <title tag> from “>” to “-” as some search engines might either toss data after a non-text item or think they’ve blown an HTML tag somewhere. I might also toy with the idea tweaking the title tag “Home > About Us > Our History” reads “Our History – Ridge Point Community Church.” But we’re really picking nits here.
  • URLs I have some problems with. I realize much of this is by virtue of using pMachine. Even then, it’s not because they are misspelled or broken, but that they’re ‘crufty‘ … that is they’re not as search-engine friendly as possible. Nor is “http://www.ridgepoint.org/ForKids/forkids.php?id=P36” as easy to remember as “http://www.ridgepoint.org/ForKids/.” Nor would I expect in the last example for the URL to throw me to the 2nd & 3rd Grade page by default. That said, rather than slug it out with the content manglement system, why not consider some mod_rewrite magic? Yeah, I know this is a tough one to fix and I would suspect it’s already a deferred item on Mike’ s to-do list because of it’s complexity.
  • News, new stuff, upcoming events … did I mention I like the email updates thingie? That along with effective use of the center column on the home page make it real easy for any visitor to see that this church isn’t as stagnant as most church websites I review. The site also offers an XML syndication link for those of us who surf with aggregators. Nice!
  • 1000 points for not subcumbing to the temptation to use splash pages. Not sure how I feel about the use pop-ups when I click on the events on the left-hand column of the home page. I realize this is a ‘borrowed feature’ of the nifty pMachine generated calendar, in which pop-ups do work for me. Perhaps this is an issue of copious comment debate?
  • 1000 more points for using your own host to avoid the casino ads pop-ups and banners I often see accompanying church websites I see on “free” webhosts.
  • While the home page does literally welcome the user, I think it fits into the three-column home page grouping, and makes a nice intro for the first column. On most pages I’d say lose the welcome. On RidgePoint.org, I say it works.
  • Error handling … hmmm … minus 1000 points for no 404 page. Nor is there there obvious a “who to complain and or report problems to” link. I might consider a drop-down menu widget on the contacts form for either subject headings, or points of contact. I use the latter on Redland. Also helps reduce spam.
  • 1000 points for resisting the temptation to display some of those meaningless “best of the web” awards. I mean if it’s not a 5 star review from C|Net or the Site of the Day from Yahoo, don’t bother. It’s clear Mike didn’t … good for you!
  • Page load and refresh problems are not an issue on this site. For an example of what I mean, visit the Drudge Report and wait 2 minutes … or worse, be 2 minutes into reading something and have it refresh on you … very irritating. 1000 points for avoiding them altogether!
  • 2000 more points for offering a privacy statement. This is mandatory as RidgePoint.org gathers user data for the forum registration and that spiffy email-updates features (did I mention I really like that feature?-).
  • Wow! Good use of forums that actually foster community and discipling, as opposed to being self congratulatory as I find on some other websites I review.
  • Dates and times are displayed for time-sensitive information. I see timestamps are avoided on pages where time isn’t an issue. I think that’s smart. I’m not so sure timezone information is essential, but I would avoid using ’03 in my dates as ’03 is also the number for a month.
  • Numbers, acronyms and other fun-stuff. I actually didn’t find any acronyms so I can’t comment on that, nor did I see any confusing numbers other than the aforementioned date thingie. Nor did I find any confusing stats, church-speak and stuff that require/lacknig support context. /li>

Yes, this review of Ridge Point Community Church, Holland, MI was a bit more thorough than others I’ve offered in the past. This is because the site is so much better than many others I’ve reviewed. Notice, in those few instances I offered a criticism, it’s generally falls-under the category of relatively advanced, personal tastes or nit-picking.

In other words if I had 2 hours to fix the site, I’d spend the first hour on error handling and form instruction issues. I’d spend the rest of the time on some mod_rewrite magic to help fix the crufty link issues.

If I had any time left over, I would see what PHP solution I could render to eliminate menu links to the page you’re currently viewing. I’d also see what I could do about not rotating banner pictures for a page you’ve visited during a current session. Mostly, I’d deal with some of the title issues because search engines are an essential key to church website getting people in the door.

Notice, this is all tinkering and tweaking. Notice I’m not saying you should make your site look like Ridge Point as much as I’m saying it should work like Ridge Point.

Everything else I’d leave alone as it would be a misguided attempt to fix something that isn’t broke … and anyone who’s worked on a classic car knows what I’m talking about.

Now go and do likewise.

Posted in Uncategorized

Using Wget to download large distributions

It’s 11:59pm, I’m slouched in front of my computer thinking about a topic for tomorrow while in the background, I’ve initiated the all-night download of the most recent version of Knoppix, all 700 megabytes of it. Hey, if the Senate can stay up spinning their wheels, so can my computer? Provided that the high winds here near D.C. don’t blow down my DSL connection …

… hey wait … Congress is up all night talking … high winds here in Rockville … Canadian cold front my eye! … but I digress ..

Anyway, with the weekend upon us, I thought that those of you looking to download and burninate the latest and greatest distro of Fedora, OpenOffice or some other Linux-based fun, might not be aware that you can use Wget to download large applications … even when blowhards break your connection intermittently.

For those of you who don’t know, GNU Wget is a free software package for retrieving files using HTTP, HTTPS and FTP. It is a non-interactive commandline tool, so it may easily be called from scripts, cron jobs and in my case, a batch file.

By using this Wget with the –continue command to resume getting a partially-downloaded file after getting disconnected, in combination with the –no-clobber directive not to delete existing files … like the partially-downloaded I’ve been downloading all night … I can begin a download at 8pm, and then wake-up at 8am without worrying about disconnections during the time in between.

Below is an example of this in the form of a batch file I created on my Win2k machine to download Knoppix … a script that could just as easily be implemented in bash (just ignore the linewrap):

wget -nc -c http://mirror.csit.fsu.edu/knoppix/KNOPPIX_V3.3-2003-11-03-EN.iso
wget -nc -c http://mirror.csit.fsu.edu/knoppix/KNOPPIX_V3.3-2003-11-03-EN.iso.md5
wget -nc -c http://mirror.csit.fsu.edu/knoppix/KNOPPIX_V3.3-2003-11-03-EN.iso.md5.asc
Posted in Uncategorized