What we can learn from The (Evil) Genius of Content Spammers.

What can we learn from the scum of the Earth? That having your church website linked at high visibility websites will help improve your search engine visibility. Does this mean we of God’s Body should also engage in such a despicable practice as comment spam? Whatta you think? Check out this article from Wired’s “The Complete Guide to Googlemania:”

The bloggers hit with these strange messages were victims of an insidious new species, now called “comment spam.” But this was a strange sort of spam: Why would someone go to the trouble of spamming thousands of blog pages to deliver only glad tidings and hollow compliments?

The answer, oddly enough, is that the spammers weren’t trying to win the attention of the bloggers or their readerships. They were trying to win the attention of Google, like the high school bully beating up the class nerd to impress the homecoming queen. The nerd feels violated, but the truth is that it isn’t really about him at all.

I know what some of you are saying, “but Dean, I don’t use MovableType or pMachine to maintain my church website.” That may be true, but it has nothing to do with my point, which is, we all need to learn to make our church websites more search engine friendly. You also need to LEGITIMATELY pursue as many hyperlinks to our church website from quality/well indexed sites.

The reason for this is best explained in an article entitled “How Google’s PageRank Works:”

The abbreviated version is that PageRank is an indicator of “Link Popularity” — you gain PageRank as a percentage of the PageRank of sites that link to you, divided by the number of outbound links on the site linking to you. So if you are linked to by a page with a very high rank and few other links, you get a substantial boost to your PageRank (not to be confused with the vaunted PigeonRank).

This means is a link from another page increases your site’s rank, as long as the site linking to you isn’t essentially a “link farm”.

For a more technical explanation of this, I recommend Ian Rogers’ “The Google Pagerank Algorithm and How It Works” or the “WebWorkshop’s Google’s PageRank Explained and how to make the most of it.”

Why? The Sermons subdomain at Redland Baptist Church receives some 30,000 unique page loads per month. Many of these sermons are well linked by other churches and lay ministries. These in turn boost the relevance and ranking of Redland’s front page when someone seeking and/or new to the second largest city in Maryland and queries for the first “Baptist Church Rockville Maryland” he or she finds.

This is what the content spammers we’re after, only they chose to do it by stealing. As members of God’s Body, we are not allowed to engage in such despicable practices. That said, there are legal, legitimate and accepted ways of improving one’s search engine visibility.

Okay still, you ask why? I think Paul’s advice best explains the need for this when he writes in Romans 10:9-17:

because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

This is why I’m always preaching that content is king, to lose the Flash-based Splash pages, the Jesus Junk, the evil page stuffing, to put to better use your <title> tags, to check your description meta tag and to never, ever delete a well indexed page. To me, church websites are an extension of the people inside … so do whatever it takes (within the scope of good netiquitte, decency and the law) to get your website to get seekers in the door to meet the smiling faces that populate your pews. From there, it’s just a matter of servanthood and ministry.

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FTP, TRACERT and other forgotten conveniences

I’m almost embarrassed to write this post, but after getting off the phone with my technically savvy friend, Chuck Holton, I was surprised. What caught me off guard was the fact that he was unaware of some very convenient Internet/network related commands available at the … Linux and Mac users, please cover your eyes … the MS-DOS Command Prompt.

Yeah, okay, laugh if you will, but would you expect anything else from a bash shell/command line type of guy like me? And cheap too … you get these tools built into the operating system.

The point is, there are time when those of us working on Windows when we need to do something simple over the Internet, but don’t want all the hassle of install a full-blown, user-friendly, GUI-based client application.

Case in point, FTP:

Chuck and I are planning a trip. We will be at hotels with computers, but not necessarily an FTP client. Nor do I think the hotel tech.support would appreciate or even allow us installing something like WS-FTP. So how then do we pipe .JPG images from our cameras to our servers? Simple, if the computer has a USB port, so it plug-n-plays as another disk drive, e.g. D:, then we have everything we need to get the job done.

From the MS-DOS command line, we type in FTP, answer the username and password prompts, assert Binary mode, turn Prompts off, and mPut the whole shebang while we surf about on the browser for a place to have dinner.

And it doesn’t have to be a travel/hotel situation. I use FTP all the time when I’ve got a single file or directory I want to fire online in a hurry.

Useful Utils

There are some other commands out there that might help when you’re in your church’s office and are trying to figure out why they can’t FTP a file to the server. One such command is PING, a simple test to see if a computer is alive and doing TCP/IP from a domain name or IP address, e.g. ‘ping yahoo.com’.

Tracert is another useful command when you want to see the network hops from computer a to computer b. It also helps to track down a spammer’s upstream provider.

IPConfig has several options for enumerating your Ethernet configuration.

Similarly, Netstat enumerates your active TCP and UDP connections.

There is the Net command, which when used with various options, enumerates things such as print jobs, your workgroup and/or shared resources. I can also be used to start or stop network services (use with caution).

There are a couple others such as NBTSTAT, NSLOOKUP and the deprecated Telnet.

Some of you already know all this. Some of you might be bristling over the fact that I’m not suggesting a user obtain this information using Explorer/Control Panel, or some very cool network client tools such as NetScanTools.

Almost *nix

Then again, if you found the above quick and convenient as I do, and aren’t put out by a little typing, then you might be interested in the very cool, and incredibly useful GNU utilities for Win32.

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Using MovableType to generate a Passion of the Christ Subdomain at Redland Baptist

Like many churches around the country, Redland Baptist has joined in the ‘True or False’ Outreach.com Campaign based upon Mel Gibson’s Movie ‘The Passion of the Church.’ Yes, I realize some of you have problems with both the commercial and/or Catholic aspects of this film, but there is no denying that this film is going to raise questions. The Church is therefore called to answer these questions and hopefully lead a person to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Many churches, such as Redland, have subscribed to the excellent evangelical services offered over at Outreach.com. This is a good service, but like so many of these plug-n-pray template-driven programs, all the sites look the same, and I suspect, will rank on search engines the same.

So how do we get a person with questions about ‘the Passion of the Christ‘ into the doors at Redland Baptist Church? Easy, create a search-engine friendly(ier) subdomain regarding the film, along with a link to sermons and related resources that answer these questions. In other words, if someone shows up hungry, we give them a banquet of information.

As many of you know, I’ve opted to use the MovableType as a content management system (CMS) for Redland. So creating a subdomain is merely a matter of establishing another blog on the site. The same can be done with any CMS and/or blogging system that allows for multiple sites/weblogs.
Sub-Page Header for the Passion of the Christ Subdomain at Redland Baptist Church

The next issue to tackle is file paths. As you can see from the screen snippet above, I don’t want to use the default archiving system. Instead, I what is individual pages that reside subdirectories of their respective category. I want to datestamp them as well. This means category archives need to create a subdirectory.

This requires two things in defining the system configuration. First is to define archives at the root level of the site. This is nothing more than a cut and paste of the home page setting on the same page. That done, the tricky part is setting the ‘Archive File Template’ for individual pages and categories to incorporate their names and the date in their filenames:
Archive Template Configuration Screen Shot

Individual Entry Archive Template:
<MTEntryCategory dirify=”1″>/<$MTEntryDate format=”%Y%m%d”$>_<MTEntryTitle dirify=”1″>.php

Category Archive Template:
<MTArchiveCategory dirify=”1″>/index.php

In the end, I get a url for an article entitled “Medical Evidences” in a category named “Related Links” that looks like this: http://passion.redlandbaptist.org/related_links/20040223_medical_evidences.php

One other advantage to defining my filesystem this way is that it allows me to create sensible breadcrumb navigation. Which I define in my Individual and Category ‘Archive-Related Templates’ as:

<a href=”<$MTBlogURL$>” accesskey=”1″>Home</a> » <MTEntryCategories><a href=”<$MTCategoryArchiveLink$>”><$MTCategoryLabel$></a></MTEntryCategories> » <$MTEntryTitle$>

Again, it is likely that you can do this with just about any decent CMS or blogging system, though I suspect your tags and templates are going to look quite different. If you have some examples online, leave a comment below.

Speaking of comments, bear in mind, this site is still a work in progress. I’ve still got some fonts to tweak, some permalinks and datestamps to add and other small stuff I missed in the first go-round. So please, resist the urge to run it through validators and give it the old ‘Vincent Flanders’ … though as always, I encourage and appreciate sensible suggestions.

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NobodyHome.com? No one Answering the Phone!

Big deal, your church has a website. What good does it do if it doesn’t provide the essential contact information? And what good is contact information if there’s no one to respond? Today we look at some simple steps to insure you’re not accidentally ignoring your online visitors.

True Story
I recall an instance some 10 or 11 years ago, when one of my favorite pastors called me on the phone about a printer problem. I remarked (from my cubicle) that was I was impressed that he too was working on a Monday holiday. He quickly replied that Monday was the most important day of the week for a pastor because of the urgency to return calls and otherwise contact those who responded in one form or another to invitations, queries and questions posed during the service or during Sunday school. He cited as his motivation the ‘Parable of the Sower’ (Matthew 13:1-8,18-23).

What jogged my memory of this exchange was a recent survey at Barna Research Online entitled “Most Churches Did Not Answer The Phone.

Many churches gear up for outreach-oriented ministry during the holiday season. Thousands of churches offer seasonal musical or theatrical events, most churches have special holiday services, and a concerted effort is made to attract and welcome visitors.

But a new research study indicates that most Protestant churches have overlooked one important matter: nobody is covering the phones!

Last week, we talked about having someone as the ‘Designated Domain Manager.’ That is, an individual who works proactively to make sure any contact from a registrar is properly routed and responded to.

Catch-all
It should be no surprise that this week; I’m suggesting that you also have a designated point of contact for incoming Internet queries. At Redland, we aim most general email at an administrator who knows how to forward and route questions, comments and problems to the appropriate church staff member or layperson. We also employ form-based email that sports a drop-down list of specific contacts for specific things such our recent ‘40 Days of Purpose‘ campaign.

Likewise, as Redland’s webmaster, I have a list of who gets what when an outgoing mail gets bounced or incoming mail is horribly typo’d. Such messages go to a catchall email address.

This is more important than you may realize. Our youth minister receives inquiries sent to steve@, youthguru@ and a few other obvious names. Sometimes though, people typo, most notably when that someone is in distress, such as a tearful teenager on the verge of self-destruction. If I don’t check the catchall email address every night, then this teen’s hour of need turns into days.

Phone Support
Likewise, you need to make sure your church website has a contacts page with the phone number. In fact, I would suggest putting the phone number on the footer of every page. Yes, email is convenient, but if a person is surfing your site during office hours, having a phone number that is easy-to-find is not only inviting, but my make a world of difference to a member or seeker in need.

Directions
I’m also a big fan of pages that offer directions to the church, especially when they include step-by-step driving instructions, the hours of service and are hyperlinked to online maps. Make sure it’s easy to print on one page. Oh yes, and include the phone number so someone attempting to visit on a Sunday morning can cell phone your office when they get lost on the way … that is provided someone is there to take the call.

Funny Story
That last item reminds me of when I was attending Metro Baptist Church now located in beautiful Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, NY. At that time, they were still about a month or two from purchasing an old Polish Catholic Church building, so they met at the SBC’s Metropolitan New York Baptist Association on 72nd Street. A large room, just adjacent to the offices.

I think I was all of 23 or 24. Sitting with some of other young singles, who were somberly sharing communion when a phone call came in. I leaned to the friend next to me and whispered “carry-out communion?” Needless to say, the repressed laughter of my friend was worth the harsh looks from some of the elderly ladies nearby.

Yes, I was bad. I don’t do that now. In fact, I’m the old geezer giving the looks these days. That said, if you have some other steps you take to insure online inqueries don’t go ignored, please feel free to share them as a comment.

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Countryside Baptist Church – Olathe, Kansas

Imagine this scenario, your company tells you they’re transferring you to Olathe, Kansas. One of the first things you do is go to Google and look up a church within your domination; for the sake of today’s argument, we’ll say Baptist.

On the two pages you have a choice of ten different churches all within a 10 square mile radius of one another. You open 10 browser windows (or tabs for you cool Mozilla-heads) and begin to compare churches.

Two require huge Flash 5 introductions that nag you because the page doesn’t include auto detection for browsers with later versions, such as 7. So now you’re down to eight.

One hits you with a JavaScript prompt that asks you for your name. You enter “Don’t Bother” and close the window. Then there were seven.

Three others have slow-loading splash pages, encumbered with immense images of their church building, none with any meaningful navigation other than [enter here]. Two with spinning crosses, one with Jesus flashing in bold red letters, another playing a cheesy MIDI file. Three more windows close, whittling down the number of choices to four.

One has a long winded, all centered, all in bold mission statement that tells you why you’re going to hell, even though you were saved at age 12. Three are left standing.

Another church uses the front page to tell you how great the pastor is, and why you should follow him. That leaves two.

So now the choice is between two church websites that haven’t colluded their content with Jesus Junk, mindless mission statements, bandwidth abuse or mystery meat navigation.

Both websites “get it.” That is, they’ve correctly identified their target audience and have built their website about their content. Both pretty much say the same thing.

The only glaring difference is that one looks like it’s still partying like it’s 1999. And because of this, you never get to meet the wonderful and loving persons at the “Countryside Baptist Church – Olathe, Kansas

I know this might sound shallow, but if we are to believe Internet use and website usability surveys, and I think we know enough about the Internet these days to know the answer to that question, then the above scenario is entirely plausible. Including taking into account the look and feel of a church’s website as the final decision between church A and church B.

That is, while content is indeed king, look and feel is important because when it is well done, it improves the overall user experience. And when it is up-to-date, it gives the potential visitor the confidence that they’re going to walk into an up-to-date church facility.

So what would I do if I were given 30 minutes to heal the Countryside Baptist Church website? First I would lose the frames. Users don’t like it, and search engines hate it and it adds an unnecessary level of complexity to site maintenance.

I’d then go with a different color scheme. A nice dark color on the left menu, other than black. A white readable area to the right. The rollovers are fine as they are text and CSS-driven.

I’d flush left the “all text all centered” affliction that plagues a majority of the sub-pages.

Finally, I would lose the logo and the ancient image of the old country road. Yes, the tree and street cleverly “frame” the logo and address, but adds another level of navigation to members and seekers alike. I would take a shortened version of the “visit us” message, and follow it with either “announcements” or perhaps those great quotes on their “Meet Some of our People” page.

In other words, something more inviting and better aimed at the needs and desire of the target audience.

Everything else is just fine. The information hierarchy makes sense. The navigation is easy to follow. Once you get past the front page, we find genuine content here written by what appears to me to be genuine folks where “Friends [really do] become family” No need to hide it behind a dated look with an equally dated image metaphor.

What do you think? Am I being to shallow here? Am I being too kind? Leave a comment, we’ll discuss and learn.

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Hyperlink Bible References using Scripturizer 1.3

After almost a year of people emailing me and leaving comments, I’ve finally made the time to update my Scripturizer Perl Module. The changes aren’t big, but they provide dramatic relief to a series of annoyances that have encumbered some of you from adding more Scripture references to your blogs, church websites and other electronically distributed information. I apologize for taking so long to get around to such an important issue.

Addition of Abbreviations:

I think a comment by Werner Peters (no relation) on Rob Hulson’s blog sums up the need for this addition best when he writes:

“It gets a little tedious writing out Deuteronomy every time!”

Yeah, you’ve said a mouth full. So I’ve added various abbreviations to the new and improved version. I’ve done so a more hard-coded format than I like, but the regular expressions are complex enough. I want a novice to be able to look at the existing expressions for Books in the Bible and add or alter their own (expressions) as they need.

This was a painstaking process I automated to some degree with some Perl to split book names after the first three characters, then again at the fourth or fifth character depending on the length and vowel placement. I then went through each of the expressions and added or subtracted based upon a list of common Bible queries over at the ESV Bible. Many thanks to Stephen Smith for directing my attention to this data, it was incredibly helpful!

Finally, I took care of a small handful of typos, involving pluralization. I still need to write a “mop-up” option to weed-out typos such as “revalations” and “mathew.”

Eliminate the addition of a space before non-white space bug.

This bug is exceptionally annoying to those who like to encapsulate their scripture references between brackets or parenthesis, such as (1 John 1:9). So annoying that back last August, Jason Rust left a comment on my blog with a fix. A fix later tried and tested and nicely documented by Joseph Markey.

Essentially, the bug was introduced when evaluating the space between a volume reference, e.g. 1 John 1:9, which in turn put a space in front of a non-volume reference such as John 1:9. The bug occurred when the character directly before the non-volume number scripture reference was anything other than a space.

What the fix does is it pushes the evaluation for the space into a variable, then pushes it in front of the hyperlink. An approach that works much better than a hard-coded space as nothing before the reference is then accurately rendered as nothing just before the hyperlink.

Eliminate the ‘c’ in the gcex modifier in the regular expression.

This regular expression mode modifier did nothing in this context, except possibily eat up CPU and sometimes throw errors in the latest version of Perl.

ESV Bible flip-flop

The great people at the ESV Bible have been so helpful and responsive in the past, I figured why not say thanks in the form of directing those who select the English Standard Version option to the ESV online Bible website.

In MovableType, that would be <$MTBodyEntry scripturize=”ESV”$>

Using Scripturizer as a Perl Module, that would be print scripturize(”Phil. 4:6-7″, “ESV”).

XHTML compliant hyperlinks

Ampersands are now represented as &amp;

Usage Notes

Well, this is sorta a no-brainer. For those of you using the MovableType Scripturizer plug-in, leave the file /plugins/Scripturizer.pl alone.

Replace the file /extlib/Sermonizer/Scripture.pm with the referenced code below. That should be it, but first make a backup of the old one just in case.

Here is where I have it set-up on my PC for general purposes using ActiveState’s Perl Dev Kit: c:\perl\site\lib\Sermonizer\Scripturizer.pm.

Future Iterations

That’s pretty much it. If you can think of anything else, let me know and we’ll see about adding it.

Otherwise, I’d like to work on something else Stephen Smith of ESV sent me, a routine that fetches a snippet via their webservice. His code works but I have some MT centric things I want to tackle when slicing-n-dicing an XML stream of Matthew 5. That and I feel a full-blown ESV.pm module coming on. Well, Stephen has already created one, but I’ve got these ideas … and this compiler … well, you get the picture.

There is also a much needed death-blow to typos method subroutine that needs to be written. The question is, do I write it into the same pass, or do I run first a clean-up pass filter, then scripturize? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Again, thanks to everyone for their input. I couldn’t have done any of this without your valuable input. Even if I could, it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Download the PM … Sermonizer::Scripturizer.pm

view it as text: Sermonizer::Scripturizer.pm

Find a bug? Have a suggestion? Leave a comment. We’ll do our best to see it gets taken care of … quickly. Get it to me in the next couple of days and I’ll try to add it as an update to this article.

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How To: The Scripturizer for Dummies

A week or two ago, I had a friendly back-n-forth with Ted Olsen at Christianity Today over what’s “worthwhile” on the blogosphere. My perception is that what is trash to one reader, is treasure to another. That the beauty of the blogosphere, especially the Christian blogosphere, is that it represents the many varied and talented parts of the Body.

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good … The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” – 1 Cor. 12:4-7,12

Case in point: Rob Hulson’s blog

While this blog may not be worthwhile to the overall CT demographic, yesterday’s post is certainly useful to those of us who are Christian, and blog … and/or run church websites. Especially those of us who like to hyperlink our Scripture references to online Bibles.

This is why I wrote the Scripturizer module and MT-plug-in. And seeing a need for documentation, this is why Rob so generously offers us ‘How To: The Scripturizer for Dummies‘.

So instead of one member of the Body tearing the other down, we sharpen each other as ‘iron sharpens iron’. In fact Rob along with a few others, have offered suggestions to improve and or fix Scripturizer. Changes that are needed. Changes I need to get make time for and publish. Changes I’m now inspired to make because of such good works like those of Rob!

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” – Proverbs 25:11-12

Thank you.

Now go read his post, then come back after this weekend and bug me if I haven’t improved the Scripturizer based on your loving and constructive criticisms.

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Uh-oh, better get WaPo!

Last week, the Washington Post lost its domain name. Well, not “the” domain name used for online readers, but the domain name the WaPo uses for email, washpost.com. Living here near D.C., I’ve infrequently corresponded with various reporters. It should be no surprise that they use email quite a bit. So imagine the disruption to their operations when emails from their domain were ‘bounced’ because expiration warnings had been sent to an ‘unmonitored‘ email address. Now imagine the disruption to your church or charity’s operations if your organization lost its domain.

“Frustrated employees, who also lost some other internal Internet-based functions, were told that renewal notices from Herndon, Va.-based Network Solutions, which registers domain names, went to a “drop box” that was not monitored.” – Washington Post

Not a pretty picture, is it? Especially if some ‘pr0n0grapher’ gets hold of it! We’ve discussed this scenario in the past. What we haven’t discussed in great detail are possible ways of preventing this problem. So indulge me as I speculate as to the causes for this oversight by an organization as large and well-funded as the Washington Post.

Theory One: Spam
Anyone who’s ever registered a domain has more than likely received spam sent to the email address identified as the ‘administrative’ or ‘technical’ contact for the domain. So it could have been that after tons of spammage, some frustrated geek tossed all incoming mail to the contact address straight into the bit bucket. That or someone set-up an anti-spam filter that accidentally directed the warnings to >/dev/null.

Theory Two: Staff Changes
It could have been that the contact email address was an individual who once worked at The Post, but is now gainfully employed elsewhere.

Theory Three: Passing the Buck
Another possibility could be that the warnings about the domain expiration came in, but since it was being sent to a generic or catch-all email address, the information was never passed along to the individual paying the bills.

“Champ Mitchell, chief executive of Network Solutions, said that in the past six months the Post was sent “no less than seven” notifications that the registration was about to expire, most of them by e-mail. A manager in the newspaper’s technology division is listed as the contact for the account.” – Washington Post

Theory Four: Check’s in the Mail
Even if the information did get to the correct parties, large organizations often pay bills on cycles. I could be that the bill for renewal was thrown on a stack of others to be paid at the end of January because various individuals in accounting weren’t aware of the situation’s urgency.

Solutions
So what lessons can those of us running church or charity websites take away from this? First is training. Embue upon your staff the importance of protecting the domain name. Not only because of the evils that can ensue and/or the painful disruption in business, but also because a good domain is worth its weight in gold as it helps you brand and advertise your organization.

Second, obey Proverbs 6:21a, that is “Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck.” In other words, make sure the email from your registrar doesn’t get bounced, tossed, filtered or otherwise deleted. I realize that the registrars themselves sometimes spam, but usually they provide legitimate opt-out options; or do what I do, forward it into a separate folder (or account) so the messages get read … which leads me to my last suggestion.

But allowing domains to expire poses greater risks for some who let them slip. Entrepreneurs are constantly trolling for unused or soon-to-expire domains that they try to snap up, often to sell to other businesses that might want them. – Washington Post

Third, make someone the ‘designated domain monitor‘. When an email comes in from the registrar, it is their job to read it and act upon it. It is their job to make sure that the people paying the bills are following through on it in an expeditious manner. It is this ‘domain monitors’ responsibility to NOT sit around and wait for email, but to actively check the registration information periodically to make sure the domain is still theirs and up-to-date.

I’m sure you guys and gals can come up with some more theories and solutions, if so, leave a comment.

And now my question to you: its 11-February-2004, do you know where your domain is?

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only …” – James 1:22a
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St. Gertrude Parish, Cincinnati, Ohio

You know your church website is in trouble when you have to take off your shoes to count all the animated gifs. This was almost the case with the website for the St. Gertrude Parish of Cincinnati, Ohio. On the homepage alone I counted:

  1. One dove a-flying;
  2. A Celtic cross a-spinning;
  3. Some chain links a-clinking;
  4. Five friars bowing;
  5. A blinking under construction roadsign;
  6. A weather underground adware a-flashing;
  7. An email a-spinnin’;
  8. And a ‘Rosary Now’ icon fading in an out.

All this ‘animotion‘ is reminiscent of Strong Bad’s Web Design Tips (Flash required) where Homestar’s arch-nemesis empirically decrees “don’t worry about subject matter, just put up lots of animated gifs.” Okay, okay, the St. Gertrude Parish site isn’t nearly as bad as The Cheat’s final product, but the point is one should “Use graphics to show real content, not just to decorate your homepage (Jakob Nielsen)”; emphasis mine.

And the St. Gertrude Parish site does have some ‘real content,’ unfortunately the information layout and navigation mechanics are so inconsistent, and some of the titles and categories non-intuitive, that unless you’re a determined and clued-in member, or perhaps someone writing a review of the site, you may never find it.

Let’s start with the layout. Well first, let’s pick a layout. For example, I don’t mind the homepage being (slightly) different than the others … so long as all the other pages are consistent among themselves. But click on “Capital Campaign” under the “Parsish” menu option and you get something completely different from the other sub-pages; the latter of which offer subtle variations of background images, fonts and layouts. And while I can understand making an entity such as the School page look different than the rest of the site, you can’t get to the website unless you’re using Microsoft Internet Explorer because the DHTML menu delivers this particular page in the form of a pop-up window. Not that you see all that much once you get there. Even less on the Business Manager page.

The language choices for the pages, menus and navigation are also confusing. Title of the Church page gives you the impression that you’re on the home page. To a visitor, this is confusing enough, but move own down the Church Page and click on some of the Patroness page link and you get more unexpected results. Well, I suppose might come second nature if you’re both Catholic and a member of St. Gertrudes, but for the rest of us “Page 1” and “Page 2” is just a bit too ubiquitous to be anything but confusing, especially when we click on these links and are sent to pages offsite.

Similarly the “Activities” menu choice doesn’t list a calendar of events, but rather parish ministries. If you want events, you need to look under the “Parish” link. Which should not be confused with the Church page page, which isn’t the same as the home page, but is named “parish.htm.”

Click on ‘Ask-a-Priest‘ and you get a service no longer provided by the church. Which may be confusing to a visitor, because there you are on a webpage with an email address tempting to squeeze in just one more question. Here’s a situation where an auto responder might be better than an annoucement page. At least remove this from the main menu and modify your robots.txt to exclude it from search engines. This way, only people with bookmarks get to the page directly.

Along with some of the menu options, the menu layout is also a bit irksome as the drop-down links are centered, instead of flush-left like all the pull-down menus I’ve ever used on PC’s, Macs and Linux boxes. This, of course assumes you’re not one of the 13% of web users who have JavaScript disabled (or have it disabled for them via their employer’s firewall). In other words, there should be text links along the bottom of this page.

So how would I heal this church website? I’d leave the site alone and go through a formal discovery process. That is, on paper, answer the questions, who is my audience? You’ll probably find two targets, members and seekers. Then answer the question, what information can I give them to draw them in, and keep them in?

Once you’ve got the information handy, then add to this, what other parish ministries need to convey a message? Who are their target audiences? What essential information do they need to convey?

Once all these questions are answered, then it’s time to organize the information into a logical hierarchy. Avoiding CHURCHY terms along the way.

Then again on paper sketch out the menus and layouts. Select a simple color scheme. Stick to one or two fonts. Come up with consistent conventions, such as subtitles get bold and 14pt, page titles are center an 16pt, etc …

Create a test page and menu. Then pull in some people to perform some tasks with the test page and menu … no coaching allowed. If they don’t get it, then fix it until it passes “can my grandma do it” test. Once this is done, you have a template which you can use to generate the rest of your site. When this process is complete, then you need only sit back and wait for all the visitors to flood your doors … while you engage a second career in the maintenance phase.

The point is, this website needs some seriously healing before it can successfully communicate the love and service this wonderfulu parish offers its community.

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the Gospel, according to RSS and/or Atom

UPDATE 1:45pm
Okay, I just now figured out what David Winer was referring to over at scripting when he mentioned “funky RSS” while discussing my efforts here. SO, here is the “not as funky” version of my proposed RSS 2.0 for the IBS. It’s still a bit funky because it still extends with the alternate links, but as I stated above, there is both a technical and business reason for this:

Thanks Dave, this is exactly the type of issues I wanted to hash out online.

In the Beginning

I don’t care who’s fault it is, I’ll knock both your heads together” is what my father used to tell us when my brothers and I would get into each other. We love each other dearly, but like any sibling rivalry, there’s always some friction while both parties are living under the same roof. Now we live in different houses with different lives. We miss each other and truly enjoy ‘short‘ vacations together. Note the emphasis on short.

This pretty much sums up my feelings about the RSS vs. Atom debate. A ‘religious war’ that I’ve ignored up until last week, when I decided to volunteer a healing hand to the not-so-valid RSS feed for the International Bible Society’s (IBS) Daily Manna Verse of the Day. In the process I found myself having to spend twice as much time, producing two different syndication files that deliver the exact same data. More on that after we walk through my proposed modifications.

Objectives

Before we begin plugging data into tags and tags into elements and elements into nodes, let’s think about what would we want out of the IBS‘ Daily Manna (DM) RSS 0.91 syndication file that we can’t get from the IBS‘s JavaScript implementation. To answer this question, we need only to take a quick look at my VerseScrape application which slices-n-dices the IBS:DM and puts the data in a format that I can use on both my blogs and my church’s website.

At the lowest level, we need the scripture reference and a hyperlink to an online Bible or devotional. Optionally, we’re likely to want direct access to the text to the passage, with a handy a reference back to the copyright owner. And if you’re like me, we’ll need the ability to present and format the data so it best fits the look, feel and validation specifications of your website.

The current IBS:DM RSS file fails in that respect. But there is a valid business reason for this attempt. It’s called branding. The next time you buy a Bible, the IBS wants you to buy it from them. So one of the other objectives needs to satisfy this aspect of the content and it’s provider.

Another fun feature of the IBS:DM syndication file would be to offer one, perhaps two weeks worth of verses. Not only would this make some church website owners I know happy, but this feature would also help distinguish the IBS from it’s competitors.

Starting at the RSS::<item> , Atom::<entry> level:

Working our way up the hierarchy from the inside, the first thing we need to do is scoop out the redundant data, such as the product title and the main website address and put it aside for incorporation at the RSS::<channel> , Atom::<feed> level. What is left is exactly what we want, a scripture reference for the title. Unique and ready to publish on our websites. In English:

<title>Daily Manna from the ‘Net for Sun, Jan 31, 2004 [Matthew 7:7-11]</title>
becomes:
<title>Matthew 7:7-11>

Next, taking a page out of Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” we offer a hyperlink to the IBS’ own daily archive link. This way we link to content specifically cited in the <title> tag while retaining the branding the publisher seeks.

<link>http://www.gospelcom.net/ibs/dm/index.php</link>
becomes:
<link>http://www.gospelcom.net/ibs/dm/monthly.php?dmdate=20040130</link>

Finally, we either needed to encapsulate the RSS::<description>, Atom::<content> with <![CDATA[ … ]]> to accommodate the hyperlink to the audio rendering, or figure out some way of listing the audio version as an alternate link.

Since the audio hyperlink in the current IBS:DM RSS isn’t all that XHTML compliant, it’s probably better that we use an RSS format that can be extended with namespaces. By declaring the Dublin Core’s Link Module namespace (xmlns:l=http://purl.org/rss/1.0/modules/link/) we not only gain the capacity to create a node for the audio version, but for also for those who would prefer to hyperlink to the BibleGateway.

This offers three advantages.

  1. it reinforces the IBS brand as the average user with the average aggregator will opt to go to the easy to use IBS link.
  2. capable programmers (who would otherwise scrape), can reuse the same parsing mechanisms for both the audio and Bible Gateway alternates
  3. this particular extension can be plugged directly into the Atom syndication file without modification.

I suspect that it is on this third point that we’ll get the most debate. One of the distinguishing aspects of Atom is that you can list several <link> elements within a single <entry> node. However, I like how the Dublin Core approach buys programmers on both the producer and consumer level some code re-use while protecting the IBS’ branding.

Finishing up on Top

At this point, we have our individual nodes of titles, links, content/descriptions. All that’s left now is to take all that redundant data that points back to the main IBS:DM page and shove it into the RSS::<channel> , Atom::<feed> level.

Publish, and pray the good folks at the IBS replace old wineskins for new. That is after YOU get busy taking a look at my proposed files:

  • Proposed RSS 2.0 Daily Manna Syndication Feed File
  • Proposed Atom 0.3 Daily Manna Syndication Feed File
  • A version of the Atom 0.3 file that employs multiple <link> elements instead of employing the Dublin Core Link Module namespace

Sermonette

Same data, formated several different ways for essentially the same purpose, syndication. Will it always be this way? I can’t say. Competition can be beneficial as it causes both parties to ‘up their game.’ That said, from a programmer’s perspective I’m not too keen on having to support such a ‘wide variety of standards.’ Blame it on my reusability and reliability theology.

Enough preaching. I know there is a barb for the KJV only camp in there somewhere, but I’m too pooped to care about it. Instead, please check out the files. Got questions, concerns and/or corrections? Leave a love note in the form of a ‘constructive‘ comment. Note the emphasis on constructive.

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