What we can learn from Web 2.0 success from blogs4God’s mistakes

Understanding changing trends in sociological activities is a key to understanding how users will interact with your systems. Which is why pastors are as concerned with getting their arms around the impact of the emerging church as webmasters are about Web 2.0. In this post I briefly explore some of experiences with blogs4God as a minor insight into both.

Here’s how blogs4God got started: back in April of 2002 I saw Martin Roth, a writer, getting overwhelmed by having to maintain by hand a growing list of links of Christian bloggers. Being a technologist, I offered to establish a Yahoo-like directory mechanism which he could use to maintain the list. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, he handed me the list as the maintenance of it was eating into his writing time.

My first mistake wasn’t in taking over the list, but rather not then understanding the then infant impact Web 2.0 would have on such “old school” information delivery models such as a Yahoo-like directory. I should have realized that when in 2004 I nicely requested registrants to imbed information about their posts into their HTML markup, that I should have instead insisted that no RSS meant no listing – a policy we eventually took on – but didn’t completely leverage until 2005.

The second mistake was in software selection – I knew spammers were out there but was entirely unaware of just how opportunistic they would become as blogging technology grew in efficiency and popularity. Their abuse of the old-school Yahoo-like directory was on a volume and scale that astounded me – the point of having to change IP addresses and servers and eventually shutting down the site to get their robots from costing me money out-of-pocket by blasting my bandwidth well past its monthly allocation.

The third thing that caused blogs4God “the original” to stumble was some infighting among some (not all) of the moderators. I didn’t start it, nor did I want it – but managing strong personalities with strong opinions was a responsibility I took on when I asked such individuals to join the team. Would I, could I have done some things differently? I doubt it – in fact in retrospect, I should have realized that in accommodating some of the moderators and an online community of their socio/political supporters – that a more politically neutral, if not correct, blogs4God would create a soggy milk-toast that was only attractive to neophyte naval gazers somehow magically thinking that a link on blogs4God’s directory would magically drive in hits; when all that was needed on their part was some compelling content.

So how does all this play into the re-establishment of blogs4God – and more importantly – the website of your church, charity and/or ministry’s website? Let’s do this by looking at the points of an enumerated screenshot of the new blogs4God system I’m working on – points built around better open source applications that take into account the success of several Web 2.0 online entities.
First, as a picture is worth 1000 words, let’s talk about:

screenshot of the upcoming re-release of blogs4God

  1. A stronger ‘brand’ identity: Learn from examples such as BlinkList whom provide easy to see and identify imagery and taggery that supports both the bloggers inputting articles, as well as bloggers consuming articles
  2. Hand the keys of control over to the community: Learn from examples such as del.icio.us who allow the blogging community, in this case the Christian blogging social network, to determine what they want representing them in terms of outstanding Christian content
  3. Advertising: Learn from networks such as Feedmarker whom support their operational costs through adSense
  4. Story-level submissions: Learn from examples such as Digg that illuminates what’s hot and what’s not in a given category rather than provision equal aggregation of both the mediocre and the magnificent
  5. More user-centric services: Learn from projects such as Drupal/CivicSpace, that would encourage and strengthen membership by sharing sign-in services and/or providing higher levels of personalization
  6. Encourage raging debate: Learn from community contributed content-rich sites such as the WikiPedia that encourage debate, discussion and dialog over at story-level content
  7. Better data delivery – Learn from blog delivery experts such a Technorati whom provide a wide-variety of standards to slice-n-dice data
  8. Personalization: Learn from winners such as Google by leveraging ongoing technological improvements in areas such as personalization by cleaning things up with a little bit-o-Ajax.

So here’s my point for your church, charity, community and/or other ministry website:

Change happens, learn to recognize it, adapt to it, and most importantly leverage it,  accordingly; and hence the new category on this webite entitled ‘Disruptive Innovation.’

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RSS in Plain English – a how-to video by Turtle Interactive

Tim Bednar over at Turtle Interacvie writes:

“There are two types of Internet users, those that use RSS and those that don’t.”

I’ve been saying this for years … which is why Tim has graciously produced a wonderful weekend video to instruct those wandering in the syndication wilderness how they can save time, lose 20 pounds, take 4 inches off their waist and look 10 years younger using RSS.

Well okay, I exaggerated, so I’ll let Tim’s words describe what the real deal is:

This video is for the people who could save time using RSS, but don’t know where to start.”

Still, I coulda used the 10 years younger thing. Perhaps the next video? Either way, once you’ve been a hearer of Tim’s words, I’d suggest be a doer and add his feed to your aggregator. I know I am!

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Adding your Church’s (free) Calendar Service to WikiSpaces

One key component of many church web sites are ongoing events … while there are pay-to-pay solutions, Google offers a free online calendaring solution that may be just the right solution for your organization, especially when it is easily integrated into other services such as WikiSpaces.

I wasn’t planning on writing about WikiSpaces today, but no sooner do I mention how useful it would be the product could integrate a Yahoo or Google calendar, than I get a nice email from the guy running the show, Adam Frey whom writes:

“Thanks for the blog comment and your article. Much appreciated.
FYI, you can integrate a Google calendar (or any other embeddable calendar) into Wikispaces.

Just go to the page where they give you the embeddable HTML for your calendar, go to your Wikispaces page, click on the little TV icon in the editor, and paste in the code. Voila.

Let us know how you do with that.”

Well Adam, I’m writing this post just to let you know it was easy as cake … pie too … with both whipped cream and coffee … or at least a convenient screenshot to help my readers visualize the ‘wikitext media‘ icon you were referring to in your email:

WikiSpaces: iframe the calendar

So what does this mean to the rest of us? Well, one key component of many church web sites are ongoing events. And while there are a number of application service providers and software as a service solutions one can spend some serious bucks on – companies such as Google and Yahoo are providing free online calendaring services that may be just the right size for your church, charity, classroom or community.

I’ve been meaning to write more about such calendaring services anyway – but seeing as I wrote yesterday how WikiSpaces may be the right sized tool for your small to mid-sized organization, I figured it would be timely to update everyone on how easy it was for me to integrate a calendar as demonstrated on my WikiSpaces testbed pages; especially as the whole process took me about 1 minute:
screnshot of my WikiSpaces-Google Calendar

It also makes me curious as to what type of plugins WordPress might have for said calendaring applications.

And one other note: WikiSpaces allows you to integrate a large variety of outside services – not just calendars – again, more disruptive innovation to get your organization out of the constraints of the work place and into the mobility and community of web space.

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WikiSpaces: yet more church content management on the cheap

If your content is well organized yet relatively static then a simple service such as WikiSpaces may be all the hosting and content management software your church, charity, community and/or classroom ever needs.

As much of a fan as I am of leveraging the power of blogs as a form if inexpensive, in-house content management for churches, I also realize that it may not be the best tool to manage and maintain your organization’s web presence.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • is your, or can your church’s message be well organized into small, single topic compartments?
  • does this information remain relatively static?
  • do you or will you have opportunities to invite other staff or lay persons to add or edit content?
  • will said staff actually contribute content from time to time
  • do you have a need to post from anywhere?
  • is your most frequent need for posting sermons, lessons, studies and periodic special event descriptions?
  • are the lack of forms, picture galleries, polls and slick programming a non-issue?
  • are you happy with your current web site but would like to leverage a wiki for lesson plans, topical studies and/or sermon series?
  • have you tried the WordPress or Blogger thing and it’s either too much, not enough or not just right?

If you’ve answered yes to a majority of the above questions, and if you’re a small to mid-size church whose message is clear and compartmentalized – but not all that well presented or maintained due to constraints on time and resources then perhaps a Wiki is the way to go to help you move your content management issues off your desk space and into the web space.

Meaning, perhaps a service such as WikiSpaces is the right tool for the job – the same way a hammer is usually better than a chainsaw for driving in nails (though not nearly as much fun).

For those of you nodding your head – I spent a couple of hours last night cobbling together a simple demonstration site over on WikiSpaces that includes some examples and links to help you decide if there is indeed a Wiki in your organization’s future.

screenshot of demo site - click to go there

Honestly, even though I was using the limited, ad-sponsored free version, I found it offered several cool tools such as an easy-to-use AJAX-driven editor, RSS file integration, easy-peazy backups, and a reasonable pricing structure for those who want no ads and more features.

Now if I could just figure out how to integrate either Google or Yahoo’s calendar applications, I’d think we’d be all set for the perfect “poor man’s content manglement” solution … but I digress.

Leave comments here to share the smarts – or just to say hi and or gain editor access to my little mad little experiment

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If a picture worth 10,000 words …

If the old adage that picture is worth 1,000 words is true, then so too perhaps it is true that a web sitemap is worth 10,000 words. At least that is the premise identified and explained by Jason Withrow in his 2004-but-still-relevant post entitled ‘Site Diagrams: Mapping an Information Space.’

So much good is already said in this article, it’s hard to add anything that can’t be better stated by some selective quotations … the trick is to think “my congregation” every time the author cites “my audience:

“To successfully communicate the characteristics of an information space, I needed an approach for creating easily understood diagrams. To be useful to my audience, the diagrams must communicate the ‘big picture’ of the website to stakeholders, while providing enough detail to be useful for the development team.”

Interestingly enough, I both agree and disagree with this article. Meaning, the author argues that by providing a visual representation of the Web 1.0 file/folder model, we provide quick information to users in a Web 2.0 era of search-engine driven navigation.

Thing is, so many of our Church users rock like it is 1995 that I can’t argue with Mr. Withrow when he writes:

“Understanding the structure of an information space for a website boils down to the following questions:

  • What is the information structure?
  • How do I visually represent that structure?
  • What relationships exist among the web pages?
  • How are those page relationships represented?”

Yeah, kinda hard to argue the above, especially as Google Lab has given us a SiteMap Protocol accompanied with a SiteMap Generator, etc …

Yeah, kinda hard to argue with that sorta success! Only question left is, where to put the rendering (psst: this is your cue to comment)?

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Online RGB to HEX to RGB Color Code Converter

In creating your website it can be very useful to know the hexadecimal values of RGB colors and vice versa. For instance if you need to match a graphics color to your background value all you’d need to do is find out the RGB value of the graphic in your graphics program and convert it to HEX.

On the other hand if you already have a web page designed and you’d like to make a header graphic for your site you could take the HEX background color and convert it to RGB for use in your graphics program.

Sound like fun? That’s what I thought when I stumbled upon this nifty little ‘online HEX to RGB to hex Color converter‘ from 321Webmaster.com.

Enjoy!

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Image bloat and the Henderson Grove Missionary Baptist Church

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 glutton’s guilt – 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 – 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 doesn’t – it only appears that way.

see 1792x2000, 920k original
In English, just because I write: <img xsrc=”mychurch.jpg” height=”160” width=”240”> does not magically or physically make my 920k image load like a 20k image. Instead it means I make a page that should load in about 8 seconds take 188 seconds … as reflected by our friends at the Henderson Grove Missionary Baptist Church of Morrisville, NC.

Check out these
stunning stats from the WebSiteOptimization.com.

Here’s what needs to happen to heal this church website:

  1. First, a “thumbnail” of the image needs to be rendered. Unless the webmaster is a guru with graphic packages like PhotoShop or PhotoImpact, then I’d suggest downloading and using that fabulous famous freeware referred to as IrfanView. I think a 75% JPEG progressive compression would do the trick.
  2. Second, I’d crop the image – there’s no need to display all the sky above, the construction to the right, nor the air conditioning unit to the left. This along with the compression would get said 1792×1200 image down to a reasonable 17kb.
  3. Third, I’d ditch the image of the church altogether – church web sites should convey the purpose and personality of the individuals inside, not the bricks and mortar façade.

One other thing to consider is not hyper linking the events page to that or any other image used in said space as it assumes the user is some sort of psychic and able to discern that an image of a building somehow conveys the concept of a calendar.

In other words, if you want to use an image to convey a calendar, then use a calendar oriented image.

kitchy komputer keyboard kruft
Finally, unless your church has a kitchy komputer keyboard-like “welcome” emblazed upon it’s front door – don’t put it on your church web site’s front page. It only conveys a cheapness that is barely described in 1000 words. Instead, put something useful there like a simple one line slogan – or even better – the service times.

Another way to think about this is ask yourself: “is this page so light and easy to load and understand that my grandmother could use it?”

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One useful wiki: the C# Online.NET Encyclopedia

Some developer online resources are more equal than others. This meme is all the truer if you’re a C# coder – as sometimes it is hard to sift out the useful programmer wheat from the not-so-useful propaganda chaff that eminates from various corporate mouthpieces. One of the more useful resources I’ve recently found is Online.NET’s free C# and .NET wiki.

For those of you still not entirely up on ‘Web 2.0-speak,’ the WikiPedia defines a wiki as:

(IPA: [ˈwɪ.kiː] or [ˈwiː.kiː][1]) a website that allows visitors to add, remove, edit and change content, typically without the need for registration. It also allows for linking among any number of pages. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for mass collaborative authoring. The term wiki can also refer to the collaborative software itself (wiki engine) that facilitates the operation of such a site, or to specific wiki sites, including the computer science site WikiWikiWeb (the original wiki) and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.

So modifying my opening comment, some wikis are more useful than others, and if you are a Visual Studio.NET programmer then the C# Online.NET (CSharp-Online.NET) may indeed be your free C# and .NET encyclopedia ‘wiki’ of choice.

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Pentecoastal: church of the 5 pointed beach, or title tag typo?

Is your church sending the wrong message with a typo’d title tag? That’s what appears to have happened with the ‘Pentecoastal’ Tabernacle of West Palm Beach – who might benefit from a bit better search engine optimization by tending to their crufty caption as soon as humanly possible.

Yes, I know West Palm Beach is a place of sun and sand … but I think now would be a good time for the ‘Pentecoastal‘ Tabernacle of West Palm Beach to re-factor the title tag of their church website – as I’ve pointed out for them in this screenshot below:

Pentecostal Tabernacle of West Palm Beach

As this is a denominational keyword, I’d suggest taking this corrective course of action sooner than later, if not so much to avoid wise cracks from do-nothing critics, then to at least beef-up one’s presence on search engines as per my seminal post entitled: “The 10 Commandments of Church Website Search Engine Optimization.”

Otherwise – not too bad a bit of ‘brochureware,’ though they need to get a bit more up-to-date than last February with their upcoming events page.

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Where worlds collide: J. Nielsen v. E-Zekiel’s 2006 award winner for usability

Looking over E-Zekiel.com’s 2006 award winner for the most usable site, I had to ask myself, what would Jakob do – or anyone else without the most recent version of Internet Explorer equipped with the Flash player?

E-Zekiel 2006 usabiity award winner

Catching up on some old ideas for posts, I came across a link where Nathan Smith writes in a post entitled ‘Fleecing the Church:’

“I’m sure that the E-Zekiel guys think that they’re doing their best. I mean, there’s no definite wrong-doing going on, other than the fact that for a fraction of the cost, you can get a much better setup …”

Indeed, after visiting E-Zekiel.com’s 2006 ‘First Place Winner for Best Usabiity‘, I had to ask myself “what were the guys at E-Zekiel thinking?” Well, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, they answer that question for me over on yet another page:

“The Best Usability category sought easy-to-use and well-thought-out E-zekiel sites that offered visitors a logical means for obtaining information. Creative and smart use of navigation, panels, body copy links, and imagery were among the factors considered.”

Compare the above to what the epitomical preacher of usability polity Jakob Nielsen has to say on the topic:

“Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word ‘usability’ also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.”

Okay, the differences in what both parties said isn’t so glaring, so let’s dig a bit deeper using the following metrics the good Doctor offers in his already quoted article entitled “Usability 101: Introduction to Usability” where he defines usability by five quality components:

  1. Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  2. Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  3. Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  4. Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  5. Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

Taking these above metrics and running them against E-Zekiel’s 2006 ‘First Place Winner for Best Usabiity’ (ahem): the First Baptist Church of Lubbock, Texas.

Learnability:

Hmm … right way, I’m having a problem accomplishing basic tasks for the first time I encounter the design … it appears that much of it was built to heavily leverage the use of Adobe Flash player on an Microsoft Internet Explorer browser. Not so entirely bad, had there been more conspicious warning up front rather than having to scroll down to about pixel 810 (in a 1024×768 browser resolution mind you) to find this light gray warning in small text against a dark and light gray checked background:

FBC Lubbock's not-so-learnable error message

Efficiency:

I’ll admit, I guess it should be immediately learnable that something is wrong when I set out to discover the church’s theology by virtue of their sermons – which although the latest and greatest is podcasted, I’m still unable to find the in print archives.

For the even simpler and even more common task of determining the service times, I guess I should have known to have clicked on the link of the same name – rather than the bolder and brighter link to “Visiting with us?” just above. And though both give me similar – but not the same – not so scannable text describing the services and times, it wasn’t until I scrolled down my still common among church folks 800×600 setting on the former page that I got the more recognizable and easy-to-read service day/time enumeration that most individuals are expecting to see.

FBC Lubbock's elusive service time listing

Memorability:

Speaking of more recognizable elements, I have to speculate on how intiutive and memorable “get connected” is versus something more basic and well-known, such as “calendar” or “events?” Not that I had an easy time reading through the Javascript-heavy drop-down menu not-so-efficiently obscured by unrendered flash objects, as I found some of the navigational choices colluded acronyms and member-speak:

FBC Lubbock's missing events menu

That said, once I efficiently lock-n-loaded my MSIE, Flash enabled browser, no lie on the first try, I was treated to this memorable experience that proves the aged aphorism “a picture is worth 1,000 words:

FBClub - very memorable indeed

Errors:

Well, aside from the aforementioned Flash-snafu, there are other navigational nuances I found, that if not an error, at least in need of recovery:

FBC Lubblock website not-so-obvious error message

What else is there to say about a site whose markup threw-up 46 HTML 4.01 Transitional errors?

Satisfaction:

If you want satisfaction go back and click on the image under ‘Memorability‘ … otherwise, I offer this personal opinion of said creative, smart use of navigation, ‘body copy links‘ (whatever those are) and/or imagery … go ahead … go to the website and click on the first two links of the classic E-Zekiel icon help and see how far they take you:

FBC Lubblock website not so satisfying E-Zekiel icons

So what’s my point in all this commentary? I think I have to agree in some degree with Nathan’s original point in the article initially cited. For the money multi-tenant software as a service companies such as E-Zekiel are charging, it is my humble opinion that they should perhaps rethink their definition (if not the spelling) of ‘Usabiity’ … perhaps either by re-factoring their widgets and what-not against various free, easy, and sometimes government sanctioned, ‘Step-by-Step Usability Guides‘ and/or ‘Reader-Friendliness Checklists.’

Either that – and again depending on what you charge versus your return on investment – just open up an account with BrowserCam to test one’s canned ‘navigation, panels, body copy links, and imagery.’

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