How church website design documentation (doesn’t) get done

At some point, some savvy steward in a church raises the question “What happens if our all-knowing, über church web design geek leaves? We should have them teach us how it works.” At which point even more hilarity ensues as the following process begins innocently enough in the form of an ‘educational’ ad-hoc Internet committee meeting:

  1. Committee chair: brings the ‘how the church website design works meeting’ to order
  2. Pastor/staff member: sheepishly asks the webmaster how the blessed thing works
  3. Church webmaster: disdainfully glares at the council members … wondering why no one else has read the WordPress Codex
  4. Committee meeting: sound of crickets chirping can heard in background
  5. Adjacent hallway: little kids gather hoping to snarf down a left-over donut when the meeting adjourns
  1. Committee chair: passes a note to pastor to ask a specific question on a specific aspect of the website
  2. Pastor/staff member: sheepishly asks the webmaster how a specific element of the website design works
  3. Church webmaster: disdainfully glares at the council members … visibly upset how badly everyone missed the point of everything
  4. Committee members: the webmaster berates them, in between insults throwing off valuable nuggets of technical information
  5. Adjacent hallway: little kids waiting outside the door for left-over donuts begin to cry
  1. Committee chair: collect the valuable nuggets, knowing they are the only reliable technical information they’ll ever receive
  2. Pastor/staff member: sheepishly ducks out into the hallway claiming to want to calm down the crying kids
  3. Church webmaster: disdainfully glares at the council members … moodily awaiting next question …
  4. Committee members: try like dickens to weave together the informational nuggets dispensed in between insults into something enlightening and technically accurate
  5. Adjacent hallway: enraged parents of crying children begin to gather with torches and pitchforks
  1. Goto step 6 until church webmaster is summarily ex-communicated

Here’s my point:

To my beloved church website design gurus out there, please spare yourself the shame of said scenario and either install a and/or sign-up with wiki service. Then when you have a spare moment, document some of the things you do.

The wording may not be perfect but it’s enough of a start that would allow others less … how shall we say … technically adept but more gifted in word-smithing to collaborate said documents into perfection.

As I’ve noted before, WikiSpaces is free (and easy), so you have no excuse – other than wanting to spread His love and your knowledge through the ministry of disdainful glares.

Credits:

Today’s silly scenario was inspired by the following post on Jeff Atwood Coding Horror blog entitled
How to Write Technical Documentation.’

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Google Analytics: down again, for 2 days, now back up

Looks like Google Analytics is down again – starting sometime late on Saturday, June 28. And once again once again, no word from the Google Analytics blog (this has changed, see update below) I suspect there’s more here than just a simple code error. Here’s why:

my findings:

Below is a snapshot of the Google Analytics dashboard for HomeSteadingToday.com – a very popular BBS for people into the agrarian, craft, do-it-yourself, self-sufficient lifestyles and/or interests that are broadly categorized as ‘homesteading:’

Now I know there are from time to time various spats on the BBS cited, but not so much that an 8000 visit/per day site would slam down to zero!

My concern:

With an outage two days long, I’m thinking it’s more than just the deployment of errant code as I would hope a company the size would have rolled-back if errant.

Meaning, unless Google isn’t using some form of source code version control, which in itself would be immensely alarming – then there are other issues here that make me concerned that this useful utility still isn’t reliably ready for prime time.

I’m not the only one. Here are some other citations on the subject:

Leave a comment if you’re in the same boat, disagree with me, or just want to discuss this topic further.

Update

Well it only took almost 48 hours, but finally, something on the Google Analytics blog – at least acknowledging there’s a problem and assuring users of no data loss.

Update 2

It looks like things are back in order. That said, a quick blogsearch reveals just how impactful this outage was – and makes me start thinking of what I need in terms of contingency analytic solutions.

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Wiki, Mind Mapping Software, Spam and Ronz

It appears an article I wrote that describes the attributes of mind-mapping, then reviews a number of online mind mapping software applications is considered spam by ‘Ronz‘ over on the WikiPedia. Makes me wonder if the ‘Assume good faith‘ policy is all one sided?

Understand one thing: if the folks at the WikiPedia don’t feel my post ‘How to go mental with online mind mapping software‘ is a useful external link/resource to their their page entitled ”List of mind mapping software,” not a problem. I’m a big boy, and had they just said “… doesn’t meet our criteria … not suited to the article … software reviews not deep enough … etc…” that would be fine with me.

snip from Wiki edit page in question

No, what bugs me is that how to link was summarily called spam – even though it was posted in good faith that someone who was a total n00b not versed in ancient geek might find my over-simplified definition and review of mind-mapping software useful.

Especially when working with a diverse group in a charity or church situation. A sentiment reflected that in the month the link was out there, it drew about 252 views – averaging 4.5 minutes long – meaning it was worth someone’s time.

That point aside, again, if the article wasn’t up to the Wiki’s standards and/or criteria okay – but don’t call an external link that does not meet the Wikipedia’s definition of spam, spam!

  • It discourages community use from those of us who, as it appears in this case, made an honest mistake.

Instead, rather than kill the ‘offender’ … perhaps rehabilitate? A note describing what the article would have to include to be considered useful to the topic would be helpful.

  • A little tutelage, especially in this case, could go a long way.

It takes time to post such stuff, why should I bother contributing if I’m going to have my reputation besmearched as a spammer because I merely followed the Wikipedia’s own guidelines?

  • Again, this isn’t a strawman argument.

If my how to article doesn’t fit, then just delete it with said reason. This paid and published usability and IT authority can live with that … but please, don’t call something that isn’t spam, spam. Wierd.

Then they wonder why there’s a reliability issue:

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Crowdsourcing: another Web 2.0 term for online collaboration

Crowsourcing is merely a geeky way of saying “two heads are better than one” … only with web-based Software as a Service applications. Here are three examples of crowsourcing apps we’ve discussed before:

Wiki
A wiki is a collaborative website where users can add and modify pages from the comfort of their web browser. Often such sites are encyclopedic in nature. A good example of such an application is WikiSpace: a free and easy-to-use Wiki service that allows registered users to both contribute to and benefit from your church and/or charity’s knowledge base.
Customer Relationship Management
Often referred to as a CRM, this is a shared communication and tracking tool that help church and charity staff and volunteers track leads, feed the hungry, tend to the widow and orphan, visit the infirmed and/or imprisoned, mange prayer requests … and of course to track down them donors. Plaid is an excellent example of such an online application; written by someone whom has direct experience with such ministerial needs.
Mind Mapping
Mind mapping is defined is a diagramming process which includes a central key idea, task or words, radially surrounded by child or peer ideas, tasks or words. In the end, you wind up with a octopus-like picture of a mind-dump.

As Josh Catone correctly asserts in his article entitled ‘Crowdsourcing: A Million Heads is Better than One:’

“The ‘wisdom of crowds’ is a popular web 2.0 buzzword, popularized by James Surowiecki’s book of the same name …

… Crowdsourcing can be looked at as an application of the wisdom of crowds concept, in which the knowledge and talents of a group of people is leveraged to create content and solve problems.”

Once again, if all you see is brochureware when you look at your church website, then you’re missing a ‘World Wide Web 2.0‘ of opportunity to collaborate with other members of your congregation as well as the Church Body – from anywhere on the planet.

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Google + Sprint make mobile missions easier with WiMax

Imagine being in the mission field, either full time or as part of a one-week effort sponsored by your church. Imagine now being able to communicate with your congregation, sponsors and/or family using an Internet service provider whose wireless transmitter isn’t 300 feet away, but 30 miles away … and effectively at 30 megabits per second!

This isn’t a pipe-dream, but reality I became aware of while attending the Mobile Business Expo took place in Chicago this past October/November.

This is the reality Google and Sprint are teaming up to offer as described in the recent MercuryNews article entitled: ‘Google, Sprint to team up on WiMax service:’

Google and Sprint Nextel announced Thursday that they will team up to develop a portal to let consumers search the Internet and mingle on social networks using mobile devices that work on a new, ultrafast WiMax network

The deal makes Google the exclusive provider for Web search on the portal and the preferred provider of Internet chat and e-mail. Google also will be providing mobile ads, along with its search results, and sharing the revenue with Sprint.

Search for now … but I suspect once said technology shakes out it’s not only going to become the de-facto mobile backbone for gMail but also Google Apps, Picasa and other services … services that include VOIP delivery that will displace the current cellular dominance in mobile computing and communications.

Your work just moved out of the work place and into the web space.

Moreover, and not getting too geeky here, it means less blackouts in more rural areas – and the ability to stay connected at hi-speed while traveling down the highway 55mph. That should make vendors like NetFlix happy … though parents might find it distracting having to explain things to the kids why a fossil like Leonard Nimoy is in the new Star Trek movie … watching the movie live as the mommy van boldly goes where no van has gone before.

Your network just got bigger, think ‘WiFi on Steroids.’

As I implied in a post this past June, those churches and charities not currently considering how to deliver their compelling content via mobile technologies are in effect placing yet another proverbial basket over their light.

Think of it in another way – within 10 years phones and the cables that carry their signal will no longer exists. Instead, all communications be it voice and/or otherwise will be transmitted as data, over long, remote ranges, over the Internet, all the time. This is the reality technologies such as WiMax will offer.

Your world just got smaller – start thinking bigger about how to leverage that to get your message out.

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The Weigh Down Workshop website needs to go on a diet

The website advertising the faith-based Gwen Shamblin Weigh Down Workshop website needs to go on a diet.

Just as the program helped Paige Leigh Maggie and Andy Sorrells lose 580 lbs, here are 5 fatty things the webmaster can cut out of the way to help make first-time visitors lifetime customers:

  1. lose the popup window – this is a horrible idea for primary navigation as both FireFox and Internet Explorer 7 block popups by default, meaning potentially 3/4’s of the visitors are immediately turned-off by spam-like techniques
  2. lose the slash page – why add an addition navigational step to the front page? It buys neither the vendor nor the visitor ‘nuthin’ but frustration for the latter and larger bounce rates for the former
  3. lose the Flash-based navigation – requiring visitors to use version 8 of Flash to the point of instructing them “If you are prompted to install this player from Macromedia, please say yes” means potentially losing anyone viewing the site from an older machine, a machine behind a corporate firewall that blocks streaming media and plug-ins and/or those of us who block flash because of its wide use in spammy and distracting advertising banners
  4. simplify the navigation – people read left to right, top to bottom. Placing elements of main navigation both at the top and bottom of the screen means users are required to read in azig-zag patter. Instead, this is a program, walk them through the steps 1-2-3 to a new life without all the fat
  5. reword the navigational options – simple changes like “I have changed” to “success stories” or “live online classes” to “webcasts” or even better: “web-based workshop.” And on that latter topic, lose the church speak as “Exodus out of Egypt” versus “Exodus from Strongholds” versus “The Last Exodus” is meaningless to non-program members. I’m thinking a program comparison chart might help clarity here.

Point is, there’s nothing wrong with running a faith-based businesses. So why run the website like a chaotic video game? Especially a business that strives to help our obese society break free from the slavery of food addiction by stepping them through healthier, simpler, more effective eating patterns.

This is why I would suggest those running the Gwen Shamblin Weigh Down Workshop website practice what they preach and get rid of the sugar-coated, gadget-bloated, peach-cobbler, empty calorie gimmick-based interface and go for something more substantive and usability-minded that simply answers the visitor’s question “where’s the beef … and how do I get some?

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Craigslist Down proves the need to plan for failure

What does the PG&E induced craigslist outage have to do with your church or charity website? How about a reminder of the tired but true adage that reads ‘Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.’ Specifically using mysqldump, crontab and perhaps ftp or rsync to insure you’re data isn’t dead in the water when your host goes down.

  • One of the big advantages of running a web services company out of the San Francisco area is that you’re located where the majority of action is – at least in the U.S.
  • One of the big disadvantages of running a web services company out of the San Francisco area is that when the Bay area takes a power hit – you’re down with the best of them.

This power-packed paragraph from the Boston Herald exemplifies the scope of the situation:

Cool black light, or dim bulb? You decide with your plan of attackAT&T Park, home of the Giants, was also affected hours before a scheduled night game. Six Apart Inc., a blog-hosting service, said its sites began failing shortly before 2 p.m., and the company sent an e-mail to customers blaming the city’s “power issues.” Several other Internet sites with San Francisco offices had problems, including Craigslist, Technorati, Yelp, Red Envelope and CNet. It was unclear whether the problems were related to the outage.

Now while I suspect the ‘big guys’ have contingency plans to quickly relocate had this been a long-term failure, I also speculate that your church and/or charity’s emergency plans may not be so robust as to handle something such as a hosting provider that goes belly-up due to either natural and/or financial disasters.

That said, there are some no-cost, low-bandwidth solutions are already available to those of you opting to manage your site’s content on a LAMP platform using an application such as WordPress or Drupal.

Here’s all you need to cook-up your own recipe for success:

  • putty for shell access to your website/host
  • access to the mysqldump command
  • optional access to the gzip command
  • your database username
  • your database password
  • your database server name
  • optional access to the crontab utility

So if nothing else, with the above you could set up a nightly job that backs up and then gzips your database all in one fell swoop:

$ mysqldump -uMYSQLUSERNAME -h localhost -pMYSQLPASSWD wp_MYDB | gzip -9 > wp_MYDB-db.sql.gz

This approach is of course not without its downside, specifically:

  • you could be potentially overwriting a good backup with a corrupted data backup
  • you still have your backup on a server that could go down
  • you have no real report as to the validity of the backup

Instead, it’s probably advisable to create a script and/or perhaps write a PERL program to enhance this process to:

  1. first grandfather the last good archive backup
  2. then archive the last good backup
  3. then add a date stamp to the file
  4. then make a copy of a successful backup to another location
  5. finally, email you and/or log the results

But who as time to write a script you ask? Well, fear not, one of the reasons I’ve filed this article under ‘resource filled’ is because I found a wonderful little service entitled: the FTP backup script generator.

You simply enter the parameters, it generates a script that you then copy and paste onto your system – then crontab to run on a nightly basis.

And if that doesn’t float your boat, here are a few other articles on the topic of how to use crontab, MySql and FTP or rSync to keep your data safe and sound now matter how badly the power fluctuates about your backup-savvy server.

  • NixCraft – How to backup MySQL databases, web server files to a FTP server automatically
  • How to have automatic backups of your mySQL database – ThemeBot
  • How To Forge: Create Incremental Snapshot-style Backups With rSync And SSH
  • MySQL backups using mysqldump by CrazyToon
  • Peter’s Blog: rSync articles by tag
  • Automated Backups on Tiger Using rsync – O’Reilly MacDev Center
  • VoorBurg: Backup script for Linux using tar and find
  • How to backup your MySQL tables and data every night using a bash script and cron – CGI Interactive
  • Old Guy’s Scripts: MySqlDump database backup script

I know we’re all busy, and I said, this approach is a mere pittance in light of true disaster recovery. That said, it is up to make sure you have at least taken the above precautions … and from there add more points and detail … for as it is written (with apologies to the inspirational text of Romans 10):

How can they restore the data without knowing how?
And how can they know how without having practiced?
And how can they practice without someone teaching them?
And how can someone teach without documentation?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the webmasters who have planned ahead!”

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Simpsonized Server Unavailable – an unsuccessful lesson in success

Late last week, several national newspapers and e-zines published several stories about a silly little promotion for an upcoming, onscreen ‘Homeric’ tale : SimpsonizeMe.com. Unfortunately those coming late to the party may have to wait a bit as the popularity of this interactive Flash-based toy created enough buzz and traffic to crush the server on which it was hosted.

I write quite a bit about planning contingencies for failure, but I think the quick little lesson here is to also have in your back pocket an alternative route for popularity.

A bit rarer a problem with church and charity web sites, but here are five things the ‘Simpsonize Me’ server failure teaches us consider regarding the management of successful web sites in order of magnitude:

  1. more monthly bandwidth – is a measure of data transfer, the trick here is to increase your monthly allotment ahead of time so you’re not paying a penalty premium when you get pounded
  2. a dedicated server – a type of Internet hosting where the client leases an entire server not shared with anyone, before your hosting provider kicks you off for hogging all the shared resources
  3. server farm – a collection of computer servers to accomplish server needs far beyond the capability of one machine
  4. load balancing – a technique to spread processing between many computers, which is another way to maximize multiple machines
  5. throttled input – last resort, but a cut-off point where your server nicely but firmly says “no mas

Point is: be like Ned and not like Homer – plan ahead – or at least have a clue of what to do if things become wildly successful.

Some articles to read while the computing crew at Burger King figure out how best to deal with the new found popularity their ‘Simpsonize Me’ game has garnered:

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How churches should view the CNN YouTube Debate

Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative or something in between, here are five things those involved with their church and/or charity’s online presence should observe and learn from the CNN YouTube Debate:

  1. Format
  2. Flow
  3. Focus
  4. Failures
  5. Feasibility
Format – note of how questions were asked and answered, for example:
  • How are the questions delivered to the candidates?
  • How are they delivered to one’s computer?
  • Did CNN / YouTube take time to ‘clean-up’ the questions in terms of sound levels, video quality and the framing of faces, etc?
  • Were all the questions delivered as ‘talking heads’ – or were allowances made for ‘examples’ or other visual aspects that either fine-tuned or slanted the question?
  • What type of questions were taken?
  • What type of hardware is employed?
Flow – While I know we’re dealing with professional politicians and journalists …
  • were there any hiccups?
  • long gaps between queries and responses?
  • delays in question loading/delivery?
  • was an intermediary required to ‘translate’ or re-frame some of the questions?
Focus – Where is/was the focus?
  • what did you find yourself looking at the most?
  • what did you find distracting?
  • did anything ‘jump’ out at you at any time?
  • what went unnoticed?
  • not that you’d know now, but later, what did you miss?
Failures – Is there anything we can learn from things that flopped?
  • what didn’t seem to work?
  • what seemed forced, stilted and/or disingenuously canned?
  • what were some obvious foibles and fumbles?
  • which aspect was the cause of the failure, something technical or non-technical?
Feasibility – Can the YouTube approach be scaled/applied as …
  • a gathering of Biblical scholars at a seminary to answer questions?
  • a gathering of pastors within a given city to answer questions?
  • a gathering of missions in the field answering questions?
  • a gathering of representatives at a given denominational convention to answer questions?
  • a visual FAQ … aggregated and accumulated over time and answered by church staff as they occur?

Again folks, this is all about understanding the emerging disruptive technologies around us and understanding if we can leverage this to better attract seekers and support members by means of our church and/or charity’s web presence.

Take notes, think outside the box – bring in your ideas as comments here and we’ll discuss.

Below are some additional articles I read while putting this piece together:

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5 lessons pastors can take from Tammy Faye Bakker Messner’s passing

Televangelist Tammy Faye Messner died last night, just about the same time many pastoral sermons met a similar fate. Only whereas the former perished as a result of inoperable lung cancer, the latter expired due to a case of terminal irrelevance. While nothing could be medically done to save the former Tammy Faye Bakker, blogging could have saved the untimely demise of so many pastoral presentations.

All over the U.S. this morning, pastors and priests are pontificating to their parishes messages they carefully crafted while hidden away in their office and/or study – provided of course they’re not offering up re-hashes of past presentations and/or canned sermons purchased on cassette tape! Many such messages will be dead on arrival.

Here are five ways blogging can help pastors add new life to their messages and ministries:

Immediate infusion into the public debate

I realize Saturday night is a tough time for pastors to do anything but prep for Sunday morning. Still, I’m saddened that the majority of news stories and blog posts on the topic of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner’s death are coming from an almost solely secular point-of-view; as demonstrated by Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post who wrote:

“Her fans were people who grew up in a very fundamentalist tradition, not being able to wear makeup, or dance, or go out in public,” White told the Times. “So here comes Tammy, with her dyed hair and makeup, her ebullient spirit and outspoken ways with both men and women.

“She talked about sex, and flirted with Jimmy. She took on the caricature of an obedient wife, and blasted it…”

Sadly, without immediate input by local leaders in the Christian community, it appears the debate will continue to be framed along the lines that Christians are out of touch with the emerging role of women in today’s society. A point that is entirely incorrect, but uncontested.

Immediate opportunities to relevantly reach-out

The fact of the matter is that Tammy Faye’s life was, IMHO, basically a rebellious reaction to a well intended but misguided, social but not Scriptural, super hyper-fundie upbringing. A topic I would think has some resonance with many of those who’ve opted to study the brunch menu at Chili’s instead of the Bible at church this morning.

A short pastoral posting discussing Tammy Faye’s dysfunctional response to her upbringing could have provided some relevant and timely guidance to those similarly afflicted – both within and without said shepherd’s flock.

Immediate interface and feedback

Provided a pastor is brave enough to open up the comments capabilities of their blogging software – a short post on the topic of Tammy Faye Messner and co-dependent behavior could have inspired a lively discussion that could:

  • provide the pastor with valuable notes for a latter sermon or Bible study;
  • allowed the congregation to feel connected with their pastor;
  • demonstrated the ability to discuss relevant issues;
  • demonstrated to members a way to discuss relevant issues;
  • help the pastor identify individuals similarly hurting.

Immediate search engine optimization

I’m continually asked by pastors and church webmasters how they can improve the search engine visibility of their congregations web presence.

I continually point out that having a pastor blog their sermons, weekly messages and perhaps even pictures of their cats will provide the compelling content that will not only index along current keyword searches, but inspire other sites to link back to the church’s website.

Coupled with good titles and lead paragraphs, pastors could have all the incoming traffic they never wanted simply by writing short analytical opinions about current issues.

For example, I would suspect something as simple as “Tammy Faye Bakker Messner versus the Proverbs 31 Woman” followed by a lead paragraph that discusses the failed ministry of her and former husband Televangelist Jimmy Bakker would drive in more traffic and public input than a pastor never wanted.

Permanent position statement

When people are shopping online for churches, they rarely seek out pastors and parishes that sit on the fence. They can get that from politicians.

What such individuals want is to know where a particular church body stands – even the seeker doesn’t 100% agree with the position – they at least know that said church stands for something. Such reassurances are important in such socially confused times.
For example, as a pastor, I might point out:

  • the legacy of failures Ms.Messner leaves behind;
  • there are better ways to deal with a legalistic upbringing;
  • look & learn, Tammy Faye died trying to serve two masters;
  • how Tammy Faye Bakker’s rebellion set back the successes of women;
  • while she put the fun in dysFunction, she also left the rest of us a big messy legacy;
  • how social concerns delivered as Biblical dogma created co-dependent canines like Tammy Faye

Meaning, like or dislike Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, she is a topic worth discussing. Especially worth discussing as our population continues – including and especially the Church going Christian population – to suffer from:

  • divorce;
  • drug addiction;
  • the ravages of sexual promiscuity ;and
  • the enslavement that comes with the lust for fame and fortune.

Bottom line

If today’s sermons were so in tuned with where we’re at, then why are so many within the U.S. Church continue to feel disconnected while struggle with said issues enumerated in the last section?

If more pastors would break out of the myopic solitude of their studies, or at least augment their study with outward interaction such as blogging, I’d think we’d see some better content on news.google.com this Sunday morning.

And like the woman at the well and/or Mary Magdalene, perhaps a timely pastoral blog post might help relieve someone the baggage that so weighed down Tammy Faye Bakker Messner all her life.

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