How categorizing information enhances church website conversion goals

Not everyone enters your church through the front door, neither does everyone first visit your organization’s website comes via your carefully crafted home page. The question is, once these search-engine driven seekers find your site through such pages, are they encouraged and equipped to continue browsing your domain?

Conversion Goals

First things first, remember what the conversion goals are for your church or charity website. For those who are new here, conversion goals are actions in which we would like visitors to engage. I’ve got an entire category myself dedicated to this topic, but for those in a hurry, here are some examples of the type of desired actions I’m talking about:

  • visit a Sunday Service
  • register for a Wednesday night dinner
  • sign-up for the email newsletter
  • download and/or print a sermon
  • request a call

Information Hierarchy

Grouping your organizations information is one good way to offer visitors the ability to easily “drill down” into areas that interest them. While the structure of each church and/or charity’s information architecture varies, here’s a suggest list of main categories with which can be customized to suit your organization’s needs:

  • About Us – could include links to a staff page, the terms of use, how to join, and/or church history data
  • Events – abstracts into links into more detail, links to a calendar page, perhaps a place to offer RSS and ICAL linkage
  • Directions – with Google maps and other goodies, here’s a place to offer content that drives in searches by location
  • Ministries – more on this in a moment, but mostly links into individual pages describing ministries the church offers
  • Resources – a link to sermons, podcasts, useful URLs, photo galleries, steps to Peace with God

White Space is your Friend

The nice thing about breaking-up your site into main categories is that you can at first have a single “category” page to provide overviews that lead into sub pages of specificity as individual topics within the category become better defined online.

Put another way, don’t use the categories to create big, huge, monoliths of information that require 15 page scrolls get to the good stuff at the bottom. Instead, as each item becomes better defined by your web team – sub pages are spawned off to contain concise individual chunks of information on specific topics. A good example of this could be your “ministries page” which at first starts out as a single definition list, then evolves into the following sub pages:

  • Children’s Ministry
  • Missions
  • Music
  • Sunday School
  • Youth

Navigation Theme

I’ve seen some church websites – actually I’ve seen too many – where each “category” has a different navigation theme. While this may (or may not) make sense to someone visiting through the home page, it can cause confusion with a first time visitor coming in through something like your “directions” and/or “ministries” page. Some quick ways to remedy this are:

  • pick and stick to a main navigation menu throughout every page on your website
  • provide sub navigation by broad category that enables users to “drill down” into specific topics
  • make sure page titles match main menu navigation choices
  • make sure page sub titles match sub menu navigation choices
  • don’t get cute with the menu names, church speak only creates unnecessary barriers (not to mention page maintenance issues for the developer in the future)

Room for Growth

As one can see, there are several advantages to building one’s site around a well-defined organization architecture. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • works well with most CMS and blogging systems
  • popular sub-categories can be easily elevated into main categories, such as sermons
  • categories can themselves become “landing pages” or portals into the website
  • information along a specific interest can be aggregated in its own RSS feed
  • individual pages/articles can be farmed out across many individuals – reducing the need for one person to maintain a large site all on their own

Class dismissed! Now go visit my Jordanian journey post to see what I look like 100lbs lighter, atop the foothill that hold the Monastery at Petra or what I’m calling ‘Dean’s day at Al Deir.’

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LifeQuest Church – a real turkey of a web site

Cute is a description I usually reserve for my 8 year old daughter – not a church website. Yet ‘cute but no cigar‘ is the mangled metaphor that came to mind when I saw the turkey that is the church website for the LifeQuest of Palm City, FL – as reflected in the kitschy screen show below:

LifeQuest Church Turkey
No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. After waiting about 8 seconds on a DSL line for the Flash animation to load I was hit with a flying turkey, much the same way StrongBad is hit in the face with a fist in his humorous web design tutorial simply entitled “Email 51 – Website.”

But the bloat doesn’t end there! No folks, after being made to wait an additional 4 to 6 seconds on a DSL line, any and every visitor gets to figure out they must click of the encircled ‘X’ to remove the pop-up that obscures the main menu as pictured below:

LifeQuest Church main menu w/popup

Such is the Flashination I continue to find afflicting the great could of witlessness that is the Church online. Why? I’m not sure – perhaps it is an over abundance of graphic artists – or perhaps that too many programmers have yet to see the light.

Whatever the reason, here’s five things I would be concerned of regarding designs such as that of the LifeQuest of Palm City, Florida:

  1. Rendering text using graphic images, or in this case Flash, makes one’s website much less visible to search engines than using text to represent text;
  2. Most usability experts agree that 8 seconds as the maximum time one can make a user wait – and then only for the most compelling of content;
  3. Flash-based websites have a high cost of back-end operation when it comes to affecting changes, additions or modifications to layout and content;
  4. Putting a pop-up in front of the main menu is like putting big huge planters in front of the doors of the church on Sunday morning – it gets in the way of visitors and members alike;
  5. Make it easy for visitors to visit – put the directions somewhere conspicuous – and link it up with a main menu choice that is intuitive, like one that reads “directions.”

There are other elements but I think this is enough to make the point – it a church website ain’t no stinkin’ art project – quit treating it like one.

Tomorrow – go visit blogJordan.com when I write on why I think it better to visit the Hashemite Kingdom than the Magic Kingdom (fun article currently under construction).

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Crossing Church’s Maddening Moving Mystery Meat

NOTICE: to all graphic designers doubling as web masters – your church’s website ain’t a stinking art project. If it were, then there would be no need to worry about such mundane things as conversion goals, usability, and accessibility – issues that seem perennially make top 10 web design mistakes lists.

Including that most egregious sin that seems to have taken permanent residence near or at the top of such enumerations, Mystery Meat Navigation (MMN), which is defined as:

“… a term coined and popularized by author, web designer, and usability analyst Vincent Flanders to describe user interfaces (especially in websites) in which it is inordinately difficult for users to discern the destinations of navigational hyperlinks—or, in severe cases, even to determine where the hyperlinks are. The typical form of MMN is represented by menus composed of unrevealing icons that are replaced with explicative text only when the mouse cursor hovers over them.”

  1. A good example of this bad design concept is the ‘art project’ for the Crossing Church of Louisville, Kentucky – here is what the navigation for their main page looks like:
    main menu for Crossing Church, Louisville, KY
  2. And just to insure that my 70+ something mother doesn’t visit, they create moving targets of the menu on the sub pages, as pictured below:
    'family' menu for Crossing Church, Louisville, KY
  3. If that wasn’t enough, the moving menu targets sometimes overlap, making the navigational meat not only truly mysterious, but incredibly frustrating for anyone over the age of 30:
    'family' menu for Crossing Church, Louisville, KY

While I normally would have a fast 5 suggestions to offer – this time I’m going to suggest 5 questions for consideration:

  1. Does hiding the menu navigation help or hinder seekers from discovering what the Crossing Church has to offer?
  2. Are the moving navigation menu navigations conducive to attending individuals who seek operational information?
  3. How well can the site be found via a search engine with so much of its text rendered as media/graphics?
  4. What are the maintenance cycles like for modifying this site?
  5. What is the cost of delivering content in this manner?

Here’s my point – there is a time and place for Flash animations. Creating complex navigation interfaces is not one of them …

… not if your conversion goals are getting seekers into the pews, and keeping them there once they get there.

Your mileage may vary.

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10 things we can learn from the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies website

What does it profit a charity to have the coolest web site design of all time if it can’t be found via a simple, context-related search on Google or Yahoo? Such is the case of today’s example: the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies and the key phrase “Muslim-Christian Dialogue.”

RIIFs logo - click here to go to home pageLast week, while in Jordan, I sat in on a panel chaired by individuals representing the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (riifs.org). Being the geek I am, I prepared questions based upon the same design concepts and conversion goals one might have for an informational para-church ministry and/or a sermon/Bible-study based site: on-demand delivery of informational product based on user inquiry.

As I researched, I noted the site did not rank in the top 100 results returned by major search engines for contextual searches common to site like this. Meaning – whatever model they had for disbursment of their doctrine wasn’t working.

During the panel, I tried to soften the question by suggesting that my wife, who is interested in this topic for a book she’s authoring, wasn’t able to find their information. The reply by one of the panelists was … and I wish I was making this up:

Maybe her searching skills are not proficient enough …

I didn’t know whether or not to laugh out loud or correct the ill-informed panelist as my wife, who holds a Masters degree in Computer Science from the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, has 20 some-odd years of experience with web data delivery as a Solaris/systems administrator and programmer for a number of prestigious research institutions and projects in the U.S.

Meaning, she knows her way around a search engine from the perspectives of a user, programmer and provider

Keeping my cool, I asked more directly why it was that their site wasn’t even on the radar with simple searches for “Muslim-Christian Dialogue” – a phrase that sits atop their home page. he second response was even more laughable than the first:

You will need to check with your ISP as sometimes they block such sites …

Not sure what impact RoadRunner has on Google’s ability to index a page – but I do know when I’m running into an academic type who fancies himself as a web guru.

So a double bonus today: we have two “fast five” lists, the first being on attitude:

  1. You are not your user
  2. solve their problems, don’t tell them yours
  3. don’t assume all your users are idiots (regardless of gender or ISP)
  4. engage in user testing – where non-geeks attempt simple, common tasks
  5. when a problem and/or encumbrance by a user is reported – do what it takes to provide them a clear path to operational/work-flow success

On that last point, think Amazon.com – the premier example of conversion goals in action. When they hear of something that gets in the user’s way – even if it sounds stupid – they fix their site to accommodate the customer.

Such service-centric approaches will always result in successful, happy users.

Now regarding the riifs.org site itself:

  1. Don’t use graphics to represent text – especially in the header.
  2. Read “Week 2” of Dive Into Accessibilty by Mark Pilgrim – pay special attention to doctype and meaningful headers.
  3. Offer RSS feeds of new content and press releases.
  4. Don’t assume that all search engine inquiries are going to come from individuals who know the complete, exact and correctly spelled name of the institute.
  5. If one of the conversion goals is to modify western thinking, then make sure important pages such as press releases aren’t presented entirely and solely in Arabic.

Bottom line, a lot more questions about Christian-Muslim understandings could have been answered had those producing the RIIFs website engaged in some simple user testing based upon established conversion goals.

Then again, that would mean taking on a user-centric approach that reflects understanding among different Internet users – rather than attitude that is prone to throwing them under the bus.

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New Page 1 v. 1st Presbyterian, Natchitoches, LA

Okay, in a fair fight between search engine inquiries – which <title> tag do you think wins? First Presbyterian Church, Natchitoches, Louisiana – or – New Page 1?

Well of course the full church name, with denomination and location wins, unless for some strange reason you’re seeking spiritual enrichment at the ‘New Page 1’ church then your options are only as limited as the number of church websites who using tools such as FrontPage, don’t bother to modify the page name property before page generation.

Yet another example proving FrontPage doesn’t kill good search engine optimization, people using FrontPage kill the ability for seekers and new residents to find the online presense for churches such as First Presbyterian Church, Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Then again, it probably doesn’t help that said church website is essentially content-less brochureware, whose name and location uses graphics to render text.

So how would I fix this website?

  • Start over, enlisting in a free or near-free blogging service such as TypePad, blogSpot, etc …
  • Make absolutely certain that the <title> tag reads the name, denomination and location of the church
  • Use text to represent text – preferably rendering the church name, denomination and location between <h1> tags
  • Meta tags are no longer magic, but the description does show up on Google, so make sure that also matches with content that mentions the words in the <title> and <h1> tags.
  • Optimize the images using IrfanView

Lemme know if anyone can think of anything else.

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5 quick ways to spot an IRS refund phishing email scam

So while I’m packing to head out to Hashemite Kingdom – I find in my gmail inbox an email claiming to be from the IRS asking me to ‘Click here to request your refund‘ of some $343.50 I overpaid in 2005. Within about 5 seconds I knew I was looking at a phishing email scam – below the enumerated screenshot are 5 clues that gave it away:

screenshot of the phishing scam email I got from the IRS w/numerical citations

  1. It has been my experience that the Internal Revenue Service always uses the U.S. Mail – and unless I’m mistaken, such mistakes usually already have a check enclosed – and even those come in an envelope that looks scary.
  2. The “Taxpayer Advocate Service” is actually an independent organization within the IRS that helps taxpayers resolve problems.” A visit to their website clarified that. It also made me wonder why the email didn’t have a U.S. Mail and telephone number which I could call.
  3. Note that “payments” is plural here, possibly implying “Quarterly Estimated Tax Payments” – I’ve never known the IRS to be so ambiguous when it comes to such things. And how is it they used an email address I’ve never used to file taxes? Hmmmm …
  4. Careful here: without clicking on the link, a view source reveals a link goes to a top level domain of .ch … which is SWITZERLAND?! Hmmm … talk about secure direct deposit.
  5. Hey there history fans, guess it pays to pay attention them civic classes all those years. What am I talking about? Article V of the Constitution pertains to modifying said document. The 19th Amendment extends suffrage to women; that is it gives people the right to vote regardless of gender!

All this is explained in much gorier detail on the IRS website – whom by the way at the time of this writing – has as a teaser link, located dead-center of the page, a link to an article entitle “IRS Warns Taxpayers of New E-mail Scams.”

As/per their instructions, I copied the original source and sent it along to the email address provided – then reported said email to Google as phishing.

Bottom line folks: there is no free lunch – so don’t go broke buying it. Or as in the words of our Saviour:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…” – Matthew 10:16 ESV.

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