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.