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Creating great content for UU Web sites

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Second case study: Philocrites

Key Concept Statements:

Update your Web site regularly.

Use feedback loops to add new material.

One of the keys to creating great content for your Web site is understand how the Web works. Right now, the use of the Web is driven by the big search engines, especially Google. this if for a very simple reason: the way many or even most people are going to find your Web site the first time is through a search engine like Google.

Therefore, we have to pay a lot of attention to how Google finds whatever content you put on your Web site. Let me put this negatively: You can put the greatest content on the world on your Web site, but if Google doesn't find you, you're just wasting your time. Worse yet, if your Web site is listed low on Google's rankings, that means your Web site will be buried deep in the whatever search results come up, which means that very few people will ever scroll down to the link to your Web site.

So how do you get your Web site to rise in the Google rankings? By understanding two key concepts:

Let me just say a little more about this "Web 2.0" business. "Web 2.0" is mostly applied to the really huge corporate Web sites to describe a new approach to Web design. Google, for example, is Web 2.0 because it is highly interactive and because the user can customize it. There's no way those of us with small religious Web sites can do what Google can do -- but we don't have to, and we don't want to. Because an important concept behind Web 2.0 is that there are an incredible number of small Web sites which, in aggregate, are just as important as the handful of big monster Web sites. That means that the big monster Web sites have to figure out how to relate to the millions of small Web sites -- and those of us with small Web sites have to figure out how to let the big monsters find us.

Thus: fresh material; and some kind of interaction. That's what we're looking for. And that brings us to the next case study, a Unitarian Universalist Web site called Philocrites.

Right now, I'd hazard a guess that Philocrites has more traffic than any other Unitarian Universalist Web site with the exception of the UUA's Web site. When you realize that Philocrites is the project of one man who works on his Web site as a hobby, in his spare time, with next to no budget,-- it's obvious that we want to take a look at what he's doing and see if we can copy him.

Philocrites has grown to be as big as he is in part by being an excellent writer, but more to the point by being a constant presence on the Web. He posts new material about three times a week, and that seems to be about right for many of his readers. Here's the story behind Philocrites:...

Back in June of 2002, a fellow by the name of Chris Walton started up a blog that he called "Philocrites." oHe was interested in writing about Unitarian Universalism, liberal politics, and related topics. Chris had been posting to various Unitarian Universalist email lists, and some of his first posts to his blog were simply things he had written for those email lists.

Pretty soon other people began discovering Philocrites, and Chris started gaining readers. I found about Philocrites in 2003 when a housemate said to me, "Do you read Philocrites? As far as I'm concerned it's the one UU web site I always read." So that's how I got hooked reading Philocrites. Lots of other people were getting hooked, and before long the site was attracting notice beyond the narrow confines of Unitarian Universalism. Beliefnet, the biggest online Web site devoted to faith and spirituality, noticed how many people were reading Philocrites, and they added him to "Blog Heaven," their very select list of blogs worth reading.

I will admit that I don't believe any of us can duplicate the extraordinary success of Chris Walton and Philocrites. But it's worth looking at why he has become so successful.

Obivously, a big factor in his early success was that he was an "early adopter." Chirs started writing his blog before most of us knew what blogs, before the big blog boom of a couple of years ago. It does help to be in the right place at the right time. But other early UU blogs don't have nearly the reach and popularity of Philocrites -- why not?

The most obvious reason is that Chris Walton is a darned good writer. He's smart, well-read, has done some serious scholarship in religion, and he writes good clear prose. He also has a really good sense of what's important in the world of liberal religion, which means to me that he's not only a good writer, he's a good editor, because that's one of the things editors do:-- pick good topics. In fact, Chris is one of the editors and staff writers of UU World magazine, so it's not just a hobby, it's a profession and a calling for him. Even if you and I aren't as good at writing and editing as Chris is, it's worth paying attention to the important fact that people read his blog because of good content.

But good content by itself is not enough. I can't emphasize strongly enough that one of the strengths of Philocrites is that Chris posts new material regularly: at least several times a week. Go thou and do likewise: you simply must update your Web site regularly. It doesn't matter whether you're maintaining a blog or a standard Web site, if you forget to update, you're going to lose readers quickly -- very, very quickly.

Something that may not be readily apparent when you read Philocrites is that Chris pays close attention to what, exactly, his readers are reading when they read Philocrites. This is going to take a little bit of explaining, so bear with me.

Most Web site hosts give you access to at least some statistics about your Web site. At a bare minimum, you should be able to find out how many times someone has clicked on your Web site in a given period of time. But most Web hosting services will give you additional statistical information, including things like the Google search strings that bring people to your site, the Web sites that refer people to your site, what time of day most of your readers access your site, and much much more.

Chris pays constant attention to this kind of information. For example, he will notice that suddenly he's getting lots of hits on a certain post in his blog. Perhaps he finds out that some other Web site noticed something that he wrote and created a link on their Web site to that particular post; with the result that lots of new readers are now being directed to Chris's blog. So Chris traces back and looks at what this other Web site says about his blog;-- and then depending on what he finds, he might go back to that post and add some information that he thinks the new readers will find interesting. In other words, Chris pays attention to why people are reading his blog. His goal is to get people to read more of what he has written, so that maybe they become interested in Unitarian Universalism, or at least become more sympathetic to it.

(Parenthetically, I should say that if this kind of thing bothers you because you are against proselytizing, you need to understand that we Unitarian Universalists are a very tiny presence out there on the World Wide Web. Most of the religious sites tend towards the evangelical and fundamentalist end of the religious spectrum. It is very easy for Unitarian Universalists to get drowned out by the conservative religious Web sites. Worse yet, there are quite a few Web sites that accuse us of being a cult. Thank goodness there are people like Chris who aren't afraid to present accurate information about Unitarian Universalism. Enough said.)

So Chris looks at his Web site statistics, as provided by his Web host, or by his blog software. But Chris looks for feedback in other, more direct, ways.

One of the key features of a blog is that readers can comment on whatever the blog author posts. A small number of blogs do not allow comments, and a larger number have narrow restrictions on who has permission to comment. But the majority of blogs allow you to comment on anything the author writes.

This interactivity is one of the things that makes blogs so interesting, and so wildly successful. Static Web sites just sit there: you visit them, maybe you read them, and that's it. But when you visit a blog, you can read something and then comment on it. On some blogs, the comments become more interesting than the original posts. That sometimes happens on Chris's blog;-- indeed, sometimes the conversations in the comments take on a life of their own, and become worth reading in their own right. More to the point, the comments give the blog author yet another feedback loop, yet another way to find out what the readers are reading, how they feel about what they are reading. And blog authors respond to the comments, sometimes adding more information, thus enriching the content even more. Read through some of the post on Philocrites, and you'll see what I mean.

I could go on and on about Chris's site; suffice it to say that you should check it out yourself and see what makes it tick. But mostly I wanted bring up Chris's blog because if you want ideas of how to create good content, it's worth looking at what he has done.

To summarize what we can learn from Philocrites:

On to part three...