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Creating great content for UU Web sites

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At the conclusion of the presentation at General Assembly, I asked participants who had any questions or comments both to ask them verbally then and there, and also to write them down so I could post the questions and comments, and my written responses, on this Web site. That's what you'll find on this page.

Questions and comments from the workshop

Q. Should we include email addresses and phone numbers of volunteers and staff on Web pages?

A. Looking at this question in terms of creating great Web site content, I'm not sure it matters all that much one way or the other. Certainly, basic contact information, like the main phone number and the main email address of your congregation, is necessary. Beyond that, I don't think that including lots of phone numbers and email addresses on your Web site could be considered adding great content -- we haven't bothered to do it on our congregation's Web site -- but go ahead and do it if you want to.


Q. What about photos of members and children? Our webmaster refuses to use these for some reason.

A. If your webmaster is worried about legality or liability, then you should consult your congregation's legal counsel and your congregation's insurance carrier to clarify your position. I am not qualified to comment on legal issues.

Aside from that, there are legitimate concerns about sexual molesters tracking down children via photos on Web sites. If that's your webmaster's concern, it seems to me that the congregation's Board should review this concern in the context of a comprehensive child protection policy, and a child-protection policy should be a policy-level decision (i.e., a decision made by the Board, not by an individual).

In our congregation, we do use low-resolution photographs of groups of children and adults to give newcomers a picture of what to expect when they come to our church. That kind of content seems so valuable to me that I would push pretty hard to use it. However, I am less interested in using the kind of close-up photo that would require permission of an individual to use -- except in the instance of staff photos (minister, religious educator, paid child care provider, etc.).


Q. For a small, Web-phobic congregation, emphasizing that the site is for newcomers solves some problems around what to post: no newsletters, no names other than staff and officers, etc.

A. It does solve some problems, doesn't it?

Personally, I have little interest in posting our congregation's newsletter to our Web site for another reason -- I want to have something that you have to come to our church to get. But I'm thinking about posting my minister's column from the newsletter online, so that newcomers can get a sense of who I am before they arrive.


Q. Keep other religions which are not church-related on another Web site.

A. Good point. If your congregation's Web site is "selling" your congregation, why on earth would you promote someone else's religion on your site? We're not talking about interfaith dialogue here, either.


Q. Can you please point me to the free Unitarian Universalist Web site templates?

A. Yes -- [link].


Q. Regarding the idea of regular updates, my congregation's Web site updates 3-4 times per week. But I've found that some ISP's cache Web sites, so our updates don't show up for up to several days. How do I get around that?

A. Wow! You update your congregation's Web site 3-4 times a week? Impressive!

As far as how to get around your specific problem, this is beyond my area of expertise -- what I know about is creating great content. Talk to your local Web guru.

One thought: if you are updating that regularly, maybe you should consider having a congregational blog (perhaps with comments disabled) to post church news. As I understand it, blogs are not cached in the same way by ISPs, so maybe that would address this problem.


Q. What about content aimed more at existing members, such as a page for each committee -- does that belong on a congregational Web site?

A. Personally, I wouldn't spend a lot of time on it, but why not. However, my experience with such material is that committees don't update their pages. Plus, few people in the congregation actually look at it, because they can just call the church office, or one of their church friends, to ask for the same information. However, it's probably worth archiving certain public records such as bylaws, charges to committees, strategic plans, mission and vision statements, etc. (which newcomers might also like to see).

Having said all that, I'd guess that when your congregation gets over, say, 750 members you might want to explore more communication with your members via your Web site (and when you get that big, you'll be able to hire staff to do the maintenance).


Q. What about a members-only email list or group?

A. This gets out of the area of creating great content for church Web sites (strictly speaking, you're talking about email and bulletin boards here, not the Web per se).

But I'll express an opinion anyway. First of all, only a minsority of members will ever use such things. Second, the experience of the UUA and many UU congregations has been that email lists are very vulnerable to being hijacked by dysfunctional or angry people, so you often need someone you totally trust who is willing to put in several hours each week moderating such a list. It's not a project I personally would want to get involved in, especially since there's so little benefit to the congregation or to the majority of the members.


Q. What has been your experience with podcasts?

A. Podcasts, regularly posted audio broadcasts that people can subscribe to and download onto their iPod to listen to, are a great idea. They're also very time-consuming to produce. I tried doing a weekly podcast, and quickly gave it up because it took to much time.

As for podcasting weekly worship services, it sounds great as a concept, but I have found that they usually sound terrible (too many pauses). The only thing I'd consider podcasting is weekly sermons, but to do that well, you need a great microphone, and you need someone running the sound board when you record it, and you need a minister who is willing to go along with the idea.

Here again, large congregations may have enough resources to do this well -- but in our little congregation, we just don't have the time, the people, or the money for good audio equpiment.


Q. How do you get your Web site to the top of Google's rankings?

A. The way Google ranks Web sites is a closely guarded trade secret, and apparently involves a complex algorithm that they are constantly tweaking. The same is true for other major Web search engines.

However, one thing is clear: the more that other sites link to yours affects how high you go in Google's rankings. From my own experience, I would say that the way to get other sites to link to yours is to provide excellent content, and to regularly update your Web site so people want to keep returning over and over again.


Q. Is there a Web host preference? Does the UUA host Web sites?

A. The UUA no longer hosts Web sites.

Our congregation uses, which provides discount Web hosting to Unitarian Universalist sites. Their prices are reasonable, and we have been happy with them.

Personally, both my partner and I have been using Deerfield Hosting, which at the moment is a little cheaper than Basically, Web hosting is now a commodity, and you should shop around. Lookfor good pricing, an established reputation (you don't want someone who is going to go out of business tomorrow), and low down time.


Q. I like Yahoo Sitebuilder. Is there a better one?

A. This strays a little far afield from the subject of creating great content, and I don't claim to be an expert on this topic. So rather than try to give a definitive answer, let me tell you how I build and maintain my personal Web sites.

For my regular Web site (a page of which you're looking at right now), I used Dreamweaver, a standard Web site design program. I found it about as difficult to learn how to use as a program like PageMaker (page layout program) -- and really about as difficult as Microsoft Word's more advanced features. My partner already knew how to use Dreamweaver, so I had my own personal tutor at home in case I got stuck -- if you don't have that luxury, I'd suggest taking a basic course in using the program.

For my blog, I use Wordpress. Wordpress is free open-source software. It is not exactly easy to use, but I found it no more difficult than using Dreamweaver. I started out hosting my blog on AOL, using their built-in blogging software, but I left them when they started putting ads on all AOL blogs (and now AOL blogs are gone for good!). I have been very happy with Wordpress, the online documentation is exceptionally good, and the online support community responds to questions pretty quickly.

If I were in a mid-size or large congregation, I'd get the congregation to pony up the money and pay for a pro to do the initial design of the Web site, stipulating that the design be something that the congregation's administrator could then maintain. Then I'd make sure the administrator got fully trained in Dreamweaver or other Web publishing software.


Q. Can a blog replace/be used as a Web site?

A. Yes, or so I'm told. I know people have used Wordpress to build an entire Web site, but I don't know how to do it.

One of the more exciting things to watch in the future is that Web sites are moving to a different model. If you check out the new free UU Web site templates [link], you'll see that you don't have to know anything about Web publishing -- all you do is to log onto the site, and type in the information you want to appear on the site. This is similar to what you do with blogging software (i.e., instead of coding directly in HTML, you use PHP and MySQL to store the data and CSS to control the design, so you're basically using a CMS to run the site, for a blog is basically a stripped-down CMS). I believe that this will be the trend of the future, and it will make it even easier to maintain congregational Web sites. In five or ten years, that may be what we're all doing.


If you have additional questions about creating great Web content, please send me your question via email to danrharper AT aol DOT com (substitute appropriate symbols for AT and DOT). I'll respond as best as I can, and post the qeustion and response here as well.

Back to the introduction

Bonus case study

During the workshop, we had a little time left over, and I talked about my own personal Web site and blog....

I'd like to talk a little bit about my own Web site, and my own blog. After a year and a half, I get well over a thousand unique visitors each month, and so far this number keeps climbing (over 1,500 in May, 2006). Problem is, most of the people reading my blog do not live in the greater New Bedford area. I've done a little research, and found I have regular readers who live from Alaska to Great Britain -- which is all very flattering but useless when it comes to helping my local congregation.

But what I find is that I'm getting ten or so referrals each month from the church web site to my blog. What I think is happening is that newcomers visit the church Web site, look at the "staff" page, read my little bio, and then click on the link to my blog -- because they want to get a sense of who this minister is before they come to church. In fact, I have talked with one or two newcomers who specifically mention that they have looked at my blog.

But I usually spend thirty minutes up to three hours a day writing for my blog; I've asked other bloggers who post daily, and they say that's how much time they spend they spend writing also. There is simply no way I can justify that amount of time based on the number of newcomers that come into our local congregation. Please do not go home to your congregation and insist that your minister and your DRE start blogs; or if you’re a minister or a DRE, I have to say that unless you like to write (a lot!), a blog is not a particularly efficient use of your time. You're better off developing a Web presence through a regularly updated Web site.

At the same time, if you have a minister or a DRE or a music director with a blog, why not put a link to their blog in their little bio on the staff page of the web site? (By the way, if you think their blog is an embarrassment to your church, you should discuss that with them even if you don’t link to their blog -- because a simple web search will show people that embarrassing blog which is being written by a staff member of your church.)

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Posted June 27, 2006

Revised February 2010