“Piping” is a Scottish term referring to their tradition of having bagpipers herald the arrival of fresh haggis into the lord’s dining hall straight from the oven. Haggis is an ancient oatmeal-based entree mixed with meat and spices that is still their national dish today. When I perform Web site assessments, I hunt out content that isn’t haggis – anything that isn’t piping hot, informationally nutritive, appetite satisfying or delivered appropriately. If it isn’t haggis, it’s just eOatmeal.
The most important element to frame in building your online presence is the telling of who you are and how you define your core competencies, the story of your organization. This can be an elusive target as, typically, initial efforts produce a mission statement, which is then rephrased as a vision statement and inserted on a home page with too many generalities. It follows that a user then moves to interior pages that are information-intensive (straying across too many subjects) yet graphically starved.
In telling your story, informationally nutritive means having varied and relevant content within a strong information hierarchy; appetite satisfying refers to different menus/paths spiced for different tastes/users; and heralded into the life of your user speaks to having an intentional presentation through appropriate use of technology. Anything less is just eOatmeal – static “brochureware”.
But all is not lost by any means. Every writer goes through a phase of mental purging before he finds his creative diamond, and Internet publishing is the same way, so don’t stop now. Finding ways to help a Web site move beyond dreaded brochureware can be as easy as reviewing your content. Online visitors will draw a plumb line straight from content to how they perceive your value, so carefully crafted content will ensure your first impression is the desired impression. It will also have the added benefit of raising your search engine ranking. Think of your Web site as a business and if business writing is not your forte, hiring a copywriter to edit your work could be a savvy investment. It is logical, as a Web presence ages, to update content but what about updating against changing user expectations? Identifying user expectations is a strategic exercise that means donning the mantle of a visitor forever. Bringing these findings forward into an action plan is crucial follow-through to perform even if this exercise presses an eTeam beyond traditional thinking.
Food For Thought
Another easy fix is checking your navigation structure, but I don’t mean where the links take the visitor. Before linking pages, think about the sequence of links on your navigation bar. Visitors will read from upper left first so arrange your menu links in a hierarchy according to user needs. Also design navigation links throughout your page if users scroll your pages. Another simple way to improve user value is providing a glossary (a thoughtful gesture for study groups and unchurched visitors). Headers (headlines) are a good way to transition between subjects and can be either informational or humorous teasers. Watch your phrasing, though, so that headers are not humorous when you intend them to be informational. One church worship bulletin shared with me recently was announcing the morning and evening sermon topics, and the header read: “This morning, ‘Jesus Walks On Water’, tonight ‘Looking For Jesus.'”
If you are not the technical sort but would like to add some pizzazz to a Web site (achieve haggis), there is a huge software library that can add creative touches quickly and easily (lots of drag-drop features). Sharewares are small software programs that perform specific tasks, and you can tap many of these for $30 USD. Browsing sharewares can help you find ways to offer other site functionality. Eyeball Chat can bring video chat, ED Studio can add virtual tours while other sharewares help create mouse-over effects and validate your HTML code.
Then, there are freewares like IrFanview (for image effects) and adwares which give you free software but ask you to visit/support their sponsors. Hundreds of software programs are available as quick downloads from sites such as www.tucows.com
Shareware can help you animate small headers or banners. Basic animation is done by first creating several GIF graphics that show a sequence of action, then “stitching” these pictures together into one. This file is then uploaded and the action is viewed in a continuous loop. The highest ranked shareware to do this stitching is ‘Animagic’ (available through www.tucows.com for about $30 USD).
A tip from Web experts is to incorporate cascading style HTML into your Web site. A cascading stylesheet (“CSS”) saves you work – it eliminates repetitious HTML entry and saves on rigorous maintenance. A CSS defines and names particular style groups (different combinations of attributes, i.e. color, font, font size, underlining). Then, wherever you need that combination repeated you simply cite that name in your HTML. CoffeeCup Stylesheet Maker does a good job of helping you understand and use stylesheets (also available through www.tucows.com for about $30 USD).
In The Lower 48
With a little extra design thought you can accommodate a much neglected visitor, the physically-challenged. The United States has an ‘Americans with Disabilities Act’ (“ADA”) which seeks to address the needs of individuals with disabilities in all environments, including online [visit www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm . ADA guidelines identify significant barriers to access (you may have incorporated many if you accommodated “graphics off” in your HTML plans):
• Use relative sizing and positioning (%) rather than absolute (pixels);
• If color is used to convey information, make sure the information is also represented another way;
• Make sure major event handlers do not require use of a mouse;
• Add a descriptive title to links;
• Identify headers for data table rows and columns;
• Use style sheets to control layout and presentation wherever possible;
• Offer clear and consistent navigation structure;
• Offer a site map, and validate your HTML;
• Check that foreground and backgrounds colors contrast sufficiently with each other;
• Use the ABBR and ACRONYM elements to denote and expand any abbreviations and acronyms that are present.
• Another way to provide a good experience for challenged users is to investigate offering page customization.
Many of these ADA guidelines expand a developer’s focus and are good Web site development basics which, like having good content, all contribute to improving search engine results – if this is important to you. I say “if” because there still remains today, a sense of urgency about the need for search engine registration and being among the top returns.
eTeams are singularly convinced that optimizing their Web site means entering the fray of trying to be a top searching return. Done correctly, this is a large undertaking. Done incorrectly, search engine registration can be a large and expensive undertaking with poor results.
The key question to ask yourself first is “where does most of my traffic come from right now?” and let your answer set this priority and determine an appropriate budget. If you feel top search engine ranking is crucial to driving site traffic and meeting your business plan, then search engine optimization should be approached with all the energy and strategy of any media [branding] campaign. In developing this strategy, do not separate your registration thinking from your expectations and Web site preparedness. There are decisions and homework ahead.
A search engine initiative is not a one-time effort. New search engines appear regularly and existing ones change their criteria. Then, there are thousands of other registrants jockeying to cut your ranking, and your own Web site will undergo changes requiring resubmission. All of these factors will influence your positioning and the health (life) of your site.
Initial considerations in a search engine initiative include determining which search engines to pursue and what level and category of registration is appropriate. What are the search engine’s key triggers that will help you get the results you want? Does your Web site comply with each search engine’s criteria? There are a million Web sites competing with yours to be a top result, so the odds are already not in your favor. To make matters worse, even if your hard work achieves a top 100 result, you can only expect users to browse the top 50. Understanding these givens will help you set realistic expectations and decide which registrations are worth the registration effort and expense.
Once you have a plan in place, don’t register ahead of having your Web site prepared. You also shouldn’t be in a rush for results, anyway, as most registrations require 12 weeks to enter a database, be accepted and start bringing results. If search engine traffic is critical to your ministry’s plan, you should anticipate this timeline so it will not have an adverse effect. [If you do undertake a search engine registration initiative, you can save time by visiting engines like www.search.com that will submit your registration to multiple engines at once.]
All of the advice you gather from different sources will help you develop your plan. Asking what, why and how will bring this plan to a strategy for a strong Web presence and good positioning. Foremost, identify your core business and services well. Once these basics are in place, consider how you can deliver added value. Now you have whetted your user’s appetite; they have discovered a taste for haggis and will return for more. Next week, paella. This is the traditional rice dish of Spain spiced with… .·