Starting a Parish Web Site
In this article we provide some ideas on building a Parish web site firstly you need to consider the following?
What is the point of your website?
The answer “to tell anyone anything they want to know” needs to be refined!
Best practice: simple and up-to-date is far better than complicated and neglected.
Spending time thinking about your website is an important first step. What is the key purpose of the site? Many try to put ‘everything’ on the website which makes it hard to navigate, maintain and keep control of content. At the very least you need to establish the following:
- Who are the key audiences for your site?
- What do you want to tell them & how does this differ for different groups?
- Who will co-ordinate the site?
- How will it be reviewed and evaluated?
Your ‘audience’ — the people that would read your site — is made up of a number of different groups. Regular churchgoers and people visiting for a wedding need different information. It should be easy for people to find what they need — this makes the site welcoming.
Who fields enquiries for your church? Ask them what they’re asked most frequently, and by whom. Chances are it won’t be “how do I find faith in Jesus?” but something more practical, like “does your church have a toilet?” or “where can I park when I come to a wedding?” You could hold a short meeting with your administrator, vicar or youthworker — anyone who has regular contact with people asking questions to find out what’s most requested in your context.
Sketching out who might read your site, and the information you can provide for them (even if only a back-of-a-napkin exercise) will help you shape the site and make decisions about where to start. It can also save you money and time, and avoid creating pages on the website that are never read.
Churches sometimes struggle to keep their sites up-to-date because they rely on one person to do all the work. That might be the parish priest — who wants overall control of all content, but has never quite got time to make the updates; or it might be the keen technical person who does not want to share the workload. Equally difficult can be attempting to write the site by committee.
If you are lucky enough to be able to identify perhaps two or three people to work as a small team, this can work well both for sharing the responsibility and ensuring continuity if the one and only webmaster is no longer available.
If you’re the Parish Priest it is tempting to want to vet absolutely everything — but do be aware if you find yourself being the cause of delays in updating content once the site is up and running.
Ideally your website should have a domain name that reflects the name of the church. You can choose and register these through a number of different registries for a small fee. You only need register with one. Churches tend to use the org.uk extension but you can have more than one, so you could be www.stmatthew.org as well as www.stmatthew.org.uk. Remember that this domain name — the URL — will appear in print, noticeboards, pew sheets etc, so the simpler and less easy to get wrong it is the better.
Best practice is to register the domain to the PCC and not an individual, which saves problems later on if you want to transfer the registration or make a change.
Nominet.org.uk oversees the way UK addresses are registered and there’s useful guidance on their site on how to choose a registrar.
Making it happen
You have several choices.
If you have finances, but no time or volunteers, a commercial enterprise can put a site together for you. There are some that are specifically Christian, or any local business may be able to help. Be clear on what you want — off-the-shelf packages can sometimes contain many bells & whistles you won’t need. You don’t need to create a second Facebook for people. Facebook already exists.
If you have volunteers and limited finance, you can either create a site from scratch or use one of the free, or cheap systems for doing so. Squarespace, Joomla, Weebly, Blogger and WordPress are all ways to use pre-defined building blocks to put your site together. Many churches use one of these as they remove the need for detailed technical knowledge, but do allow a degree of personalisation with various widgets and themes.
A third related way is to use a web hosting company which installs a WordPress framework, allowing more flexibility and email addresses/mailboxes. The orange county web design Associates is one that provides such a service.
A big advantage of the WordPress-style approach is that the sites will automatically adjust for optimal viewing when on a phone or tablet, not a full-size computer screen. One way to find the right one for you is to find another website you like and ask the owners who they engaged and how they built their site.
Absolutely vital content that your website needs (do these first)
- Location (a Google maps link is a very convenient way to show location) – add your postcode too for those using sat nav
- Contact details — if you use a web form, who will respond to enquiries?
- Service times, and brief details including whether there’s separate children’s work
- Brief information about what else goes on during the week
- Parking, toilets and other practical information (wheelchair access/hearing loop etc)
- The fact you’re a Catholic church.
Things that are useful (add these later)
- Introduction to what happens in church for visitors or the terrified
- How to get married or request baptism/christening
- Parish news — but only if you can keep this up to date perhaps provide a pdf of the parish bulletin
- Longer detail on weekday groups or meetings
- Pictures of ministry team/key staff
- Links to the Diocese & other church sites
- What Christianity is all about – there are lots of sites for ‘seekers’ you can link to, which saves you writing the content from scratch.
Nice to have, if you have the resources
- Church history/records available
- Articles from parish magazine
- Charities you support
- Links to other local churches / places of interest
- Any interesting architectural features or anyone’s pet project e.g. a catalogue of your silverware
A few words about words
Best practice is to keep the pages as jargon-free as possible. When you’re familiar with church words, it’s easy to forget how obscure some (many) of them are to the wider public.
Hints and tips
The building might be beautiful but what the people do is more important than the fabric. It’s harder to show a sense of community or the work of the Holy Spirit than it is to show nice stained glass windows — but at least try.
Weekly updating is fine. That might coincide with the day your bulletin is prepared, for example. Some systems like WordPress allow you to schedule updates in advance to appear automatically.
Short sentences and paragraphs are easier to read on screen. People won’t scroll through reams of text. Less is more… If you’re writing a letter for the website, aim for 150-200 words maximum. A picture really does speak a thousand words.
It’s fine to put pictures of children on your website as long as you (a) have parent/carer consent and (b) don’t name the children. Make sure you follow your parish’s safeguarding policy.
Best practice: However your site is produced, make sure it works as a mobile site too — so many people use smartphones or tablets now.
A few things to avoid
- Publish pages once they’re ready — not with an ‘under construction’ image.
- ‘Click here to enter’ or animated or musical landing pages annoy people.
- Pictures that are squashed or stretched or pixellated look silly. If the picture isn’t the right size, don’t use it.
- Hit counters. They’re unreliable and they’re very 1990s.
If you use WordPress or similar, stick to the fonts that are installed with each ‘theme’ (overall design). They will render well on different devices because they are scalable.
Once your site is up and running you will want to know how it is being used. Google Analytics provides a free way to measure the way people use the site — a far more robust method that the ‘hit counters’ you see. There are comprehensive instructions on how to get started at www.google.com/analytics. You can see which page people go to first, how long they spend on it, where they go next – and perhaps also importantly, what isn’t being looked at.
Google search engine optimisation (SEO)
SEO is about making sure people can find your site when they search for it. You may be offered a paid-for service, but you probably don’t need to do this. There are good instructions on how to submit your site so it appears in search results.