This site will explain some essential things I have discovered about church website design over the 16 years I have spent maintaining and designing my church website. My focus here is on Christian websites but the fundamentals apply to all religious website designs.
Updated February 2, 2016
The Seven Most Important Church Website Design Elements
(Click on each for a complete explanation)
- The site should show reverence to God.
- All pages should look warm and inviting.
- The site mechanics should be given great consideration.
- The website should be tailored to your intended audience.
- The contracted cost or in-house software involved in website design can be substantial.
- Once the design is complete, obtain an Internet name for your site and put it on the Internet.
- After the site is on the Internet, periodically update it based on real-world statistics.
First and foremost, the site should give reverence to God.
This might sound like something that should be taken for granted but don’t. There are all types of church websites on the Internet. There are those in which the main focus on the main page is a church building, a pastor and his sermons, people showing emotions, or just smiling faces that look so happy. The word God or Jesus may not even be found on the page.
Many people think that the main purpose of a church website is to tell people something about the church and entice them to visit the church and perhaps join. Other people are proud of the accomplishments of the church and its members and want to spread the word of what they are doing for the benefit of the community. All of those items have importance, but we must not lose sight of why we are on this earth and that is to love, glorify, and worship God. Guess what? That includes your church website!
So on the main page, be sure that a visitor gets the impression that the site is for the glory of God and not man. You should approach designing the whole website from the perspective of it being a ministry and not a newsletter. Visitors to our church website have come from over 50 countries. It is unlikely that the majority will ever set foot inside that church sanctuary. Many that come to the site are searching for music, sermons, Sunday school lessons, Bible study, or someone to pray for them. Put the right content in your site and it can and should perform a standalone ministry regardless of what goes on in your church.
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All pages should look warm and inviting.
Almost everyone loves an orange. And I promise you that if you are in the grocery store to buy some oranges, you sure are not going to pick the green ones! You are going to want the ones with the nice bright orange color. What you may not realize is the natural color of many oranges is green and yellow! The color you see in the grocery store, for some oranges, could be from dye that has been sprayed on them, or perhaps they were exposed to ethylene gas, which breaks down chlorophyll. What does that have to do with web design? The answer is that a person’s first impression of your site may determine the visitor interest level. The interest level in turn will determine what the next action may be. After seeing the main web page or one of the secondary pages, does the visitor want to look further in the site, or visit the church if they are in the area? You want the answer to be “Yes”!
But a church website can actually cause someone unfamiliar with the church to not want to visit the church just because the site does not look professional or interesting enough. So in many aspects, the look and feel of the website is extremely important if you want a visitor to look further on the site. By looking further, there is an opportunity for the individual to learn why it is good to be a Christian. Use warm colors that match and include pictures of members of your church. The pictures should be well composed and with good lighting; smiling faces would also be great!
The design of main and secondary pages in some respects serves the same purpose as the cover design of a novel, the preview of a movie, or a restaurant lunch advertisement. Just as all these items are designed to entice a person to desire the product, your church page designs should have a similar effect in order to entice the visitor to look further into the site. This is true for every page on the site because quite often, people will come to the site through a secondary page (like the Sunday School Lessons or Music Page). Look for effective techniques in professional advertisements. We want the person to explore the site so he/she can be ministered to with word and music.
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The site mechanics should be given great consideration.
What mechanical features of the website are most important to the success of your site? When someone accesses the website, the length of time the site takes to load, the colors that are on the screen, the page layout, and even the size of the page all play a part into whether or not a visitor will like what they see or otherwise they may experience conscious or subconscious irritation.
You should start by considering if the site design will accommodate someone using a dial-up modem connection. To design a site for the slow 56k dial-up connection would mean all graphics should be relatively fast loading. You will need to know something about optimizing photos for the web (like can be done in Adobe Photoshop). You would have to avoid having gigantic pictures on your page that take forever for a dial-up connection to load.
My statistics indicate less than 2% of visitors to my sites use dial-up. Therefore, my image and video files have inched up toward better quality and larger file sizes requiring a longer load time for that type connection. Broadband connections can vary widely in speed. The low-end DSL (called, "lite" in some cases) can be as slow as only 3 times the dial-up speed if it uses a poor quality telephone circuit. The high-end cable connection can be over 300 times the normal dial-up speed.
As a rule of thumb, I try to keep image file sizes near or less than 150 kb and any Flash SWF files to less than 300 kb if at all possible. When an image or video file is optimized for the web, there is a trade-off of quality for file size. The objective is to find a good compromise. If you want to have a photo page, load thumbnails first and allow the visitor to click on the thumbnail to display a larger picture. That way the initial page load is faster. Streaming videos are designed on my web sites for a broadband connection and stated as such on the webpage.
All browsers do not display the same page the same way. Therefore the web design process should include testing the web page on many of the popular browsers. This includes Internet Explorer 7 and above, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera. Also enlist members from your church to test the page on their computer to get a broader input. If a critical element does not load properly on a popular browser, look for a solution. As an example, the transparency of a PNG image file will not work correctly on some older browsers (like Internet Explorer 6). In that case, use a GIF version of the image file because it works more universally that the PNG.
If you want to use a special font, embed it in an image and use the image to display it. If you directly try to use a non-web standard font, you are asking for big time problems when someone accesses the page that does not have that font on their computer! The same is true for a non-web standard color. Instead, use a 2x2 pixel image of the color you want as a background image for the page. This image can be designed to repeat this image so many times as to completely paint the page with the image.
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The site should be tailored to your intended audience.
A church website is different from most commercial websites that are designed for a specific group of people. The intended audience of a church website should be just about EVERYONE. Your website is a ministry and should seek out all of humanity. This is not easy to accomplish, but after you integrate the activities of your church, Sunday School and Bible study lessons, words of encouragement, meaningful sermons, and your obvious love for God, you would be surprised who might want to visit your site and who might want to be more godly or even unite with your church. Christianity is all about spreading the gospel, helping others, and telling about the love of Jesus. The Christian website should reflect how this has affected our lives in a positive way.
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The contracted cost or in-house software involved in website design can be substantial.
Your church could hire any of a number of web design companies to design and maintain the website but this may be outside the budget of the church. The second approach is to do the design in-house. Paying an external company to provide a custom design could cost $600 to $3,000 (depending on how nice you want the site to look) plus a monthly maintenance fee of $50 - $100. If you settle for a template (fill in the blanks) design, the cost would be cheaper initially, but in the long run, the cost may actually be much more than expected if the site has to be modified or updated to custom specifications.
There are very few (if any) people that still design solely from scratch with code (hypertext language). Mostly everyone uses software that does just about all the code for them. Adobe Dreamweaver is the software that I use to design websites. In days gone by, a copy of the software could be bought with a perpetual license which last as long as the software is on your computer. Now, the software is used on a pay-by-month or pay-by-year basis. The company, Adobe, calls this type arrangement, "Creative Cloud". Go to the www.adobe.com website for more information. If you are able to find a supplier still selling the perpetual license version, expect to pay $300 - $400 for the disk.
Total Training (http://totaltraining.com/) has produced several very good Dreamweaver training video DVD’s and videos that allow you to proceed at your own pace. Be sure to always ask about available software discounts. Like Adobe has done, if you want training videos on the Creative Cloud software, expect to pay totaltraining.com a monthly fee. The software will be a good investment if you have someone (or a group of members) willing to learn how to design a website. If your church does not have any such person, forget the software approach and go with an external company for a custom or template design option.
For an in-house custom design, there are two essential steps that I highly recommend. First, you should design your website on paper before trying to use the software to create a page. Second, design your site using the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) approach instead of table design. Changes will be much easier in the future. I suggest that the training DVD or video to match the version of Dreamweaver that you have. In other words, don’t get a DVD for Dreamweaver CS4 if you have Dreamweaver CS3 on your system. Allow 1-3 months to complete the training and be sure to keep notes.
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Once the site is designed, obtain an Internet name for your site and put it on the Internet for others to access.
There are two things that are needed to put your site online. The first item needed is a domain name (like www.fbce8.com) which will represent your church website online. You will also need a Web Host which is a company that provides server space for your website files on the Internet. Both of these items can be obtained from a single company like WebzPro.com. The domain name must be unique on the web and the web host site will have a simple means for you to determine if your proposed domain name is available. The host should have good customer service and excellent server up time.
After arranging for the domain name and server space, there may be a waiting time of a day or two before full functionality is available. Then once your files are loaded in your account on the web server, the site will be active. Using a full-featured host like WebzPro insures that progressive downloads and other such needed functions will actually work.
Expect to pay about $10 - $15 a year to maintain the domain listing and $15 (or less) a month to maintain a good amount of server space for storage of your files. Many accounts with a web host also include the capability for you to create email accounts for church members or staff (like email@example.com) and other perks.
How soon after the site is on the Internet can you expect to be able to type in the name of your church in Google and find it? Maybe never if the site is not listed with Google. You must have your site listed with the search engine companies like Google and Yahoo. If you do not do that, then your site might be like an unlisted telephone number; unless you give it to someone, they won’t be able to find it. So go to Google.com, Yahoo.com, and other search engine sites and locate on their site where you can submit your URL to be considered for a listing. My experience that it takes a couple of weeks before a search on a site like Google will find your website. A URL is the complete web address like http://www.fbce8.com.
Sometimes it is not very easy to find where on a search engine site to submit your URL. For example, for Google.com, go to the site: http://www.google.com/submityourcontent/ and then click on the "Website Owner" button. For Yahoo.com, go to the site: http://search.yahoo.com/info/submit.html. You should register for a free Yahoo email account first because you will need that registration information to submit your site to Yahoo.
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After the site is on the Internet, periodically update it based on real-world statistics.
Imagine that you could get real world information about how people are finding your site and about their computer settings and capabilities. Do you even need to know anything about the visitors to your site or do you only need to know how many people visit the site? Is it important to know how a person gets to your site, what kind of operating system and browser they are using, and the speed of their Internet connection? The answer to all those questions is a resounding “Yes”. This is valuable information for a web designer.
As an example, if you know that 90% of the visitors have a screen resolution of 1024 x 768, you can design the page to incorporate more space if your previous design was for a 800 x 600 resolution. If all people that search for your site are coming through Google, that probably means that the Yahoo search engine does not have your site listed and should proceed to submit the site to Yahoo. What if most people are coming to your main page via visiting the Sunday School Lessons page first? That means perhaps you should spend more time developing the Sunday School page to keep the interest high. Do you see what I am getting at?
How can this information be obtained? You can install a free or pay program like Extreme Tracking on various pages in your site to give you a wealth of information including the connection speed (dial-up or high speed), search engine, how many unique visitors, screen resolution, and many other items that will really help in your future site development and improvement. Also, much of this information can be obtained in raw or graphical form from your full service Host (like WebzPro.com) for every page on your site.
Finally, don’t put items in the website that require routine maintenance (like an upcoming events page) unless you are quite certain that the page will be updated on time. An outdated page gives a negative impression.
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