I started looking at yearly meeting web sites out of curiosity. My monthly meeting is part of the New Association of Friends who are no longer part of Indiana Yearly Meeting, and we are setting up a web site this spring. I thought I’d look at what other yearly meetings have done and see what works and what’s attractive.
Nearly all yearly meetings in North America have a web site – that’s a big change from 10 years ago, when web sites were still new to many church organizations. There’s a lot of variation among Quaker sites, both in appearance and features. After visiting 8 or 10 yearly meeting sites I started making notes, which turned into a full-fledged review.
I wound up visiting the web sites for 34 yearly meetings in North America, most of them several times. I covered Friends from all across the spectrum – FGC, FUM, Evangelical, Conservative and independent, plus Britain Yearly Meeting for good measure. If I missed yours, I’m sorry – let me know, and I’ll be happy to check it out. Click here for a chart of all the features I checked, or click here for specific comments about each site I visited.
Full disclosure: I am not a professional web site designer, or even that much of a computer geek. I spend a lot of time on the Internet, mainly on religious/spiritual sites.
What are the differences? Some yearly meeting web sites are more visually attractive than others. Some have more features. Most of all, some web sites have a better flavor – after visiting them, you feel you’d like to meet the people connected with them. Other sites are a total turn-off – which is a pity, since the Friends behind them are probably quite nice.
Think of me as a “mystery shopper” – someone who drifts in quietly and makes notes, sort of like the Michelin guide. Most of my comments are subjective, but they’re not personal. If I didn’t like your yearly meeting’s web site, that doesn’t mean I don’t like you.
In today’s world, your web site is your front door. It’s the first place people look for you! They want to find basic information, and they usually want to find it quickly. If it isn’t there, they’ll go away in a matter of seconds.
Appearance matters. With the tools available today, any site can be colorful, well-organized and visually attractive. There’s no excuse for unreadable print, photos which are out of focus, or text which scrolls off the edge of the screen.
So does navigation – how you find things and move from one section of the site to the other. As a rule of thumb, most professional designers say that nothing on a web site should be more than 3 clicks away. If you have to burrow down through layers of links which don’t make intuitive sense, your visitors will leave. Many of the yearly meeting sites I visited also have links which are outdated or lead nowhere – there are simple tools available to check this!
Who is the site for? This is the single biggest question a web designer needs to answer. Is the web site mainly for members of the yearly meeting – “insiders” who already know the organization? Or is the web site mainly there to attract seekers, visitors, or new Friends – “outsiders”? Most yearly meeting web sites are hybrids, trying to serve both groups on a single site.
Many sites would make little or no sense to a non-Friend – they’re filled with acronymns, Quaker jargon, and references to programs and gatherings which mean nothing to an outsider. It’s a good idea to have a skeptical non-Quaker look over your site and say, “What’s that mean? What do those initials stand for? Who cares about that?” Pay attention, and make some changes. Your site will improve!
The sites for Evangelical yearly meetings tend to handle this issue better. Theologically and practically, they want new people to join, and they don’t mind if visitors aren’t already Quakers – in fact, they expect it! It’s an attitude which is reflected in the whole look and feel of their web site, and it’s something which other Friends need to work on. Visit MidAmerica Yearly Meeting to see how welcoming a web site can be.
Some hybrid sites have a login area which can be used by clerks, leaders or committee members to access documents and reports which are not for general circulation. “Member login” is unfriendly; “User login” is better. Better still is a navigation feature which directs this kind of user off the main page into a special area.
Many yearly meeting web sites have problems with consistency in appearance across all their pages. This happens when you try combine an “old” site (maybe only 3-5 years old) with a “new” home page. It may save time and effort, but it’s visually confusing for visitors who feel they’ve been booted off the site into a different place. Good sites use themes or style sheets to make sure all their pages have a similar appearance.
What’s under the hood? Most people who aren’t designers don’t care about the hidden computer code which powers the site. But there are significant differences, and to some extent you get what you pay for. The top-rated sites are custom built and professionally maintained. They’re expensive, and they’re full of well-designed features. The sites for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Britain Yearly Meeting are good examples of expensive, complex projects where professional design and maintenance has paid off with a great site.
A large proportion of yearly meeting web sites today are built using pre-made or slightly customized themes from companies like Microsoft or services like WordPress. These can look very good with a little thought and effort. One of the best Conservative sites, Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting, uses a WordPress design which perfectly and attractively expresses the simplicity which is dear to these Friends.
Color schemes can be too subtle as well as too garish. A number of sites use very pale colors to indicate hyperlinks, which can cause problems on laptops or when viewing the screen from an angle or in strong light. Give it a little contrast.
How long does it take your site to load? Several sites froze or locked up when I re-visited them. Some sites may be hosted on someone’s home PC or on a badly-run server, rather than on a commercial or institutional server. If the site crashes, locks up, doesn’t load or generates error messages, guess what? People won’t come back.
Another big distinction is whether a site is static or dynamic. Does it just sit there like a billboard, unchanging from month to month? Or is there new material being posted all the time? Give people reasons to come back to your site – articles, newsletters, online surveys, and other resources. A small number of sites include .MP3 audio files to share talks, sermons and lectures, or include links to YouTube videos of special events.
One important reason for people to visit a yearly meeting web site is to find a local meeting near them or where they’re traveling. Nearly all the sites do this in some way. Most use Google Maps, which allows the web designer to use colored “push pins” to mark the exact location of all the local meetings, or even color-code them by quarterly or regional meeting. Better yearly meeting sites also include links to the local meeting site, a map, information about worship times and First Day/Sunday school, e-mail and phone number, handicap accessibility, and other things which first-time visitors want to know about.
One of my pet criticisms is sites which are stuffed with PDF files, which are widely used because they can be read by nearly everyone using the free version of Adobe Acrobat Reader. (Several sites include a link to download Adobe.) However, .PDF files take up a lot more file space than web pages, which means they load slowly. Also, a .PDF file is a “dead end” on a web site – you don’t usually go forward from a .PDF, you have to back out. Only use .PDF’s for large, long files like reports, minutes and back issues of newsletters.
Don’t make your good stuff hard to find! New England Yearly Meeting has a really exciting resource page of visiting Friends and Quakers offering workshops, but it’s in tiny print and it’s buried far down in the site.
Most sites include a master calendar of yearly meeting-sponsored events, and the majority of them use Google Calendar. Unfortunately, these calendars wind up with a lot of empty space, giving the impression that there isn’t much going on. Better web sites list upcoming individual events with bars or banners which you can click to learn more.
All but a handful of sites include a link to their Faith and Practice, and most of them aren’t very useful. Many are in .PDF format which creates ginormous files. Some sites have their Faith and Practice broken down into sections to make it load faster – and makes it that much harder to search. Take the next step and convert your Faith and Practice to .HTM which is much smaller and loads faster. Most important, please include hyperlinks throughout the whole document. To see what I’m talking about, visit Faith and Practice on the Canadian Yearly Meeting web site.
Nearly all sites include contact information for yearly meeting clerks and staff. Be careful about including personal contact information – names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails. Consider setting up generic e-mails for yearly meeting staff and leaders (firstname.lastname@example.org) so that their personal e-mail account at gmail or yahoo isn’t flooded with spam.
What makes your yearly meeting unique? Your web site should help people know who Friends in your yearly meeting really are. Well-chosen photos, short quotations, headlines for current news and events, can all help visitors get a taste of who you are. Be selective! Several yearly meetings have home pages which are stuffed with randomly chosen, out-of-date material. Others have photos showing only older Friends – intergenerational pictures are fine, but a couple of sites look like advertisements for Quaker retirement communities.
Many sites include a “make a donation” link. I can’t evaluate how much money these yearly meetings are raising this way – only your yearly meeting treasurer knows for sure. However, I predict that sites which are visually boring, static and feature-hungry are probably not helping their yearly meeting’s budget along.
Your web site probably has external links to missions you support, schools or colleges, other Quaker organizations like FUM, FGC, EFCI and so on. It’s great to include links to them, but make sure they return the favor – if you support a mission or concern and help to publicize their work, ask them to put a link to your yearly meeting on their site.
Here’s a surprise question: does your yearly meeting have an entry on Wikipedia? Less than a quarter of the yearly meetings I surveyed have Wikipedia entries. Wikipedia free, and it’s where a lot of visitors will look for you first. Wikipedia entries are editable, so you can update them easily – but they are also can be changed by any reader who takes the time to do so.
Plan on giving your yearly meeting site a complete makeover every 3-5 years – update your appearance, re-do the navigation, ditch sections which aren’t being used. Choose the features you really want. Don’t skip the ones you really need. All sites can be improved!