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Constructing a Congregational Web Site

Once you have decided how your site will function and what it will offer, now comes the task of creating the site. Due to the nature of the web, there are countless options that fit a variety of needs and budgets. Here are a few suggestions to begin constructing your site in addition to information on using graphics and interactive elements.

1.  Hire a web design firm

There are web design firms that can handle just about any of your requests from layout to content to hosting. This is a simple way to start but may be unrealistic for some smaller congregations since a consistent budget would be needed to pay the firm. However, you do have options. Many web designers can be hired at a lower cost to design a template for your site. Their expertise can be valuable when creating an easy to use and effective navigational system and various graphics that you would like for your site. Once this is completed, your staff member or volunteer can add the content and publish the site. This may be a smart option for larger congregations that do not have a staff member or volunteer with web design experience. The larger you congregation is, the more you have to consider the amount of content you will be making available and the traffic it will generate.  A specialist in web design could be useful in addressing those type of issues and avoiding potential pitfalls.up

2.  Design the site yourself using computer software
There are several different software options that can help you design your site. Of course, which program you purchase may depend on the person who will maintain the site and what software they are comfortable using. You can find web design software such as Dreamweaver or Front Page at any local office supply store and install it yourself but you should do so only after carefully evaluating the various programs that are available and assessing what will meet your needs. You should also do some reading on HTML (this link is for a beginner’s guide) so that you can better understand the language that the computer reads to display a web site. The important thing to remember when designing and maintaining a web site on your own is that knowledge is power. If you know very little, buy some books, attend some classes and surf the web as often as possible. The more exposure you have, the better you will be at having a critical eye for the web. And don’t forget that the web is a plethora of useful, free information so use it to your advantage. For guidance on searching the web, go to our Internet Guides section of this web site. 

Also, you may want to consider these resources for HTML and web design information:

Web Monkey

Web Developers Journal – offering articles on basic and more technical web design 

3.  Design the site using a free pre-set web template
There are several web sites that will assist you in designing a web site and host that site for free. The down side is that you are limited to how you can manipulate your site and banner ads usually appear across the top of the page. Nevertheless, this is a great option for those with virtually no budget or little experience. The following sites are just a few that offer this option:

Beliefnet Web Services
(in conjunction with Lycos) 
(in conjunction with Lycos)


Using Graphics

Graphics are one of the elements in which the World Wide Web stands out as being far superior to its predecessors. Whether they are pictures, charts, graphs, maps or a wide variety of other images, graphics work to enhance the value of any website. Their value can be both aesthetic as well as informative. Indeed first time visitors to a website often base their first impressions upon the quality of the graphics before they even begin to consume the content.

When constructing a website, there are different options available for obtaining graphics. The first decision that needs to be made is whether the designer feels comfortable creating his or her own graphics or would prefer to use graphics already created by another source.

While it need not be overly difficult to create custom graphics, it is of course simpler to use a graphic that has already been created. By browsing graphic libraries, you should be able to determine if a graphic which suits your needs is indeed available.

Many of the web design software programs available for purchase include graphic or clipart libraries both on the CD-Rom and online. Many commercial programs for desktop publishing or creating greeting cards also include graphic libraries. However, in using a graphic library which is a part of a commercial program, it is imperative that you read and understand the end-user agreement that came with the software. It will detail what uses of the graphics are acceptable under the agreement. Many graphic libraries restrict their use to non-commercial applications.up

In addition to graphic libraries which are contained in programs, there are also graphic libraries, both commercial and shareware, online. If you are searching for a pre-made graphic and cannot locate a suitable one in a graphic library which came with a program you own, a search of online graphic libraries can turn up a greater variety of graphics. Online libraries containing buttons, clipart, graphics, animated graphics and a wide variety of other designs can be found. Some are specific to a certain type of graphic, such as buttons, while others are more diverse.

As with graphic libraries that accompany commercial programs, it is important to understand what use of online graphics is permitted by the owner. While it is often easy to glance past the introductory text on a graphic library, the rules for using the graphics contained therein should not be neglected. While there are many sites which place no restriction on the use of their graphics, others restrict their graphics to non-profit sites unless permission is acquired, and still others request a link or credit be placed on your page in exchange for use of the graphic. If the owner or creator of a new website is not overly opposed to listing the name of a non-affiliated website, it is often good practice to credit the source of non-custom graphics even if not specifically asked to.

Finally, if while surfing the web, you come across a graphic on another site which is perfect for your needs, it is often permissible to use the graphic on your own site if its creator grants permission. I emphasize asking permission before using a graphic from another site for two reasons. The first reason is that the owner of the site you saw the graphic on may not be the owner or creator of the graphic. He may himself be using it with the permission of its owner. Second, the person who created the graphic put his own time, knowledge and creativity into it, and even if it is not specifically copyrighted, it is his intellectual property and should be respected as such. In most if not all cases, if you see a graphic online that you would like to use, an individual or non-profit organization will allow you to use the graphic on your own site under reasonable circumstances.

After gaining permission to use a graphic, it is relatively easy to download it to your computer. By placing your cursor over the graphic and clicking your right mouse button, a menu will appear giving you the option to save the graphic to your hard drive. Once there, it can be uploaded to your website by the same procedure as any other graphic file.up

It is important to download a graphic you wish to use to your own system and then upload it to your website, as opposed to merely linking to the original website you saw the graphic on. Although it may be easier to do so and would save space on your server, it can cause several problems. First and foremost, it uses up or "steals" the bandwidth of the original website. By linking one website to another to access a graphic slows down the original website. Second, if you link your site to another, you are assuming that the website will not be altered in the future and its server will never be down. Finally, most veteran web designers will explicitly ask that you not link to their graphics and if they believe someone is, they will rescind the license to use their work.

The alternative to using a pre-existing graphic is to create one yourself, or edit one already in existence. While this may seem a daunting task, there are several ways to create your own quality graphics which are not overly cumbersome and do not require a great deal of expertise.

There are a myriad of programs available for creating and editing graphics. Some, such as Microsoft ® Paint, are included in a computer’s operating system. There are also a large number of commercial programs available for web design or desktop publishing which have excellent editing software included. With a little practice, these programs can assist even the novice user in creating graphics suitable for his site.

Finally, either in conjunction with an editing program, or by themselves, digital cameras and scanners are excellent tools for creating graphics. They can add warmth and individual personality to a website beyond that of a graphic from a library. A church website might consider scanning old documents or photographs, or taking pictures of services, activities, or of the church itself. Many if not all digital cameras and scanners include editing software that may be used with the images created by them or from other sources. It is important to note that when scanning images or taking digital photos intended for a website that one of the lower resolutions be used. While the higher resolutions can result in stunning graphics, they also tend to consume large amounts of your allocated space on the server, and may be hard for viewers to load.

One last note on using scanners and digital cameras; prior to posting any pictures of events or services, we would encourage any congregation to set up guidelines for the posting of pictures of youth members and, considering the worst case scenario, would strongly advise against listing any identifying information regarding youth members.

Interactive Elements

In addition to graphics, interactive elements also enhance the viewer’s first impression of your website and can add to its overall value. Calendars, scripts and message boards can add much to any website.

While all of the above items can be created by anyone with a masters degree in programming and a lifetime studying HTML and Java, there are easier ways to add these elements to your website. Just like with graphics, there are inexpensive means to acquire these elements and let someone else do the heavy lifting while you sit back and receive the compliments on your site.

Many people designing their first website for a church may find themselves seeking a way to make their site show the character and nature of their congregation. After all, a church is more than just a building; it is a warm and welcome place full of people interacting with one another as they worship and grow. This can be difficult to show on a website if all that is present are some greetings and basic information about the congregation. Message boards can help add to the atmosphere of your site by giving visitors an easy avenue to contact you, by providing church members with a great way to communicate, and even by providing a safe haven for youth ministry participants to chat online.

Unless an organization is fortunate enough to have a professional programmer in their congregation or is able to hire one, and unless it also has its own server set aside specifically for its site, it is best to use a message board from an existing online provider. Fortunately, message board services are typically inexpensive or free. However, it must be noted that message boards fit the adage that very little in life is free. While you may not have to pay for the use of a board, the company which provides the program and bandwidth will usually place advertisements on your message board. As a rule, you will have little or no say in what advertisements are placed on your board and it is thus generally a good idea to contact someone at the company or read their FAQ’s to determine the nature of the ads placed.up

A search of any of the major search engines can provide a list of available message boards. At the end of this section, is a list I have compiled which, while being far from exhaustive, should aid anyone in getting a good start.

Once a message board provider is found, it is very easy to customize your new board to match the desired look of your site. The background, text and graphics can usually be modified to fit your site, thus providing a seamless transition when the link from your website to the message board is clicked.

Many message boards also provide options for password and secure entry if a special board is needed for any reason, or if you wish a safe place for youth. In addition to such safeguards, when you set up a message board, you will be given the option of appointing moderators who, among other powers, will have the ability to delete unwanted messages and ban IP addresses if need be.

Many web design programs, both online and offline, include calendar templates which can easily be added to your site. Using these templates can save much of the trouble of coding calendars via HTML or drawing one with a graphics program. Some advanced templates also include scripts that will allow you to program several months at once and allow different months to be displayed with the click of a button. This saves space both on the visual web page, and on the server itself.

Finally, scripts can make a website much more interactive. A script is basically a simple program written into the HTML code which instructs the computer to complete an action when instructed by someone viewing your site. Scripts can be added to open the user’s email program and automatically address it to your webmaster, to create a link, or to start an animated graphic, video, or audio file. One of the most common uses of scripts is hit counters. Adding a hit counter to your homepage allows you or anyone else viewing the site to see how many visits your website has had.

Many scripts are available with web design programs and the internet has many that are free for use, particularly hit counters.

A little time spent using a search engine and browsing sites can ultimately add a finished professional look to your site without the time or expense of creating custom programs.

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