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NASCO:Creating an effective website

A website is often the first thing people in the community and prospective members see when they look at your organization. A good, current website can be important for a co-op's public image, and can be an effective recruitment and organizing tool. But websites are also complicated and technical in ways that can make them hard to maintain. The following is a brief overview of what goes into a website, and what some options are for how to build one.

In some ways, the proliferation of "options" (there are a million ways to do it!) is one of the hardest parts of website building for beginners -- but even so, it's difficult to simplify, because there are many different needs. An organization like NASCO has different needs for its website than a 10 person community co-op or a cooperative business that wants to sell things online.

Agenda

  • Intros/late arrivals: 15 min.
  • 30 min presentation
  • 30 min discussion
  • 15 min wrap up


What is a website?

A website consists of three parts: a domain name (like nasco.coop or cultivate.coop), the pages and files (that's the stuff you see when you go to the site), and a host (also called "server", this is the computer that we connect to when we visit the website).

Domain names

Domain names are unique names that are registered on a first-come, first-serve basis by private companies that have been empowered by ICANN (the corporation that various governments have agreed gets to let decide these things) to resell registrations. A domain name consists of a top-level domain (the .com, .org, or .coop part) and your chosen name (the nasco or cultivate or bsc part). Choosing a name can be a difficult task -- for example, Boston Community Cooperatives aggonized over variants of bostoncommunitycoops.org (too long), bostoncommunity.org (too vague), bostoncoops.org (already taken), before finally settling on bcc.coop (short, but acronymized and expensive).

Registering a name costs an annual fee that varies depending on which top-level domain extension it uses. Unless you're buying an already-registered domain name from a private party, the names itself all cost the same -- but the extension changes the price. A .com or .org runs around $7-10 dollars; .coop is closer to $90. Some web hosts such as wordpress.com will register a domain for you, but they usually charge higher than market rates.

You can also rely on a harder-to-use and remember, but free name provided by your hosting service -- it might look like sites.google.com/site/MyCoop or mycoop.wordpress.com. The upside is this is free; the downside is it ties you to a single hosting provider (such as google or wordpress) and any links to your site will break if you changed providers. That's like having a phone number where you could never change carriers -- your friends' contact lists would be broken.

Once you have a domain name, it needs to be connected to your hosting provider. This can be complex, but the host usually provides instructions for how to do it.

Pages and files

The pages and files are the things you see and interact with when you go to a webpage. While there are an almost infinite variety of different ways these pages get built, we can broadly categorize them into three groups:

  • Files you compose, then upload: Also called "static" files. These are usually the cheapest type of files to host (not counting free providers like google sites), but also don't support features like blogging, comments, or contact forms. Pages are composed using a tool like iWeb (Mac only), Kompozer, Amaya, Dreamweaver, etc. Once composed, the files are uploaded to the host.
    • Pros: Most technologically simple. Usually cheap to host. Easy to change hosting providers if you're unsatisfied with one.
    • Cons: Editing the site can be more complicated -- it requires downloading the files, opening them in special editor software (such as iWeb or Kompozer), and then re-uploading them. Can make it less likely you'll keep your site up-to-date. You can't add dynamic features like comments or search.
  • Commertial host applications: Like wordpress.com or Google Sites. These commercial sites have tools for authoring pages directly on the web. This means that you don't need to download any extra software to use them. Usually, the hosts also support interactive features like blogging and comments.
    • Pros: Very easy to set up, and easy to edit. Requires no special software and little special training.
    • Cons: Harder to customize the look and feel, or might cost extra to do so. You may not have control over whether or not advertising appears on your site. You're at the mercy of the companies to keep your site going, as you usually can't move the pages over to a different host.
  • Self-hosted applications: You could run wordpress's software, or other applications like drupal, on a general-purpose host. This is what NASCO, BSC, and BCC do.
    • Pros: It gives you the flexibility and ease of use that commercial hosted applications offer, as well as the customizability and portability of static files. Basically, all the features of self-hosted static files and commercial hosted applications together.
    • Cons: It is much more technically challenging to set these up -- one shouldn't attempt it without a knowledgable server administrator. Out-of-date web application software can lead to security risks, including your site getting hacked and spammed.

Hosts

The host is the company or organization that runs the servers that web browsers connect to when you go to the website. Google is a host, "Dreamhost" is a host, wordpress.com is a host. NASCO is hosted by a company called Site5. Boston Community Cooperatives (BCC) is hosted by a charitable ex-co-oper who provides hosting services to Boston area co-ops.

You can host your site for free using services like Google Sites or wordpress.com. If you do this, you are limited to using the services they offer, and it's hard to move your site to a different host if you need to. But this can be an attractive option if you have limited resources. Some "free" hosts like wordpress.com charge more if you want to use custom domain names, custom themes, or remove advertising.

Other hosting services, such as NearlyFreeSpeech.net or DreamHost, charge based on the features you use. Self-composed static files (such as those built using iWeb or Kompozer) are generally the cheapest; applications such as Drupal or Wordpress are more expensive to host.

What makes an effective website?

  • Organization, organization, organization! The single most important thing in designing an effective website is organizing the content. This is more important than fancy design.
    • Start with a solid short description of your group on the first page. Say who you are and what you do.
    • Include easy to find navigation links near the top or side of your page. Limit yourself to 3-7 top-level links; if you have more content, branch out from there. Make sure that the most important content is listed first.
    • Use descriptive, semantic links. Never have a link named "link". The link text should be a noun describing what you find when you get there.
  • Accessibility, accessibility, accessibility! It is very important that you make your website accessible to all visitors, including those with visual disabilities. Doing so also makes your site more accessible to search engines.
    • Unless it's purely aesthetic (e.g. backgrounds, textures), every image needs an 'alt' tag describing what it is.
    • The minimum paragraph font size should be 16 pixels.
    • Keep colors reasonably high in contrast.
  • People don't read. On the web, people don't read -- they scan. Thus, it is critically important to include good headlines, structure, and well-chosen link text so that people will see the important parts. Too much prose or long sentences are less readable.
  • Search Engine Optimization: You always want your organization to be the top listing on google. The best way to do that is to help google to understand that your webpage is the best place for information about your organization.
    • Use descriptive titles and descriptive links.
    • Make proper use of headings. Never just increase the font-size to make it look like a heading -- use an actual <H1>!
    • Use valid, accessible HTML.

Design process

  • Identify your audience. Are you designing for members of your organization? For future members? For the general public? Clearly identifying your target audience is important to effectively meeting their needs.
    • Surveys: In order to better meet the needs of your target audience, it can be useful to ask them what they need to know about your organization.
    • In-person conversation: Ask people inside and outside your organization what information they need access to.

How do you maintain a website over time?

Websites can easily grow stale. Dynamic websites that are not maintained can fall prey to hackers and spammers. In many ways, a broken, out-of-date website is worse than having no website at all -- it reflects very poorly on your organization.

Security, it is said, has an arch-nemesis: Accessibility. The easier it is for you and your members to maintain your website, the less secure it is likely to be. At minimum, people need to have the passwords and authorization to be able to edit files. Wikis take the hopeful approach that enough visitors who have the ability to edit the pages will keep the baddies out -- but this only works in practice if you have a very large number of site visitors who feel a personal investment in your website, which is unlikely unless you have a uniquely large and tech-oriented organization.

Hosted websites like wordpress.com and Google Sites make it easier to maintain sites over the long term -- there are no security updates or special software to use to keep the site current, and anyone with a web browser and the proper authorization can edit the site content. But you gain that convenience by trading control: you have to trust Google or Wordpress to keep your site in good shape.

In my experience: keeping a webpage up to date requires constant vigilance. Someone in the organization needs to have the job of bottom-lining the website and keeping it up to date. It should be regularly visited at least 3 or 4 times a year, or more often depending on the nature of the website and the organization.

Examples

  • http://icc.coop
    • Well organized -- main questions/need are easy to find.
    • Pretty
  • http://osca.wilder.oberlin.edu
    • Suggestion: change the prose to lists of descriptive links
    • Add pictures to enliven
    • Convert PDF downloads into html pages
    • Red/green visited/new links is confusing. Recommended: if you don't use the browser-default blue/purple for new/visited, use a strong color for new links, and a washed-out variant of the same color for visited links.
    • What's the difference between "Home" and "About us"?
  • http://www.housing.berkeley.edu/housing/
    • Confusing -- duplicated info in unpredictable places
  • http://nasco.coop
    • Too busy! Lots of unneeded details/cruft
    • The main important contant is under "Programs and Services", which is somewhat buried.
  • Santa Barbara - http://www.sbcoop.org/
  • SCHA Davis - http://schadavis.org/
  • Your org's website?