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Online Ministries Community Blog

Jul 29

How to Write for Web Pages - Part 1 - Introduction

Posted by Bill Anderton

I don’t think that I will shock a lot of people when I say that there are a lot of really bad church websites out there. Sadly, this isn’t even a controversial statement. The evidence of the situation is obvious.


Despite churches being content-rich environments, the vast majority of churches don’t place much content on their websites. Many churches have only six or so page in their entire website. Such skimpy content can’t begin to tell the story of the life and ministry of their churches; it does not represent the church very well. Worse, even with such the little amount of content posted, I have seen several surveys that indicate the majority of churches don’t update the little content they do have on their websites very often, every couple of months for most and only once a year many. Stale, static content doesn’t encourage the website visitor to return.

There are many cited reasons why these sad states of affairs persist:

  • Inadequate staff time available
  • Inadequate volunteers
  • Insufficient budget
  • Insufficient knowledge

The statement that I can make that will shock a lot of people is the fact that churches of any size can produce truly great websites, for not much money and within the scope of your available volunteers IF (!!) churches gain a little knowledge about how to do it.

The reason that I can make such a definitive statement is that all churches, even small churches, are rich in content. Simply being a church means that you are doing things, often lots of things. If you have a doubt, look at your church bulletin, newsletter and calendar. You mission activities alone would make a great website. The things you do are sources of stories for your website.

Further, there are also plenty of hosting packages with powerful technologies that make websites easy to do. The roadblock for churches is NOT technology. These days, there are no complex technologies that are difficult to integrate or operate. All of the required technologies are now standard commodities that are down-right cheap to acquire.

The roadblock isn’t expensive graphic design, either. Almost all hosting packages include beautiful pre-made templates that are free. These templates allow sophisticated websites to be made quickly without a budget hit. All you have to do is select which of the many available templates suits your tastes and then copy and paste your content into the template.

But herein is the rub.

For the most part, churches don’t know how to harvest the rich content that surrounds them. The big stumbling block for the churches with poor websites is that they lack the ability to convert the great content that naturally exists in great abundance around them into text.

They lack the writers.

All that is required to change the situation is to train people to look at the life and ministry of the church and write about it! Sounds simple, I know (and it can be), but the lack of writers is at the root of the whole problem.

How, here is my next possibly shocking statement: almost anyone can learn to write in basic journalistic style that is ideal for communicating with website visitors. Great writing for websites doesn’t even have to be great literature. Nobody has to be a Hemingway, Poe or Steinbeck. At a minimum, all your writing has to do is simply communicate facts and follow some basic guidelines about how to write.

Fortunately, there is an existing successful analog for doing this basic style of writing that has been codified into a trade over the last several hundred years: the newspaper!

If you model your church’s website along the lines of a newspaper, you can have a great website. The journalism trade provides the roadmap.

The writing style for newspapers has been developed and perfected since the 1700s. Also, writing for newspapers historically was a trade learned through apprenticeship. Throughout history, the majority of reporters and writers for newspapers didn’t have college degrees. Only in the 1950s did the college-degreed, journalism-school educated writer begin to appear in numbers and then become the norm. Even then, journalism schools taught the same skills codified by the newspaper trade.

Also, anyone can learn to in journalistic style. Its rules and practices can be learned by anyone just as apprentices once did. The same apprenticeship method allowed copy boys to become cub reporters and reporters to become featured columnists allows your volunteers similarly to learn and progress. The more you write in this style, the more natural the rules and practices become and the better you become.

Embrace this approach and use it to build a team of writers for your online ministries.

Beyond just the writing style itself, the general approach of newspaper journalism is also a natural for determining WHAT you write about. The inherent editorial processes of journalism can help you identify the content opportunities in your church and prioritize them. If you approach your selection of stories and publish in your website like any neighborhood newspaper would do, you can have a top-flight website that will benefit your ministry.

Think about the implications of using the newspaper model. It provides an editorial analog that anyone can follow and contains a method of writing that can be easily taught in an apprentice track. The method allows you to get started by simply following some basic guidelines and with experience, get better and better at doing it.

Stated in other words, you can get started with one or two willing volunteers and then teach them how to use the journalistic methods. Then, simply improve as you go. The approach neatly addresses the inherent inertia rampant in churches when it comes to improving their websites by providing a way to get started.

Need for Training for Webmasters and Writers

Significant components of the leadership that should be provided by all church webmasters are the recruiting and training of volunteers to work on the online assets of churches. Nowhere is this more important than finding and preparing people to write for websites.

This tutorial will introduce the techniques for writing text for use on a web page. The tutorial trains people who are new to writing for publication on the web.

This tutorial assumes that you wish to produce the best possible web pages for your site and to improve the effectiveness of your writing as a communication tool. The overall goal is to improve your communication within your church and importantly, also with people outside of your congregation who visit your website.

This Tutorial will discuss the techniques and best practices of journalistic style of writing for conveying information to the people who visit your website.  This paper will provide a step-by-step process for preparing for writing a story along with guidance and tips for the actual writing of each of the major components of your story.

This paper is not intended to be a creative writing course but instead, it will talk about the practical nuts and bolts of communicating with your audience through a basic journalistic approach that anyone, even those new to writing for publication, can easily learn.

If you are the webmaster of a church or ministry wishing to produce a good dynamic website, you will likely have to recruit and train people to help with the process of creating content. Even in a small church, regularly creating enough content to provide fresh on-going coverage of what is happening in your church can be too much for a solo webmaster to do alone.

Unless you are fortunate enough to have trained writers in your congregation, you will have to recruit volunteers and train them to be writers. Odds are that willing volunteers might not have written for publication. You will need to provide training and guidance.

Training and guidance are not as frightening or as difficult as they first sound. The style of writing that you will need is basically simple, straightforward news-style reporting. It is easy to teach this style of writing. The purpose of this paper is to get your volunteers-in-training off to a good start.

While this paper is fairly comprehensive, there are also a number of books that are available for teaching writing skills for webpages. Get your volunteers started with this paper and then, if they are interested and willing, get them to move on to some of the in-depth books that cover this subject.

Understanding What a Web Page Is

A web page is an electronic communication that is delivered to users via the World Wide Web through the use of its standardized protocols carried over the Internet. Web pages disseminate information and report the events, circumstance and occurrences within the life and ministry of your church and its congregation.

It provides information to others such as individuals, other websites, search engines and even sometimes traditional news media when reporting on your church.

All of your web pages of your website reside on one or more web servers that operate under a specific domain name. Tag-based hypertext markup language (HTML) is used to encode all web pages. Web servers use hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) to serve all web pages and their associated files.

While you don’t need to go overboard, all writers should have a basic understanding of HTML. As a writer, you wouldn’t likely to have to make the HTML coding for your story. In many websites, that duty will be within the purview of the webmaster or web editor. However, even if you don’t have to code your story, it helps to know a little bit about these tasks.

Web pages can contain text, photos, media objects and links to other web pages or files for downloading.

Web pages also include other information as text strings known as metadata. The page title (the text within the <title> tag) displayed at the top of the browser is an example of metadata. While the main body text of the human-viewable web page doesn’t display metadata, it is still very important to the operations of the web.

The core of any web page is the text included on the page and its metadata.

The Need for Words on Web Pages

Writing words that are appropriate for web pages will be a new disciple for many churches.

For example, I come from a church tradition that uses what our people call “flyers” to promote events. Somewhere back in history, a few decades ago, people started producing these one-page flyers for events that are intended to be printed out on letter-size paper and tacked up on old-fashion bulletin boards.

These flyers usually contained a big headline and large central graphic, with only a little bit of text, about as much as would be found on an Emily Post-style invitation.

In fact, flyers do double duty as invitations. Converted into PDF or JPEG files, they are circulated to interested parties via email.

The recipients of these flyers and invitations are always people “within the circle.” People outside the church or ministry rarely see them. As a result, the words on the printed page are pretty sparse.  Everybody knows all of the assumed information implied in the language on the flyer that results in an insiders’ shorthand.

The problem this approach is that the same ministry team leaders who are producing the flyers also carry this style of communication over to making web pages.

In fact, I have seen a lot of church web pages that merely post JPEG images of the flyer and call it a web page.

The problem with this approach is that the web doesn’t work this way. While a limited amount of information can be conveyed to human users, web browsers and search engines want words (text) to drive them. The web crawlers of search engines can’t read the text shown in images of flyers so the information won’t get indexed. While search engines can read PDF files, there is far too little text on the flyer to be effective or even indexed.

Also, your visitors come to websites looking for details, not just a flyer. A shorthand-version flyer featuring sparse text isn’t enough to meet the needs of your website visitors.

It addition to providing enough words; it is also important that they are the right kind of words.

What I mean by that relates to another practice in my church tradition. We’re also big on publishing newsletters. Most of our churches publish two editions of their church newsletter each month that get mailed out via the USPS. The newsletters are also converted to PDF files and added to the website for downloading or emailed to church members.

These same newsletter writers and editors think they can simply cut and paste their newsletter text into web pages, and they have fresh web content.

The only problem with the newsletter approach is that in almost all cases, newsletters are written ONLY for the internal audience of the church congregation. Again, the majority of the text make heavy use of assumed knowledge or knowledge of church jargon or shorthand. Some prior knowledge is required to make sense of much of this content, which makes newsletters ineffective for reaching outside of the congregation.

Neither approach, flyer nor newsletter, can produce very good results for a website.

To an outsider looking at the flyer and newsletter content, the reason is obvious; these churches aren’t communicating with the vast majority of their audience coming into their website, they are only communicating with those inside the walls of their churches.

Learn to be a truly effective communicator. The web is perhaps the first tool that you have to reach an audience regularly outside your church. It can be an audience of incredible size. It is also a tool that allows you to communicate with your audience at an incredible depth and multiple times (as visitors return) in an ongoing online relationship with your website visitors.

Realize Your Website Is a Publication

A far better approach than treating web pages merely as flyers and newsletters are to think of your website as what it actually is: a journalistic endeavor!  Your website is in all realities is a publication of your church reaching a diverse and widespread audience.

Style your church’s web operations like a newspaper or magazine that is published daily or weekly. Cover your church’s events, happenings and history like a newspaper would. Also, go for depth of coverage by adding in-depth features stories like a magazine.

Your church’s governing body is its publisher setting policies and objectives. Your webmaster is the editor-in-chief making assignments, editing content and assembling the final results. Your volunteer writers are field reporters generating the original content to fulfill reporting assignments.

The publication model is an excellent and efficient model that I strongly recommend you embrace.

Become a Reporter

When approaching writing a story for your website, you should think like a reporter. Use basic news writing best-practices to make your web pages. Don’t write a flyer, write a news story!

You should use the same techniques as journalists. Use the basic rule-of-thumb taught in Journalism 101: tell a story that covers the classic question readers ask in their minds about every story they read:  who, what, where, when, how and why?

In a journalistic organization, a reporter is the person responsible for collection information and doing the “reporting” of stories. Reporters are typically not experts in the subjects that they are reporting. Instead, their job is to gather, organize and report information from  people who are experts; people directly involved in the event or news. Reporters talk with people and faithfully report what they are saying, typically with lots of quotations.

Reporters write in a news-reporting style based on experience. News reporting does an excellent job of quickly conveying information to people.

Organizations like churches and ministries can use the same journalistic approach to publishing websites. All churches and ministries, even small ones, have lots of things going on that are excellent topics for reporting. In other words, churches and ministries are content-rich environments that provide many opportunities for creating fresh, vibrant content. If you simply report what you are doing, you can create excellent content in sizable amounts for your dynamic website that will attract an audience in your community (and even in wider areas) and keep them coming back for follow-up visits.

Like many reporters in today’s digital world, you might also do things in addition to writing, like taking or gathering photos and other graphics to use in your story. However, I’ll reserve the coverage of these topics for other tutorials.

By the way, I think the same journalistic approach will also improve your printed newsletters and other church publications.

This superior writing style is easy and simple, but it does require some basic initial guidance about how to write in this style. This tutorial will provide at least initial guidance.

Gain and Use a Writer’s Understanding of Search Engines

Every writer working on stories published on web pages should have a basic knowledge of how search engines work. Search engines are writers’ best friends because they can deliver readers to your story.

If you have a great story and nobody finds it, nobody will read the words you write. No story’s potential energy can become kinetic until someone reads your words. The more people that read them, the more kinetic the story will become.

The World Wide Web is a pretty big place. So, how do you get your story found so that people can read it?

Fortunately, the web has search engines that help people find specific web pages out of the billions of web pages that exist. Search engines are remarkable systems that will send people to your website, even directly to your specific story. If your story matches indexed in the search match queries entered by people looking for something and your page is ranked high enough, you will gain a very large audience very quickly.

Search engines are critical to the way the World Wide Web works and its success. As a writer, it is important to know how search engines work, and to do the things necessary that allow search engines to match your story with people’s interests. Words placed on web pages drive search engines. Your writing is crucial in the larger process in addition to simply conveying information to your readers. It is important for you to know how the search engine processes operate so you can use them to get the most readers possible to read your story. You need to be able to use search engines to your maximum advantage.

Search engines use a technique called full-text searching where all of the text on a web page is sucked into the search engines’ databases and indexed. Users can query every word and phrase in your story in their searches. This technique is also called post-coordinate index searching.

How it works is that search engines will visit the web page that carries your story on your website and download the web page just like any browser would. Special processes look for all of the pages in your site by following its entire set of links contained on the pages. They crawl all of the pages in your website just like a spider crawling a spider web. See the simile (web, spiders, crawling)?

However, rather than displaying the page on the screen as a browser would, the content on the web page is subjected to processes that strip out the HTML code that makes up the formatting of your web page, and parse out the text on the page. The goal is to eliminate the HTML coding that is used only for layout. The remaining full text of the page goes into the search engine's index database.

Certain text, like the web page title, certain metadata, headlines and links are given special weightings. For example, the words in your headlines are assumed to convey special importance. Therefore, the search engines give them a little more weight. The same holds true for the page title that appears in the top of web browsers.

When a potential visitor conducts a search on the search engine, their search query (the keyword text string they enter into the search field) is processed using the search engine’s entire index database to identify all the pages that include those keywords on the page.

If your page does not include the words the searcher has specified, your page won’t be shown in the search engine results pages (SERPs.) The whole process begins with the words you write in your story and how you use them.

Remember when we said that the World Wide Web is a very big place? Any query submitted by a searcher is likely to match many pages, perhaps millions of pages. The goals of all search engines are to present to their users only relevant results for the queries their users submit to them. Further, it is in their interest to present the most relevant results first. In as much as users might only look at a few pages of search engine results, perhaps only the first 20-30 matches, search engines have to use intelligent process to rank their relevance and present the most relevant results first.

Out of perhaps tens of millions of pages that match users’ queries, how do they present the most relevant pages first?

Once pages identified that match the search query, search engines order the results according to relevance. Now, a second search engine process comes into play: ranking pages based on relevance to users’ queries. Ranking one page may sound totally subjective, but search engine software developers have figured out how to do this somewhat objectively for two good reasons. First, their process has to be done by software algorithms running automatically on computers; the web is too big and too dynamic to do this process manually with humans. Second, they needed to be fair by ranking all pages using the same process and standards.

As information scientists started looking at the problem, it turns out that relevance can be determined based on dozens and dozens of criteria, called “signals” by Google. Signals might include things such as keyword prominence that is how often the keywords appear on the page. A page that uses the keyword five or six times on a page is likely more relevant than a page that only uses it once. Also, how and where keywords appear on the page produce signals. For example, as mentioned above, pages that use keywords in headlines and page titles are likely to be more relevant than pages that only use the keyword in the body of the story.

The various signals collected by search engines feed very complex multi-variant equations that are proprietary to each search engine and are keep as a closely-guarded trade secret or patented. Because of the secrecy surrounding these processes, even as an industry, we don’t know specifically how all of the parameters in the equations and the signals that drive it. The search engines share some broad suggestions about how their equations work, but they don’t share too much information, lest people learn how to game the equations to produce inaccurate results for unfair advantages.

However, we do have a general awareness of many of the signals and their importance. Using this limited knowledge, as an industry, we have developed sets of best practices that are part science and part art form.

Search engines are important and can be your very-good friends if you honor their processes and provide the information they need to do a good job indexing and ranking your content.

Category: (07-14) July 2014   Tag:

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