So You Need a Website, Part I - The Software

I think a lot of organizations with limited resources, such as smaller churches, would like to have websites, but are hesitant to start one because they think it will be expensive and difficult.  And it certainly can be.  But it doesn't have to be.

In the past, the software needed to construct websites was expensive and difficult to learn and use.  That is no longer necessarily true.  Such software, like Adobe's Dreamweaver, can still be used, but they're not the only available software.  Open source website applications, such as Drupal and WordPress, are free and pretty easy to use to create simple websites.

The other thing you need for a website is a host.  A website host is a company that has servers which store website files and are set up to let people have access to them through the internet.  There are a lot of web hosts out there, which can cost very little or a lot.  I happen to keep both the MMFA website and my personal website on a host called A Small Orange.  As I remember, it was a fairly random choice, but I've had my personal site there for several years, and I've been very pleased with the service, the cost, and the tech support.

The cost will depend on how much space you need on the server, how many email addresses you get (they can also serve as your email host), how much can be uploaded and downloaded from your site, and so on.  You can find plans for as little as $5 or $10 a month - sometimes less.  A Small Orange has a tiny plan for $35 a year.  So with free software and an inexpensive webhost, the cost of a website is pretty low.

Back to the software.  "Open source" is a term used in the computer world to refer to software developed by a community of user/developers.  As each person develops improvements to the software, they add it back in to the pool, thereby strengthening the software for everyone.  One of the best-known examples of open source software is Open Office, a productivity suite like Microsoft Office, which includes word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software, but which is free.

When I began looking at rebuilding MMFA's website, I looked at a number of different types of software.  I have Dreamweaver, because I used it to maintain our old website.  But I've never liked working in it.  There aren't many programs I find difficult to use (I have ten years of experience in IT, and software is my area of expertise), but Dreamweaver has always been unapproachable and awkward for me.  Someone suggested looking at Drupal, with which I was completely unfamiliar, and WordPress, which I had used on a very surface level to slap together a quick version of my personal website.

Both Drupal and WordPress are open source.  There are other open source website applications available, but these are the two most popular.  As I researched them, I quickly found a consensus that Drupal is the more robust application - it is more powerful, it has more features, you can do more things with it - but it is also the more difficult to learn and use. 

I chose Drupal for our site because I wanted its wealth of features.  I thought it would be better for some of the things we had talked about wanting to use our website to do.  After completing the website, I think that Drupal's reputation for difficulty was probably more true in earlier versions than it is now.  I saw a lot of discussion in various online forums about how much more user-friendly it is now, and in terms of the big picture of our website, I found it pretty easy to use.  I had some difficulty with the details, and the difficulty mostly came from fitting our fairly complex design in.  A simpler design would be easier to build.  (Although I love our design - I think it's gorgeous - and it was worth every minute it took to put together.)

My experience with WordPress has been less intensive.  I have a personal website because I used it to advertise my voice studio when I was teaching voice.  When my position with the Foundation went from part-time to full-time, I closed my studio, but decided to keep my website.  I changed the name and redesigned it.  In looking for something that would allow me to redesign it and get it up and running quickly, I chose WordPress.  And it was a great choice, because with WordPress, you can get a website up and running in roughly the time it takes you to type in the content.  It's a little more complicated than that, but not much.  (Just as an aside, I've probably rebuilt my website 5 or 6 times.  Every time I need to learn a new piece of web software, I rebuild my website.  It makes a good lab for it.)

With both Drupal and WordPress, you can choose preformatted themes, which you can use just as they are, or which you can alter a little, or a lot.  For the version of my personal site that I did in WordPress, I used a WordPress theme and just changed the color scheme to one of the three or four preset schemes that came with the theme.  With the MMFA site, I used a Drupal theme and changed everything about it.

Because of that difference, my knowledge of Drupal is much more extensive than my knowledge of WordPress.  So I'm going to talk about Drupal for a bit here.  I assume that most of what I'm going to say also applies to WordPress, but perhaps not all of it. 

The Drupal software is organized on four different levels.  The central level is Drupal core - the central software that is Drupal itself.  I suppose a good programmer could create a website just from Drupal core, but I'm not by any means a programmer, and I wouldn't want to even think about doing that.  The next level is modules.  There are a seemingly endless number of modules you can add to Drupal core to bring additional functionality.  For example, there's a module called Superfish which allows you to create multiple menus and format them all differently - something you can't do easily with just Drupal core.  (Why Superfish?  I wish I knew.  I suspect there's a story behind the name.)  Drupal core actually includes a number of modules, including the Blog module, which is what allows me to create this post.

The next level is themes.  A theme includes formatting information for the site - page layouts, colors, font styles and sizes.  A theme can be created in a way that allows you to alter schemes or not.  For example, there is a color module in Drupal that allows you to change the colors of various parts of the website.  You can make the background color of all the blog posts and articles the same, or all the top level headlines the same color, and so on.  Some themes incorporate that functionality, some don't.  If you want to be able to change the colors of a theme, you need to make sure the theme you choose contains that function.

The top level is distributions.  This is the level I didn't discover until fairly late in our process.  A distribution includes both a theme and all the necessary modules.  It's the Drupal version of one-stop shopping.  Our website is built upon a distribution called Open Outreach, which was designed specifically for non-profit organizations.  I chose it because it includes a lot of functions we wanted to be able to use on our website, such as being able to register participants for our triennial Adamson Innovation Forum.  That kind of functionality requires a degree of programming expertise that I just don't have, but with this distribution, creating the signup form and the necessary tracking instrument was almost ridiculously easy.  I really was prepared to have to dig hard to make it work, but the event almost created itself.  There is an Open Church distribution that I'd look at if I were creating a website for a church.

There is one thing I want to stress about this.  Our website was not easy to construct.  It is based upon a design with a wide selection of colors, a number of differently formatted menus which had to be carefully placed on top of other design elements, page layouts that didn't fit easily into the theme, and some other elements that made putting it together very complicated.  It took me three months of hard work to get it up and running.  Granted, part of that was time spent coming up to speed on using Drupal, but I also had to learn a good bit more than I knew previously about editing HTML and CSS code.  So don't think that you can create a complex website with a very specific design in Drupal quickly and painlessly.

However, I also rebuilt my personal website in Drupal, and it went together much more quickly and easily.  There, I had the advantage of working with my own design, and if I ran into a problem getting it to work with the software, I could change the design, something I didn't want to do with the Foundation's website.  In doing my website, I didn't have to make any CSS code edits.  I ended up doing some, but that's just because I like to tinker.  I didn't have to do them.

In the previous iteration of my site, the one I created in WordPress, I didn't make any changes to the theme, except for color changes which were built into the theme.  The theme I chose came with a number of different color palettes, and I chose one of them.  So creating that version of my site was simply a matter of installing the files on my webhost, choosing the colors, then moving the content over.  To move the content, all I had to do, as I remember, was create pages as needed, then copy and paste the text from the old site files to the new ones.  That was about as easy as creating a site could be, but I also didn't use that version of the site for much.  The one thing I did gain on that version was the ability to write blog posts.

So that's what I have to say about the choices which are available in website software.  I have a couple of other posts planned about creating websites.  I believe strongly that they can be accessible to small churches and can be much easier and more affordable than a lot of people realize.  They also can be used in ways that we wouldn't have thought possible a few years ago, and are easier to maintain and update than they ever were.  These are some of the things I'll be writing about in future posts.  I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have about this subject.  You can either sign up for an account on our website or use the Contact Us link to send me a question.  If you choose either the General Inquire/Other or Website Feedback category, the question will come directly to me.