Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Synagogue websites can attract visitors by offering added value

I’ve been developing websites since they were text-only (1995), and I’ve done a few websites as a favor for Jewish institutions. I’m no graphics whiz, but I do have a sense of a layout that I think works for readers. So here’s my take on what should appear on a shul website:

In a nutshell:
• On the front page – Not too much, and it should not require scrolling.
• Beyond the front page – The community.

I have seen shul websites that try to cram the world on to their front page; the result is often intimidating, not to mention un-readable. Eruv information, real estate listings, pictures of the shul and of special events, news from Israel, flyers for upcoming events, contact information for the shul and the sisterhood and the men’s club and and and and and.

And then there are other sites that say almost nothing – location, if that, and the names of the leadership.

My personal favorites? The ones that don’t list the rabbi. Either someone in the lay leadership is afraid of the rabbi, or they just don’t expect him to stay that long…

I like to see a shul website that offers the following information on the front page:
• Name/Logo – which should not take up much of the page
• Photo - A picture of shul people engaged in a shul-related activity
• Address information for the shul
• Contact information for the rabbi, the president, the office manager and hospitality
• A flyer or two for big upcoming events
• And, of course, there should be links to the content within. The links should not be intrusive, but they should be obvious and easy to use (ie don’t cram the buttons too close together).

And content within:
• Directions to the shul, and to the shul cemetery if there is one
• Schedules of davening – which must be kept up to date
• Schedules of shiurim and events
• Photos of communal activities
• Bios of key shul figures, including rabbi and youth director
• Information on moving to the community
• Information for people within the community
• Links to community institutions (religious and social)
• Archives of flyers from past events
• Archives of audio from past shiurim, as well as articles

All of the above is more or less obvious, I should think. But there is one other piece I like to see, which I usually do not: Material which makes the website a real destination for people, just for the sake of that material itself.

We’re talking about items that stand out more than the standard transcribed speeches or audio shiurim. This must be something that will turn up on search engines, that will attract readers who have no interest in your shul. It should be a unique resource with real added value.

My first shul, Congregation Ohawe Sholam / Young Israel of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had a few such areas on our site. It wasn’t a great site. In truth, from an aesthetic perspective, it was rather poor. But we had material that people came to see – a series of essays on Tanach, and, more than that, a Jewish Spirituality email list. Who else had such a list, and in a shul? People searching for “Jewish Spirituality” (and who isn’t?) came across our site, forwarded links, and so its name spread.

Unfortunately, the material on that site is now eight years old and will likely not show up on any search engines anymore, but shuls that keep their material up-to-date show they have something to offer, and to interest people in their community.


  1. former allentownerMay 19, 2009 at 3:43 PM

    and a listing of hotels / motels close to the synagogue (some of which have deals with the shul, including special rates, late shabat checkout, metal keys, etc), kosher restaurants, kosher food stores (or link to local vaad which should have the info), etc.

    sons of israel website has that, thankfully (though there no motels physically near the shul)

    2. you are very correct -- many shuls have outdated websites, dated times for mincha / maariv, etc. some dont even list times for shacharit (though i know they have daily shacharit). these are usually the same shuls that dont have a recording with times, when you call them.

  2. Most organizations put up a website and never update it, which is unfortunate. Not only that, most people seem to think that ALL they have to do is put up a website and it will MAGICALLY be found by all. I keep telling people that they need to put up a REASON TO RETuRN. and these days there are so many options - news, blogs, twitters etc etc etc... to add value to a website. and here's another HIRE A PHOTOGRAPHER to do the official pictures. While we are all getting good at our digital camera stuff, photographers have the ability to take better angles, and have the technology to spruce up photos.

    oy don't get me started...too late!

  3. PS when are you moving to Canada?

  4. Another feature of the Sons of Israel website that attracted me was a set of links to the other shuls in the Lehigh Valley. That made a huge statement about this Jewish community. (Incidentally, I've never seen that feature anywhere else.)

    Having recently been looking at shuls where I can daven, I appreciate having the website give a sense of the shul/community values (such as noted above). It's also nice to see something that indicates the affiliation of the shul. Can't tell you how hard it is to figure out sometimes whether a shul is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or otherwise...

  5. I agree that keeping a website updated is very important, especially for items like time of tefillah. Also, shuls in areas that receive lots of tourists or business visitors in the area should offer a special section with the type of information those people might need--where kosher food is available, times of minyanim, hotels/motels near shuls, places of interest to visit should they have family with them, and a local contact number if c"v something bad happens, such as a medical emergency.

  6. Shorty-
    You wouldn't happen to be a professional photographer, would you?
    The move is scheduled for the beginning of August, Gd-willing.


    All good points; thanks.

  7. A good deal of Studies have been done on the subject:

    No Scrolling!
    Five links to max to any other page. If you can't find it in five links, you've lost the person.

    You probably should write the page in AJAX and PHP and with a good CSS to keep the page dynamic. (literally) It should be auto-updating from outside sources with times.

    It should look like a modern web 2.0 page. Parts of it should be closed off to everyone but members.

    The absolute best (as in I've liberally borrowed with permission some of their ideas about how to harness technology to organize a small minyan is the Conservative shul with an Orthodox Minyan- Tremon Street Shul in Cambridge, MA.

    They are the only Shul I have ever heard of which has a wiki running for its remembers. They are literally able, if they felt like, to organize leyning and learning remotely years in advance. (Which FYI- is good donor publicity- you can prove you have events going on through the public pages).

    Adding a more dynamic overall interface (there's is older) would put you at the head of the curve.

    A la facebook.

  8. ShanaMaidel-
    Agreed, agreed, agreed.

    My only quibble is with the members-only part, but that's a philosophical issue that is much broader than the website.

  9. @TheRebbetzin'sHusband

    You need some control or modicum of agreed upon control, to prevent any overarching attacks on your website.

    Members only for certain aspects of seeing, and definitely certain aspects of editing ((The Treamont Street Shul wikitized their board meetings- this is a high level of openness unheard of elsewhere...)

    There is a level of negotionation with all things website. It is a place where it can be your public and private place. If you are thinking about a serious redesign- I would engage in some serious readings about web designs- look around at what makes for a successful webpage (not for a successful jewish webpage, or shul webpage, since most are not) as well as think about how much of your organization's ontent you want on the internet- and how you want it organized, and for what purpose: To advertise- to organize?


    Rank everything, then set aside designated money to make it possible to get to something close to what tou think, according for all these purposes, each page. And design how they would look....This could be cheaper/more expensive than planned.

    Hence the warning.

  10. ShanaMaidel-
    Again, quite agreed.
    My beef with members-only is specifically regarding value-added content. I don't want to restrict my value-added content in an attempt to market memberships via unseen product; I'd rather use it out front.

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