Thursday, August 14, 2008

What makes a good community web site?

Community development veteran Jim Capraro asked me recently what the key functional components would be for a community-oriented web site. It depends on your budget and goals, of course, but some elements seem essential to me.

Easy content management – Any site these days ought to be easy to update with little in the way of technical skills and no “coding” or html necessary. You want to be able to go in, make some changes, upload some material, and go live, right now. This type of site typically runs off of an underlying database, so that you can put material into the database and then choose where and how you use it on the site.

Calendar – Seems obvious? This is for neighborhood events, meetings, public hearings, and the like.

Flexible news and program spaces – Every neighborhood and organization is different, but most have the same need to provide information about their place or their services that is organized in a useful way, so that people can find what they need. The Grassroots tool that we use in Chicago, from Webitects, has two tabs that each can include multiple subjects, and each of those in turn can hold more categories of info. Most NCP groups call one tab “news” and the other “our programs” or “our community.” A new site being developed by the Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness will name one of the tabs “health areas,” with eight types of health issues beneath the tab.

Directory – Basically a database that can be loaded up with existing Excel files or with individual listings added as you go, the directory should allow multiple categories so that you could list, for instance, staff contacts, partner organizations, churches, local businesses (by type of business), and any other group that you think people might be looking up. Google or Yahoo maps can be tied to the address field so that the category and the individual listings are mapped automatically.

Gorgeous photos — A good web site should allow you to display images of people, places and events in the neighborhood, starting on the home page and then in articles, program sections and even the calendar. It’s up to you to capture or collect great photos, but the site should allow you to use them in a way that makes people say “Nice!” when they arrive on the page.

Changing home page – You want the ability to display some of this material on the home page – not in a static way, because then the site always looks the same – but with new lead photos, new headlines, and new calendar items. The content management system should allow you to move material to the home page or to a “landing page” elsewhere on the site, and then later let the the article live forever in some deep corner of the site, where it will always be accessible via Google and logical navigation.

Search – And that leads to the final core element: a good site-level search engine. As your site matures over a year or more of updates, it will contain hundreds of items. You want readers (and your own people) to be able to put a few words in the search box and quickly find that story they remember seeing, or that factoid that they seek.

There are a number of ways to get to some of these features, and I’ll cover some compelling new options in a future post, from inexpensive “blogs on steroids” to powerful ning sites that incorporate social networking. But right now, the only place I know that offers the whole package is the Grassroots template, which is in use on 12 sites in Chicago and just starting to roll out nationally via the LISC network. Here are some examples:, which promotes the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, the Logan Square Neighborhood Assn.'s advocacy-oriented, bilingual site, which has a deep business directory and some detailed "extended listings", the Pilsen site that uses short news and informational items to get a lot of info across.

Know of other tools that can provide these kinds of capabilities? Please let us know in a comment.


Jim Capraro said...

Very nice article, Patrick.

mechanicguy said...

Anonymous said...

Excellent help! Thank you for this great tutorial!!
website development

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick,

Here's another community website to add to your list!