My co-worker Mary Reeves was working on a story about "trunk or treat" events the other day, and -- in an effort to be helpful -- I went to the web site of a large local church that I thought I remembered having such an event in the past.
I noticed a link on their web site to the bulletin for March 15.
Wait a minute, I thought. They haven't updated their web site in seven months?
Well, not exactly.
It was the bulletin for March 15, 2009. Nineteen months ago.
I can't laugh too loudly, however. I've made that same mistake myself, and more than once. A church web site for which I'm responsible has sometimes found itself out-of-date.
There's a lesson here, not only for churches but for clubs, businesses, and anyone who thinks they need a presence on the web: Don't promise what you can't deliver.
Here's what I mean. It's up to you whether or not to make your weekly church bulletin (or your restaurant's weekly specials, or your club's monthly newsletter) available online. Doing so is a great idea -- one of the points of the web is that you can offer dynamic, ever-changing content. But if you start doing it, and if you put a link or a button or a tab on the front page of your site, you need to keep it maintained, with no exceptions. If you discover that you can't provide the content on a timely basis, take the link down -- as soon as possible. Don't promise what you aren't delivering. It's important to offer timely content, but if you can't do that right now it's much better not to promise timely content than to promise it and not deliver it. Out-of-date content casts a cloud over everything on your site and makes visitors wonder if anything on the site is current or accurate.
Here's another mistake I've seen organizations make: developing a web site, letting it lie fallow for a while, and then developing a new web site with a different address -- but without taking the old web site down. There's an arts group here in town that used to have one domain name but switched to a different, shorter and easier-to-remember domain name. That was a good idea, but they went for some time without taking the old page down. Anyone like me who had the old URL bookmarked and who didn't know about the new one just thought that the arts group had stopped maintaining its web site and was left out of the loop when it comes to new information.
The ideal situation in a case like this would be to keep both URLs active -- after all, it's cheap to register a domain name -- but have the "wrong" URL automatically redirect users to the "right" URL. That can be done with just a few lines of HTML code uploaded to the old site. (Do a web search for "HTML redirect" for instructions.) That way, even if someone pulls out an old e-mail or newspaper clipping and goes to the wrong URL a year or two later, they'll still wind up where you want them to wind up.
That applies to Facebook pages as well. An out-of-town non-profit for which I used to be a board member has what I thought were two different official Facebook pages: the current, official Facebook page and an older Facebook page with a slightly-different punctuation of its name. Actually, since the old page is closer to the way the ministry's name appears on its logo and literature, it's easy for someone to wind up on the old page. (I have since been told that the older page was never an officially-sanctioned page and was actually a "fan" page started by someone outside the ministry. Even so, it's kept the ministry from getting the proper punctuation for its official page.)
Sometimes, the problem is that the volunteers, students or former employees who created your old content are no longer around, and you don't have the proper passwords or any knowledge of how to update (or get rid of) the old page or site. That can be tricky, I understand, but you still need to find a way to solve the problem. Find out what web hosting provider has the old site and get in touch with them directly. Look on the hosting company's web site for customer support or technical support links.
Bad, out-of-date information looks worse than no information at all. Don't let your web presence, which is supposed to promote you, send the wrong message about you.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.