Dec 25 2013

Let’s talk about the holidays for a bit. No, I’m not thinking about the one happening today; I’m thinking about Hanukkah. Or Chanukah. Or Chanukkah. Or perhaps even Khaneke.

When we celebrated Hanukkah a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that all of these ways of spelling the holiday are valid, but some spellings may be more search engine-friendly than others. So, I decided to use Google and Bing to search for each spelling, as well as “[holiday name] Los Angeles”—the sort of search a person would use to find local Hanukkah events—to see how the results differed, if at all.

The two tables below show the number of results and the top five results for each Hanukkah-related search, ignoring special sections like news or photos. I also performed the searches without being logged in to Google or Bing. Finally, I didn’t include results for “Khaneke” since most of them were for cities in Pakistan instead of the Jewish holiday. Sorry, Yiddishists.

Search Results for Various Spellings of “Hanukkah” (December 25, 2013)
Search Engine Search Term Number of Results Top Results
Google Hanukkah 9.9 million  Wikipedia, History.com, Chabad, About.com, Jewfaq.org
Chanukah 2.5 million  Chabad, Wikipedia, Jewfaq.org, Jewishvirtuallibrary.org, Aish
Chanukkah 7.7 million [1]  Jewfaq.org, Wikipedia, Dummies.com, About.com, Mechon-Mamre.org
Bing Hanukkah 21.6 million Wikipedia, About.com, Los Angeles Times,[2] History.com, Chabad
Chanukah 5.5 million Wikipedia, Chabad, Holidays.net, Jewishvirtuallibrary.org, Jewfaq.org
Chanukkah 22.7 million [3] Wikipedia, Jewfaq.org, Chabad, Amazon,[4] History.com

[1] Google asked, “Did you mean: ‘Hanukkah’?”
[2] People living in other cities would presumably see slightly different results.
[3] Bing informed me that it was “including results for ‘Hanukkah’.”
[4] The link is for a CD titled “A Child’s Hanukkah: Music.”

Search Results for Various Spellings of “Hanukkah Los Angeles” (December 25, 2013)
Search Engine Search Term Number of Results Top Results
Google Hanukkah Los Angeles 2.3 million  About.com, Los Angeles Daily News, Farmers Market, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, NBC 4 Southern California
Chanukah Los Angeles 430,000 About.com, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, CBS Los Angeles, Los Angeles Daily News, Farmers Market
Chanukkah Los Angeles 6.6 million [1] Pico Shul, Jessicagottlieb.com, Jessicagottlieb.com, Temple of the Arts, Picorob.com
Bing Hanukkah Los Angeles 15.1 million About.com, CBS Los Angeles, Jewish Journal, Yahoo! Voices, About.com, Huffington Post
Chanukah Los Angeles 10.7 million About.com, Jewish Journal, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Chabad
Chanukkah Los Angeles 203 million [2] About.com, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Huffington Post, Jewish Journal, Jewish Journal

[1] Google asked, “Did you mean: ‘Hanukkah Los Angeles’?”
[2] Bing informed me that it was “including results for ‘Hanukkah Los Angeles’.”

The tables show that the search results for various spellings of Hanukkah are fairly stable, although results for “Chanukkah” (the least common spelling) show a bit more variation. However, the search results vary more after adding the name of a city. Again, the results for “Chanukkah” show the most variation, especially on Google; unlike Bing, Google doesn’t automatically add results for the more common spelling of “Hanukkah.” At the same time, however, the “Chanuukah” results on Bing were still somewhat different even after Bing included results for “Hanukkah.”

These tables show that people maintaining Jewish websites need to pay close attention to how they spell Hebrew and Yiddish words—and, equally importantly, how their intended audience will spell them. Search engines may reach omniscience in the near future, but for now, they don’t realize that Hanukkah, Chanukah, and Chanukkah are the same holiday.

Nov 9 2013

The Shtibl Minyan may be a unique Jewish community, but it has the same administrative needs as any other Jewish organization. We also face a challenge because we’re an entirely lay-led community and have no professional staff to handle administrative tasks. We rely mostly on emails and ad-hoc Google Spreadsheets for tracking information; as you can imagine, that setup is less than ideal.

To help us deal with some of our administrative needs, I recently began setting up CiviCRM, a web-based software package geared to non-profit administration. CiviCRM bills itself as a “constituent relationship management system”; in plainer terms, the software allows you to manage contacts and members, track contributions, organize events and registrations, and create mailing lists. At the moment, we use only a fraction of CiviCRM’s features—namely, maintaining a membership directory and listing events on a calendar—but having everything in one system will eventually make other administrative tasks, like coordinating sign-ups and payments for our annual Shavuot retreat, much easier.

CIVICRM events screenshot
Screenshot of CiviCRM’s events feature (with some things left to set up). I really hope that we don’t call our Chanukah potluck a “Thanksgivukkah” potluck; I hate that word.

So far, I’m pleased with CiviCRM. CiviCRM works with the most popular content management systems (WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal), allowing me to add features to our current website without too much frustration. I will say, though, that CiviCRM works best with Drupal—by far the most-used and best-supported option—and I ended up moving our website from WordPress to Drupal as a result. (I was considering Drupal anyway for other reasons, but CiviCRM motivated me to make the switch.) CiviCRM is also free[*] and open-source—a good thing for organizations that operate on lean budgets.

Having a full-fledged system to handle administrative tasks is great, of course, but the more important thing is getting people to use the system. My next step with CiviCRM will be training people how to use it: right now, one other person uses it to add basic events to our calendar, but at least twelve people will be using it in some capacity eventually.

While this post is only a brief introduction to CiviCRM, I wanted to write it to alert readers to its existence and set the stage for future posts. Are any of you using CiviCRM or similar software packages in Jewish organizations?

[*] Keep in mind, though, that setting up CiviCRM—or any software system, for that matter—still requires time or money, especially if you need customizations.

Mar 27 2013

To study Hebrew vocabulary, I create digital flashcards with a program called Anki. Anki is more than just a flashcard program, however; it’s a “spaced repetition learning system,” which means that Anki automatically schedules cards for you to review based on how well you know them. Over time, cards that you answer correctly will appear less often; conversely, cards that you answer incorrectly appear more frequently. Anki’s system allows you to study more efficiently because you spend less time reviewing things that you already know—a good thing when you have hundreds or even thousands of items to study.

Anki has many other features, too. You can add images and audio to cards, for example, and share your flashcard decks with others via a free online service. Even better, you can use Anki on your smartphone to study a little bit throughout the day. For example, I review a few cards while sitting in a meeting riding the bus or waiting in line at the store; doing so makes studying much less painful.

This is an example of an Anki Hebrew flashcard. Thankfully, I took a screenshot for this word rather than when מְבוּשִים appeared.
This is an example of an Anki Hebrew flashcard. Thankfully, I took a screenshot for this word rather than when מְבוּשִים appeared.

Obtaining Anki

Anki is available for every major desktop operating system, as well as the iPhone and Android. The desktop and Android versions are free, but the iPhone version costs $25. (Sales of the iPhone version fund development for the other versions and the online service.) If you don’t want to pay for Anki on your iPhone, however, you can use the free online service instead.

Anki Hebrew Flashcard Decks

Anki has attracted a large, devoted community of users who share flashcard decks and techniques for studying more effectively. Many in the community use Anki to learn foreign languages—no surprise, really, given that the developer created it to help himself study Japanese. (“Anki” means “memorize” or “memorization” in Japanese, in fact)

As one would expect, the community of Anki Hebrew learners is relatively small since Hebrew is not a common language to learn. Nonetheless, there are a number of Anki Hebrew flashcard decks available to download. Most of the decks are for Biblical Hebrew, but here are a few modern Hebrew decks that I’ve found useful:

Hebrew From Scratch Book 1 & 2 All Units and Lessons Anki 2
This deck contains nearly all of the vocabulary in Volumes 1 and 2 of עברית מן ההתחלה (Hebrew from Scratch), a textbook series often used in Hebrew classrooms. I’ve noticed some errors in the Hebrew here and there, but it’s still a useful deck, with words organized by chapter.
Hebrew Vocabulary 2
This monster of a deck contains 10,000 Hebrew vocabulary words. Learning words at random from this deck is probably not useful unless you already have a solid vocabulary base and can use word roots to help you retain the words you learn. The best use for this deck, I think, is to save yourself the trouble of typing Hebrew words and adding vowels.
Hebrew Vocabulary (Ha-Yesod: Fundamentals of Hebrew)
While the Ha-Yesod: Fundamentals of Hebrew textbook has largely fallen out of use in classrooms, I know that a few programs—for example, UCLA’s excellent first-year Hebrew program—still use it. Since the textbook throws a lot of vocabulary at the reader in each lesson, I created this deck for others using the textbook. The deck has all of the words and definitions, organized by lesson.

Concluding Thoughts

This introduction to Anki is a little patchy—chalk it up to all the wine I drank at the two seders Monday and Tuesday night—but it highlights the software’s most important features. In future entries, I’ll write more about specific features of Anki you can use to learn Hebrew. The program has a steep learning curve, I admit, but it’s well worth mastering if you want to increase your vocabulary as quickly as possible.

Mar 19 2013

While Christians get lots of examples if they search Google for “best church website designs,” Jews get almost nothing if they search for “best synagogue website designs.” One site presents two lists of screenshots with almost no commentary, and several other sites appear to have republished articles about church websites after replacing the words “church” and “pastor” with “synagogue” and “rabbi.” (It’s probably no surprise that those sites belong to low-quality web design companies attempting to drum up business.) Even Google seems to give up by the second page of search results and starts listing church-related content at the end.

I’d like to address this dearth of useful information about synagogue website designs by featuring one each week and explaining some of the things that make it work, as well as a few things I would improve. Let’s start with one of my favorite examples at the moment, the website for Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation in Pittsburgh, and discuss a couple screenshots in detail. In this entry, I’ll focus on some of the homepage elements.

Homepage (Above the Fold)

rodef shalom 1

This screenshot—without the numbers, of course—is what you first see when you visit Rodef Shalom’s website. Some notes:

  1. The design catches your eye with its bold colors, large images and text, and gradients. There’s also plenty of white space around the header and other elements, a welcome change from the wall of text you often find on synagogue websites. Teal and orange won’t convey the appropriate message for every group, of course, but it works well for this Reform congregation.
  2. Navigation menus for synagogues are often just lists of the various committees (“Adult Education,” “Women’s Chavurah,” and so on). The designers here have taken a different approach and started with “Visit Us” and “Rodef Shalom & You.” These listings are much more welcoming and emphasize the things that website visitors want to know rather than the institution’s administrative structure.
  3. Image carousels—otherwise known as “the things with slide-y images”—are visually appealing, but usability studies suggest that people rarely click on links after the first slide [1]. Moreover, they often miss content on the slides because they’ve learned to tune out things that look like banner ads [2]. If you use an image carousel, I’d recommend sticking with only a few slides, as the designers do here, and making sure that visitors can easily access banner content in other ways.
    (One other thing: the line spacing on the header here is way too large. I would tighten it up.)
  4. This section displays information about the next event at Rodef Shalom. Unfortunately, it took me a moment to realize that; I would probably add a heading making it explicit.
  5. I think this section doesn’t work as well as the others. I’ve already kvetched before about including the current date in English and Hebrew, but why does a religious institution have a “Your Cart” link on the front page? It appears to be a part of the system they use to process donations, but a synagogue’s front page shouldn’t make people think “e-commerce.” The “membership” link also seems useless here, given the prominent “Rodef Shalom & You” link in the main menu.

Footer

rodef shalom 2
This section appears at the bottom of the homepage and every other page on this site. A few more notes:

  1. I really like the “Meet So-and-So” feature that introduces a staff member and invites you to learn more about him or her. Some of the one-sentence introductions are more compelling than others—this one isn’t the best example—but the feature makes Rodef Shalom feel more human and less institutional.
  2. The action-oriented headings (“Meet So-and-So,” “Stay in Touch”) also work well. The social networking links aren’t prominent enough, though. I would make the icons much larger and hide the accompanying text: everyone familiar with Facebook and Twitter recognizes the icons, I suspect. Speaking of sizes, I would increase the size of the text in the footer somewhat: even with (corrected) normal vision, I found the text difficult to read, especially the Twitter updates.
  3. An updated Twitter account is always good to see, but a glance at their Twitter feed reveals that they use it only as an announcement forum and never interact or engage with others. (Twitter accounts merit several separate posts, though!)
  4. The “Visit Us” and “Contact Us” headings appear to be reversed, but I like the prominent button for online contact. The button would work even better with action-oriented text as well—for example, “Contact Us Online.”
  5. While the “Membership” link at the top struck me as redundant, the links down here are useful for visitors unsure where to go next after browsing the entire page.

Concluding Thoughts

Rodef Shalom promotes itself as an inclusive community, and its website reinforces that image: it’s open, friendly, and easy to navigate. While I focused only on homepage elements in this feature, the website does a number of things right in other areas, and offers a great example of an effective synagogue website design.

(In future features, by the way, I will probably focus on one aspect like information architecture or accessibility for each site. No matter what, though, I promise to avoid just dumping screenshots on a page.)

Mar 12 2013

An organization’s website should use photos of its members rather than on stock photos, and Jewish websites are no exception. For one thing, stock photos suggest that the organization thinks its members are ugly.

The Problem for Observant Congregations

Unfortunately, Jewish communities like mine that observe Shabbat are at a disadvantage when it comes to photos: Shabbat and holiday services would offer the best photo opportunities, but photography is a prohibited activity on Shabbat and most Jewish holidays. As a result, I’m having issues finding photos for my community’s website. From time to time, people have taken photos of events like our Purim spiel; unfortunately, most of them are low-resolution, and none of them really capture the things that make our community unique—in particular our davening.

 

When it comes to stock photography, this photo is the Jewish equivalent of two businessmen shaking hands. Seriously, numerous Jewish websites use this photo. Don't be one of them.
When it comes to stock photography, this photo is the Jewish equivalent of two businessmen shaking hands. Seriously, numerous Jewish websites use this photo. Don’t be one of them.

I plan to put the photos that we do have into a gallery, of course, but we also need photos that we can work into our website design, which looks a bit stark right now. We can’t even use a building photo since we lack a building. What options do we have?

(Having someone who isn’t Jewish take the photos or setting up an automatic camera aren’t options. Believe me, I looked into ways of skirting—er, dealing with—the prohibition.)

Possible Solutions

One option is to solicit testimonials from a few members and include their photographs with the testimonials. Another option is to have a few members agree to take more photographs at our events. While most of us aren’t the photo-taking type—or the posing-for-photos type, for that matter—we do have at least one member who likes photography and has a high-end camera. Even a few good candid shots would help immensely since I could turn them into large header images.

If you attend a synagogue or are otherwise part of a Jewish community, what sort of images, if any, does it use on its website?

Update (March 22): A member sent me a great photo from a beach wedding that two of our members had. The photo even coordinates with the website’s color scheme! The photo only contains women, however, so we look like an all-female congregation. It’s not the women’s fault, though, that the men in our community aren’t as good at appearing in high-resolution photographs that can be cropped at a 30:11 ratio. We need to work on that, apparently.

Mar 7 2013

I recently set up my independent minyan’s website to use WordPress, the current king queen monarch of blogging and content management system software. Doing so made it easy to track website traffic statistics (which we had never done before) with the Jetpack plugin. Unfortunately, those statistics reveal that only a small number of people visit the site—fewer than fifty visitors a day on average. Ouch. Since people typically find synagogues (or independent minyanim) through online searches these days, our website traffic implies that people aren’t finding us at all. I’ve done a little bit of what I call “Jewish SEO” to improve where we rank for various Google search results, but our website needs more content and inbound links to rank higher.

(To be honest, “Jewish SEO” at this point amounts to little more than following some of the basic recommendations offered by Yoast’s WordPress SEO program and using terms like “davening” as focus keywords. It’s still a great deal more than what most synagogue website designers do, though.)

At least our website traffic can only increase from here. Right? Right?
At least our website traffic can only increase from here. Right? Right?

So, how can we add content and convince visitors to link to our site? The most obvious response is to solicit and add interesting content from the community like divrei Torah, learning materials from workshops, and the like. At the same time, however, I suspect that such content will appeal more to current members than visitors—not that appealing to members is bad, of course!—and that it won’t greatly increase website traffic. We need to participate more in online Jewish spaces before anyone will notice us. We’re a lay-led group and lack an official rabbi or spokesperson, which makes participating—or publicizing ourselves—a little difficult. Something like a group Tumblr might offer a creative solution, though: we can make clear that people’s postings do not necessarily represent the minyan, yet still engage with others and show that we’re a unique group of people with a unique vision for a Jewish community.

Failing that, I don’t believe that any synagogue has produced a Harlem Shake video yet.

Edit: I was wrong about that last part. The videos are as awkward and cringe-inducing as you’d expect.

Mar 6 2013

For years, usability experts like Jakob Nielsen have recommended that organizations remove clutter from their homepage. However, many synagogues prominently display today’s date—either the Gregorian date or the Hebrew date—on their homepage. Do visitors really need to know that today is the 24th of Adar? One might argue that adding the date makes the website feel current, but it does nothing if the events calendar is empty or if the homepage still announces last year’s High Holiday services.

 

Why stop at showing visitors the Hebrew date? (Image courtesy of Date Converter)
Why stop at showing visitors the Hebrew date? (Image courtesy of Date Converter)

One possible exception is if the homepage has a yahrzeit list and the Hebrew date appears with it. Even in that case, though, the date is not the important part; the names (and memories) of the loved ones are, and the design and typography should reflect that.

Speaking of homepage clutter, I was surprised to find recently that a major Jewish community has a notice on the top of its homepage—in a bright orange box, no less—announcing that “this site is under construction.” I wish the designers went for broke and included an appropriate Geocities-era image with the notice.