Friday, January 26, 2007

Facilitate searching, not just navigation

An important part of an information architect’s job is to make it easier for users of a Web site or intranet to find the information they want. Usually the focus is on site navigation—the site’s structural design, hierarchy, page titles and labels, menu design, site map, and so on.

Another way to address making information on a Web site easy to find is through search functionality. What’s the difference? Navigation means finding one’s way around and learning the layout of the site. Searching means finding a desired bit of information as efficiently as possible. A good site should support the search needs of users, not just the navigation needs.

When we think of searching in the context of the Web, the idea of search engines immediately comes to mind. Search engines, a practical way to find information on the entire World Wide Web, are increasingly being added to individual Web sites to allow users to search a site. However, results tend to be less than satisfactory.

Drawbacks of search engines

Search engines only pick up exact words or phrases. If a user enters a synonym, singular instead of plural, a spelled-out form instead of an acronym, a misspelled word, or merely a concept with words that never appear in the text, appropriate pages may be missed. Searching the entire Web, missed pages are usually not a problem since so many results are retrieved. But on an individual Web site, it is essential that all relevant pages be returned.

Search engines pick up pages that contain a specific search phrase, even if just in passing or out of context. The page could be about an entirely different subject. This isn’t a huge problem when searching the entire Internet because major commercial search engines have developed complicated ranking systems based on meta tags, keyword frequency, links, etc.

Of course, a site search engine can be customized to search only keyword meta tags as long as keywords are carefully created for each page. If you are going to go to the trouble of creating keywords for each page, you may was well create a manual index for the Web site. This option has several distinct advantages.

What is an A-Z index?

As an “index” can have different meanings, as can “site index.” According to the National Information Standards Organization TR-02-1997 standard, an index is “A systematic guide designed to indicate topics or features of documents in order to facilitate retrieval of documents or parts of documents.” NISO classifies indexes as displayed and non-displayed, and further explains that a displayed index has syntax for combining terms in headings and a systematic ordering of headings. The most common systematic ordering is alphabetical, and being displayed means that it can be browsed. For Web sites or intranets, this type of index, to distinguish it from other indexes, is often called an A-Z index.

On a Web site or intranet each of the alphabetically arranged entries or subentries is hyperlinked to the page or to an anchor within a page to where the topic is discussed. Since an alphabetical index can be quite long, it is often divided into pages for each letter of the alphabet. Typically, each letter is linked at the top of the page allow a jump to the start of that letter’s section of the index.