A-Z Indexes to Enhance Site Searching
January 5, 2005 in Digital Web Magazine)
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.
Although writing an index requires a trained skill, indexers do not expect
to be compensated as highly as information architects. 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 as well create a manual index for the web site. This option has several distinct advantages.
What is an A-Z index?
Just as an “index” can have different meanings, so 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 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 to allow a jump to the start of that letter’s section of the index.
Here is an example of a web A-Z index:
Advantages of web A-Z indexes
Unlike typical search engines, A-Z indexes created by expert indexers point to all substantial information about a topic. Nothing is missed, and extraneous pages are not retrieved. Additional advantages include the following:
A-Z indexes are the most user-friendly way to search. Users are already familiar with how to use browsable alphabetical indexes from books. The user only has to pick a term off a list and not have to think up something to type in a search box. A user can browse a list of alphabetical topics with a sense of security that each topic will yield a result and the resulting page will have more than just a cursory mention of the topic.
The browsable nature of the index can reveal other topics of interest to the user. The user might find additional information beyond the original search objective. This may increase user satisfaction with the site and its content and the user may stay longer or visit the site more often.
Index entries can link to precise points within a web page through the use of named anchor links. The user does not have to scroll through the retrieved page to find the desired information.
An A-Z index can enhance the search engine optimization ranking of the site. A large number of new internal links created and the words within the linked text are high-quality keywords.
What web sites are best suited for A-Z indexes?
Other kinds of sites for which users especially appreciate indexes include:
Media sites or e-zines, which contain archives of articles, images, or program synopses, can certainly benefit from A-Z indexes. However, since new pages are frequently added, an index as an interface to a dynamic database for a set of pages is the most practical solution.
An example is the index of the Montague Institute Review.
Corporate external web sites that can benefit from A-Z indexes are those that draw repeat visitors, such as banks or insurance companies visited by their clients. Corporate external web sites that aim merely to give a web marketing presence to a company, and not to give detailed information about numerous products, generally do not need indexes. Such sites are designed for one-time visitors to navigate and explore, rather than to search.
Even sites as small as 20 pages can be served well by an A-Z index. Although less necessary on a small site, the addition of an A-Z index can enhance the site’s professional appearance. An index should be avoided if the site is so small and well organized that most pages are accessible from the main menu.
Skills needed to write an index
Information professionals who have worked only on categories and taxonomies, however, should realize that A-Z indexes are not exactly the same. For those with at least some background in indexing or taxonomies, an additional course is probably not needed but a review of any of these books is recommended:
Indexing courses and books tend to emphasize back-of-the-book indexing. For web site indexing, the basic skills are the same. It is important to realize that in web site indexes, each entry or subentry can be linked to only one page, unlike a book index where the entry or subentry may have multiple page numbers listed afterwards. Therefore, creative solutions may be required. It is highly recommended to review existing web A-Z indexes to get an idea how they are done.
Unless someone on the web team already has some training in indexing which further reading can enhance, it is preferable to contract out the A-Z index to a professional. Although writing an index requires a trained skill, indexers do not expect to be compensated as highly as information architects. Professional indexers tend to be independent contractors, and most belong to their respective national professional associations, which maintain directories of registered members. The following indexer directory databases can be searched by index type, such as web/HTML.
Some local chapters of the American Society for Indexing also maintain indexer directories, listing indexers who may not be registered in the national indexer locator directory.
Web indexing tools
Automatic generation utilities
Index editing software plus HTML-conversion tool
HTML index editing software
Database management software
A-Z indexes are most suitable for intranets or sites with repeat visitors, and for sites of a medium size that are not changing too rapidly.
Cheap or free site search engines and “site index” generation tools can quickly set up some form of searching for many sites but for a highly effective search and increased user satisfaction, a professionally written A-Z index is still the best option. An A-Z index as an interface for a database is a possible solution for sites with pages added or removed frequently.
If human-crafted indexes have been effective in helping readers find information in millions of non-fiction books and manuals, then they ought to be useful for many content-rich web sites.
© 2005 Heather Hedden and Digital Web Magazine