The Death of Hierarchy

Hierarchy as a form of content organization is dying. A major milestone — I want to say tombstone — in its demise is the shutdown of the Yahoo directory, which will occur at the end of the year according to an article in Ars Technica, Yahoo killing off Yahoo after 20 years of hierarchical organization. (Actually it seems to be offline already.)

As the article observes, a hierarchical directory made some sense when Yahoo was created:

In the early days of the Web, these categorized, human-curated Web listings were all the rage. Search engines existed, but rapidly became notorious for their poor result quality. On a Web that was substantially smaller than the one we enjoy today, directories were a useful alternative way of finding sites of interest. read more

The Key to Organizing Web Content is Stickiness

Sticky bun.

The stickiest content rises to the top. Image courtesy of Maggie Smith / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The most important thing you can do to organize your Web content so that people can find it is to make it sticky. Making it sticky is more important than categorizing it or placing it in a hierarchy or taxonomy. It is even more important than linking your content set effectively. In fact, if you don’t make it sticky, neither of those other things are likely to matter much.

It is easy to think of the Web as simply a vast ocean of content. But if it were that, it would not work at all. What the Web actually is is a vast index of content. It is not a fixed index, like in a book, but a complex, dynamic, volatile, multi-stream index. For purposes of findability, how your content is organized on the Web comes down to how it appears in that index. And while you can definitely contribute to how it is indexed in small ways, its indexing is largely controlled by others. The Web organizes itself communally. read more

Web Organization is not Like Book Organization

One of the most difficult aspects of moving content to the Web is that webs are not organized like other things — books in particular. And the difference is not small. It is not that web organization is somewhat different from book organization. It is so different that you can’t even look at web organization the way you look at book organization.

And that may be the biggest problem in moving content to the Web. We are used to being able to look at the organization of our content in a particular way, from the top down, and that does not work on the Web. That makes the difference very difficult to get used to. read more

What’s Hiding in Your TOC?

One of the defining characteristics of an Every Page is Page One topic is that it has no sequential or hierarchical relationship to other topics. There are no previous, next, or parent links in an EPPO topic, though there may be many links to topics on related subjects.

One of the objections I often hear from writers is that sometimes they need to create a defined order of topics because that set of topics forms a workflow. The question I ask in return is, if there is a workflow here, shouldn’t you have a topic describing that workflow explicitly? read more

Am I a Content Strategist?

I’m a fan of emerging technology, and generally tolerant of emerging terminology, but when it comes to job titles I tend to the view that if it was not mentioned in the Domesday Book, it isn’t a real job. I have, on diverse occasions, decried attempts to replace the title “technical writer” with something else, maintaining that as long as that is what the job ads call it, that’s what the job is called.

Thus I have been reluctant to call myself a content strategist. Scott Abel’s recent interview with Barbara Saunders indicates I am not the only one having doubts about the title. Yet many of the people I interact with professionally call themselves content strategists, and more than once those people have used the #contentstrategy tag when tweeting about my articles or blog posts. I seem to write a lot about the issues that content strategists care about, yet still I find myself reluctant to get the content strategist tattoo. read more

Too Big to Browse; Too Small to Search

Findability continues to be the bete noire of technical communication. This may be a parallax error, but it seems that findability is more of a problem in technical communication than in other fields. The reason, I suspect, is that many technical documentation suites are too big to browse but too small to search.

I have commented before on the somewhat counter-intuitive phenomenon that on the Web it is easier to find a needle in a haystack (The Best Place to Find a Needle is a Haystack). This may be counterintuitive, but it is easy enough to explain: search (if it is any more sophisticated than simple string matching) is essentially a statistical analysis function. A search engine works by discovering a statistical correlation between a search string and a set of resources in its index. read more

Frankenbooks Must Die: A Rant

I was astonished at Sarah Maddox’s statement, in her guest post Why don’t technical writers use wikis — or do they? on I’d Rather be Writing, that wikis are not good at topic-based writing. Huh? Wikis are all about topic-based writing. In fact, it is the only type of writing they really support.

What’s wrong here? It certainly isn’t that Sarah does not understand wikis. If you want to know about using wikis in technical documentation, Sarah is the first person you want to talk to. If anyone knows wikis, it’s Sarah. She’s even written a book on the subject. What’s wrong, apparently, is that the term “topic-based writing” seems to have been corrupted or co-opted and robbed of its proper meaning. This is serious, and it needs to be fixed. read more