Thoughts on organizing information


So at the day job we are dealing with how to effectively organize and structure our data so that the largest majority of our visitors can find the content they care about... quickly.

The mantra today is 'everything within two clicks.'  But how realistic is that?

Being the webmaster of a college/university website means that you have to build your structure well enough to accomadate 2-3,000 pages of unique content.  Anyone else sick to their stomach right about now, or is it just me?

The Usual Approach

So the time-honored approach (if I can even say that about a web related issue) is to create a monolithic site structure, trying to divine the most logical, obvious place to place information.  In this scenario you try your best to group like pieces of content while keeping an eye on those generic pieces of content that will show up in multiple locations.

I have a problem with this scenario.  It assumes that every visitor that hits your site thinks like you do... not only would this be bad for the existence of the human race (we don't want lots of people thinking like you... yes you, I am looking right at you who else would it be!  Sheesh) it is impossible.  I am an almost 29 year old web geek, I do not think like a 16 year old Chilean girl; so how could I ever determine where she would think to look for information on our Equestrian Program?

I can't.  So what is one to do?  Should we not create a stable, well thought out site structure?  Yes... yes you should, but I don't think that is where we should stop.

An unconventional approach

So what is an enterprising webmaster to do?  Sure there is always the search engine, but if the page doesn't have the term you are looking for associated with it, then searches are useless.

And that is the core of this really isn't it?  We can't anticipate what term Joe Junior High School will use when searching for information on Dorm Life, so we don't.  We allow Joe to restructure the site as he sees fit.  To associate content on our site with terms and words that make sense to him; and probably a whole lot of other people in his age bracket.

This is the approach that I am going to explore in the CMS we are designing for Asbury.  The generations we are targeting in our next recruitment cycles are the social software generations.  Tagging and Digging is not only something they do, it is something they will expect.  So why not give them the technology that they already use, and allow them --the user-- to help us organize our content?

The plan is to have an 'add a tag' area on each page, with some explanatory text.  Then once we have been running for a month or two collecting data, expose the user inputed 'tags' via heatmaps and the like.

This should also increase the reliability of our searches since we will be searching against the tag info as well, not just our indexed content.

Now a question for you

So the real reason for this missive is to see what you, my lovely readers, have to say on this topic.  Do you think my plan is a good one, or not?  If you are in the not camp I would like to know why as well as any alternatives you might have.

The floor is now officially open.