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Are WebHelp Indexes Obsolete? Both Sides of the Issue

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 Traditional Use of Indexes

Leora Betesh, Suite Solutions

Have you ever rented a car, and then found yourself searching the car manual for instructions on, say, how to release the hood? You probably went straight to the car manual’s index, rather than reading through the table of contents.

Have you ever searched a cookbook for a carrot soup recipe? If so, did you look through soup section of the table of contents, or did you jump to the index in the back? If you turned to the entry for “carrot”, the index might have directed you to the entry for “soup.”

Why did you use the index rather than the table of contents? Because the table of contents is there to give a sequential overview of the topics in the book, whereas the index directs you to topics related to a specific subject you need. The index is the quickest and easiest way to find specific information. So everyone agrees that printed material can’t do without indexes.

However, many documentation teams ask whether indexes in non-printed materials still have value. Keep reading to get each side of the debate.

Why Indexes are Still Useful in WebHelp

Reasons for keeping indexes include:

1. Precision

Indexes allow for more fine-tuned retrieval, with possible sub-index entries, and “see also” entries. Sometimes a user might even browse the index and then happen upon the appropriate term.

2. Author Knows Best

A human can more accurately determine which terms are related to the topic than the best search algorithm would be able to. Although search algorithms are improving every day, and now include fuzzy search, synonym search, and even spelling-mistake search (gotta love that one!), they still cannot compete with the author who knows exactly which terms are relevant to the topic at hand.

3. Index Terms Are Already There

Assuming that the content is single-sourced to both printed and virtual documentation formats, someone has already gone to the trouble to index each topic. Why shouldn’t that effort be leveraged elsewhere? Adding the index seems to be a “no-brainer”.

4. WebHelp Convention

Users have come to expect the index, along with TOC and Search. Removing the index would be doing away with an anticipated point of navigation.

Why Indexes in WebHelp are Nearly Obsolete

 Reasons for deprecating indexes include:

1. Search Does It All

Search and context sensitivity allow you to find any topic by keyword, so that the advantage of looking through the index is marginal.

2. Nobody Uses the Index

It is widely known that most users go straight to search without ever glancing at the index. In any case, index terms that were added to the topics can be used by search engines to give weight to the search results, removing the need for a separate index.

3. Real Estate

The index adds clutter to an already full screen, which is especially problematic as screens keep getting smaller and users have less and less patience for distractions on the screen.

4. CJK Sorting

Sorting in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean is quite complex for reasons which are beyond the scope of this article. Antenna House has an index sorting module available for these languages published to PDF, but no such code exists at this time for WebHelp. The only solution at this time is to have the index entries manually sorted by the translation vendor. Is it worth the high cost of sorting these terms if no one uses the index anyway? Or should the localized index terms be haphazardly incorporated to populate the index?

The Bottom-Line Question

Is the fact that users are accustomed to the presence of an index enough of a reason to keep it? And in the final analysis, it is the user who determines how useful or necessary an index is.

What are your thoughts on the value of indexes in WebHelp? Has your team debated this issue? If so, what were your conclusions? Let us know in comments section below.

6 thoughts on “Are WebHelp Indexes Obsolete? Both Sides of the Issue

  1. I never use an index when I can use search. If search is not available, I’ll use an index. Some indexes and search are so bad (think a certain popular Word processor) that I’ll be forced to use the ToC.
    Nice article and timely for tech writers.

  2. Index markers provide “aboutness” that can be used for classifying topics, building taxonomies, providing related links, boosting search rank and providing synonyms for search terms. Indexes can help authors review coverage and terminology. You might want to build more than one index (DITA is lacking compared to DocBook in this respect.)

  3. “Nobody uses the index”? This simply isn’t true. I use indexes all the time. When using an online help system, I try the index first, and then the TOC. Search is my last resort. I grant that this might reflect my generation, but I believe more is involved.

    A well-written index is a very useful tool, but I’ve seen younger writers use their word processor’s “indexing” function, and assume that they’ve produced an index, when in fact they have produced a concordance. What’s the difference? A concordance is a full or partial alphabetical list of the WORDS in a text, citing where the words are USED. An index is an alphabetical list of the CONCEPTS in a text, citing where the concepts are DISCUSSED.

    If you use search (or a concordance) to find “house” in a text, you won’t find occurrences of “residence” or “home.” (A good search tool, might return “houses” or “housing.”) But in a well-written index, discussions of all these words and more are cited under the most common headword, and all the other headwords (even ones not used in the text) have cross-references to it.

    Furthermore, search (or a concordance) returns incidental references to the search term, requiring the reader to weed through them to find the useful ones. A well-written index cites only the significant references to the concept, reducing the time and effort required to get to the needed information.

    Finally, for larger concepts, the index entry is analyzed into subtopics, so the reader can use a mini outline of the concept to quickly home in on his targeted information.

  4. Thanks for the clarification Earl, and to everyone for the input. I was thinking that search engines include index terms associated with the topics to allow for searching of concepts together with text search, so that Index is just another form of searching. But you are bringing up some good points about the advantages of maintaining a separate skillfully-written index.

  5. I consider search and indexes as complementary for retrieval. We often ask if the navigation TOC is important now that we have decent search, but I’ve seen users search and then go to the TOC. Similarly, users sometimes use an index with search.

    An Internet search engine can use index terms to return results. But in local help search the order of topics determines which content is found; the index, because it’s authored, helps you find which of dozens of topics that use a term might help you most.

    In my dream world, you’d be able to use the relevant part of an index with search, maybe as a pop-up. The UI would have an attractive button for the index, in context. And even from the product UI, you could pull up the relevant part of the index.

  6. I’d go so far to say that (offline) Webhelp is dead. Most users are now used to searching; they’ll search your help system once, if you’re lucky, and if they don’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll go right to Google, where you and your company have zero control over the results and the content.

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