This document is a supplement to
Editing for Clear Communication
No portion may be reused without the author's permission.
Further Reading: Brian Slesinsky, "Roll Your Own Search Engine," Webmonkey, 23 April 1997
Steve Outing, "Does Your Web Site Need an Index?" Editor and Publisher Interactive, 30 October 1998
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Key Features: FAQs, Site Maps and MoreAs shopping malls have grown in size, it's become increasingly difficult to find specific shops -- and in some cases, even to find where you entered. Fortunately, most malls put up maps that tell shoppers where they are and where everything else is, too.
Big Web sites are like that, too. Corporate and publication sites often run into the hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of pages. For example, just a few months after going on line, the Washington Post's Web site included more than 90,000 pages of material.
Sites even a fraction of that size can become a dizzying maze for visitors. They may never be able to find what they're looking for, may miss key features you want them to visit, and may not know what they should in order to take advantage of the site. The following features can help you ease such visitor confusion -- and increase the odds that they'll come again.
Site Maps: For smaller sites, a Table of Contents -- with a link from each page -- goes a long way toward helping visitors get around. Larger sites with content branching off in many directions are better served by graphical site maps that let readers see the entire site structure at a glance. The clickable graphic map of the Apple Computers Web site is a good example.
Search Engines and Indexes: For complex sites, these tools may prove even more useful than site maps. Site-specific search engines let visitors enter words or phrases, then return a list of the pages on the site that contain those terms. If you've spent any time using search engines on the Web, you already know the downside: You can spend a long time wading through irrelevant documents in your quest for useful information. Indexes avoid that problem by presenting the visitor with a list of topics; the entries point to pages that cover those topics. Indexing is much more useful to users, but indexes also typically require a great deal of time and money to create. Brown University offers an example of a professionally created index.
FAQs: Good site designers try to anticipate questions that visitors might have and offer the answers in a readily available Frequently Asked Questions page. As other questions become common, answers to them should be added to the FAQ list.
User Guides: Sometimes a list of FAQs doesn't go far enough. In those cases, it's the User Guide to the rescue. The Washington Post's User Guide not only offers information about the site itself, but also provides help with Internet access, information on reaching the Post, and even the basics of using a Web browser.
Even individual parts of a site can benefit from having a User Guide. When the Seattle Times put a comprehensive High School Guide online, it offered a User Guide just for that feature, explaining what's in it, how to use it and how to follow up on the information in the feature.
A good Web producer always remembers that at some point every site visitor is a new visitor. Making that first visit as easy as possible will help build a quick and strong relationship.