Web searchers need editors to make stories accessible--"Editors have to think about how articles are used interactively, not how it's going to look on paper or on screen." >BY Steven\\\E. Brier.
I'm searching, I'm searching, I'm searching.
That trip was fun -- getting sidetracked on Dauphin Island, looking at the Civil War fort at the mouth of Mobile Bay, stopping along Gulf Shores or at the Florabama. Though the trip was fun, the destination was a hotel on Pensacola Beach, a little fact that was hard to keep in mind what with all the interesting things to do along the way.
It's a lot like that when cruising the Web for information, especially when dealing with newspapers, or -- worse yet -- using search engines to find up-to-date news stories on the Web. What starts out as a simple trip for a news story turns into a collection of side trips that are quite interesting and have absolutely nothing to do with whatever reason a reader hit the Web in the first place.
Tomorrow morning, try reading your newspaper on-line. It's hard. Sure, those side trips are fun, just like stopping off at the Florabama for lunch or looking for Kenny Stabler along the way, but you don't get to your destination.
Why? Well, most newspaper sites are poorly organized. Things that are oh, so easy, to find in print are quite hard to find on the web version.
Now, for a real challenge, try to find news stories using a search engine. Many newspapers don't have a decent one of their own to speak of, and the major engines don't do a good job of indexing newspapers. Of course, the major engines don't do a good job of searching anything, given that they hit only a very small percentage of the Web. But they are a good place to start.
As Jakob Nielsen, web usability guru and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, puts it, "What is the alternative?"
Nielsen says users need to start somewhere when they look for things on the Web. "Users want to find things and don't know where everything is," he says. "We need better search engines."
Most people using the Web now use search engines when they start their browser, Nielsen says. It wasn't like that in the early days, when trading links was how people found sites. But Yahoo, Lycos and Excite changed that. Nielsen says readers on the Web now fall into three groups: Those who search, the largest group; those who use links, the smallest group, and a middle group which uses a combination of the two.
Although somewhat despairing of the current state of search engines, Nielsen holds out some hope for the future.
Newer search engines are doing a better job of locating and indexing stories. Other technologies allow encoding of information that can be searched -- and tuned -- to provide more accurate results.
"Any web site should have a search engine," Nielsen says, "particularly for newspapers because they have so much rich additional material beyond what's on the front page."
Newspapers with an archive should have a date field that can be searched, Nielsen says, "because for newspapers, everything is the date. I know it's in the news today, or it was in the news last week, and that helps me find it. These can be spidered regularly to list new and remove old items."
Spidering, or indexing of web sites, can be blocked by a site for several reasons. But blocking spiders means that the articles on that site won't be listed in search engines.
Also important, whether for a newspaper's own search engine or a general interest search engine, is writing headlines and a synopsis. Yes, this requires additional time and staff, and isn't something that can be handled by shovelware, but it will improve the results.
"Traditional search engines were focused on scientific papers. They were all the same length, same quality, same style. If you look at news stories," Nielsen says, "they range from tiny little snippets to huge, in-depth articles."
The job of editorial in the future, Nielsen says, is to encode that extra information, those differences, so all content can be searched and cataloged for use in this new world. "Editors have to think about how articles are used interactively, not how it's going to look on paper or on screen," he says.
Much like heading to Pensacola, looking for things on the Web leads down some interesting byways. But miss the Dauphin Island ferry, or linger in the Florabama lounge, and your hotel room will be rented out before you get there and your original plans will be down the tube.
"You have to put yourself in the mind of the user and define what they are trying to do," Nielsen says. "And then you have to fulfill that desire."
I'm searching, I'm searching, I'm searching.