Before Google, search engine builders thought that the way to organize the Internet was like an index, or, to use the term that was popular at the time, a directory — A giant list of every link on the Internet. Librarians saw a place on this wave also, as Steve Coffman wrote recently:

Remember those heady early days when we thought we were going to catalog the web? …  Almost every library felt the responsibility to stuff its website with long and often elaborately annotated lists of web resources for just about everything.

As Matthew Reidsma says, the list-making urge is still much in evidence on library websites:

Libraries love links so much that most [library websites] look like spam link farms, designed to trick Google. Every other successful website on the planet gave that up in the late ’90s, but not libraries. We librarians like to see a big list of resources because it makes us seem more relevant.

As Reidsma has discussed in other works, the problem with the prevalence of link lists on library websites is that users ignore them, and don’t find the really important things on the website … or they just go to Google.

Why do users find library lists so unappealing? Neither of the commentators quoted above, nor anyone else that I’ve seen, has written about it, but the obvious answer, I think, may be … Alphabetical Order — Invariably lists of links on library sites are alphabetical — In the days of PageRank, how boring!

The “I’m Feeling Lucky” PageRank Revolution

Before Google, the only rational way to organize a long list of links on the same subject was alphabetical order. It’s almost hard to imagine back to those days, and to realize what a revolution Google’s PageRank was. It seemed like magic that Google gave us automatic lists of links, with the best ones at the top of the list. James Gleick wrote about this recently, in a retrospective look at the Age of Google [boldface added]:

PageRank is one of those ideas that seem obvious after the fact. But the business of Internet search, young as it was, had fallen into some rigid orthodoxies. … People naturally thought of existing technologies for organizing the world’s information, and these were found in encyclopedias and dictionaries. They could see that alphabetical order was about to become less important, but they were slow to appreciate how dynamic and ungraspable their target, the Internet, really was.

With this great new invention of PageRank, people soon came to assume that any list of resources worth looking at would, of course, have the best links at the top of the list. If they encountered an alphabetical list, their eyes would glass over. So, with most long link-lists on library sites being in alphabetic order, is it any wonder that they’re not very popular with users?

So what can libraries do? As Reidsma has been saying recently, we need to look at our websites like our users do, and change them to fit users’ needs — He says from his work with users surveys that this means greatly simplifying library websites. Link lists should be short, with someone’s idea of the “best” links at the top. As I’ve learned with my work on Hardin MD, no matter how long the list of links is, only the top 2-3 will get many clicks.

The emphasis on simplifying our websites, of course, fits very well with the mobile revolution. The small screens of mobile devices beg for small, simple web pages, and trimming our lists is a great place to start.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

2 thoughts on “Google Dethrones the Alphabetical List

  1. Don’t know why users find it unappealing but I can guess why it is so popular on websites.

    From experience one of the reasons why librarians or other people like to order options alphabetically is because it avoids political arguments on who to put on top. Once someone starts to argue positioning based on importance it will open a can of worms. Usage data would be nice but often unavailable, so will be based on gut feel, which is obviously going to be messy.

    So many just take the safe way out as Alphabetical lists are more defensible….

  2. Aaron, That’s a good point that I hadn’t thought of — No doubt politics is an important part of why alpha lists are popular. As a matter of fact, Matthew Reidsma’s discussion of the role of politics in making library websites fits in well with your observation.

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