Wikis, indexing of

I’ve spent a fair bit of time as a book indexer. For a couple of years, I was leader of the Association of Southern African Indexers and Bibliographers in the Western Cape. A few books have my name printed inside the front cover. You might find one on your coffee table.

A BTW: So there are people who create those indexes in the backs of books? Can’t we get computers to do that? Yes, there are professional indexers out there. And no, computers don’t do a good job of it, though indexers do use custom indexing software to speed up the process.

Now I’m writing technical documentation on a wiki.

Indexers like things to be clear cut.

  • They worry about things like this: Is it better to say “books, indexing of” or “books, and indexing” or just plain old “books, indexing”?
  • They are proud that their index includes precisely the correct terms, and that each term points directly and unequivocally to the relevant page(s).

Take a wiki. Content is dynamic and slightly chaotic. You may write a page that is perfect and precise. Next time you look at it, someone has changed it. The other person sees things slightly differently to you, so your nicely defined concepts have morphed a bit. Someone else adds their viewpoint, and the concepts are now definitely squishy (in your own view, anyway).

How can we fit something as precise as an index into something as fluid as a wiki?
What tools does a wiki provide for creating an index?

Enter the ‘fuzzy index’

(Cf. Wikipedia’s definition of fuzzy logic.)

Since wiki content is constantly changing, any index is bound to be slightly less reliable than in a more controlled environment. So why not go with the flow. Instead of concentrating on precision, the wiki index could aim to:
(a) include all wiki content in the index in some form or other, and
(b) help readers to find the information they need, by methods other than the traditional alphabetical and hierarchical index.

Here’s a plan:

  1. Use keywords (metadata, tags, labels – whatever terminology your wiki uses) to indicate the main point(s) of your page.
  2. Encourage other people to add their own keywords too – especially if they change the content of the page.
  3. Use some sort of visualisation technique, based on popularity or relevance of keywords, to help readers find the content which is most relevant to their needs.
  4. Make sure that the wiki’s search engine can include the tags/labels/keywords in its search results.

Here is an example using Confluence‘s labels to form an index. Click the images to expand the screenshots.

Labels (tags, keywords, metadata) applied to a wiki page (near top left):

Labels on a page

All labels, displayed alphabetically, forming a traditional-looking index:

Labels alphabetically listed

Labels ordered by popularity (i.e. number of times the label is applied to a page) – a sort of cloud:

Popular labels

List of pages which have a particular label, displayed when you click a label on one of the above two screens:

Results shown when you click a label

Search results, including labels which match the search term (near top left).

Search includes labels

Of course, if you do need precision and tight control of your content, you can lock down your wiki pages via the permission settings (which just happen to be the topic covered in the above screenshots). This will prevent your concepts going squishy and make your index less fuzzy. It all depends on the purpose and character of your documentation.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 26 August 2007, in Confluence, indexing, technical writing, wiki and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Many books could use twice the effort put into their indexing.

    One of the pluses of reading a document in PDF is the ease of searching. This doesn’t get you the semantic content of a good index (synonyms, concepts) but it does work quite well in practice.

    When you search for a word in (say) Preview you get a list of excerpts with the word highlighted, along with page numbers which make it easy to see where clusters of that word appear in the document — and as it is a PDF jumping from one occurrence to the next is very fast.

  1. Pingback: Wiki docs - technical documentation on a wiki « ffeathers blog

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