Web Navigation: Here are the Links, Never Mind the Hierarchy

Web Navigation: Here are the Links, Never Mind the Hierarchy by David Whelan I have had taxonomy on the brain as our organization moves toward its first content management system (not an FTP utility parading as a Web CMS). While I have used Plone for nearly 10 years, it has some significant limitations in applying a formal taxonomy that reflects hierarchy. My one attempt at using a tree-based category product was short-lived since it reverted the default Plone 3 template to something unwieldy. But I was struck by something Clay Shirky wrote in 2005 that said, in essence, if you’ve got enough links, you don’t need the hierarchy. Web Navigation:  Here are the Links, Never Mind the Hierarchy

Folder Tree by Danilo Rizzuti – Freedigitalphotos.net – www.danilorizzuti.it

The full quote is from Ontology is Overrated:  Categories, Links, and Tags, and I got to it from a link on David Weinberger’s blog:

They missed the end of this progression, which is that, if you’ve got enough links, you don’t need the hierarchy anymore. There is no shelf. There is no file system. The links alone are enough.

Part of my problem is that I get hung up on the issue of using a taxonomy for navigation purposes.  I can see how that works in a commercial environment.  Your product lines can be segmented in a way that enable navigation.  But what about when you are dealing with information that doesn’t follow a product model?  David Weinberger talks about smart leaves in his book, Everything is Miscellaneous.  If you have scattered the leaves of your Web site and created enough links using both a taxonomy and additional tagging and metadata, does the navigation take care of itself?

It’s not that you shouldn’t have a base navigation to get the visitor started. But if you use a taxonomy for navigation, and are dealing with largely disconnected content – papers on a variety of topics, by a number of authors – it seems like the most likely taxonomy for that sort of environment will reflect organizational silos.  Which is one of the big problems with navigation in the non-profit and academic Web sites I’ve worked on and visited, when you tell your visitors how to use your site based on your org chart.

One thing I like about Plone is that I can place as many categories (labels, tags, whatever) on my content and it’s accessible by search or by browse.  Most people visiting my site (and maybe most sites) come from a Web search engine and drop in the midst of whatever nonsense I happen to have written on a given day.  Although there is a navigation portlet, it seems a waste of time.  If you are looking at a piece of content on this site, it’s not necessarily related to anything else on the site.  To the extent it is, the categories at the bottom will connect you to those and, if you don’t trust my ability to mark up the content, you can always use the search.

Which is not to say my site is a model of navigation and usability.  But my inability to come up with useful tabs probably doesn’t inhibit a visitors ability to find stuff.  There are enough links, and could be more if I had the ability to add some folksonomy capabilities.  So now I have to figure out if that really does mean, in a more sophisticated site, you can lose some or all of the hierarchy!

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David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.