An obligatory Yahoo! rant
God, how I hate it.
It's not just because it has a goofy name, or the cutesy exclamation point for that matter. It's not because the stock keeps going up up up. And no, it's not because I refused to invest in it when I could actually afford to purchase a share.
No, what really ticks me off is that somehow it still...exists.
I just don't get it. Think about it: If I came to you and said "Give me all your spare cash; I'm going to manually classify the entire Internet! I'll call it Louhoo!," you'd box my ears and send them away. But classifying the whole Web is exactly what Yahoo!, at least initially, has tried to do.
Let's assume you are Bill G., and you decided to fork over a few million for my tomfoolery because it would be cheaper than spending your time picking up the phone and calling Microsoft security to have them escort me from your office. Even then, you might wonder still how on earth the Louhoo! tree wasn't going to get too big to be navigated. Or too heterogeneous to search. Well, believe me, it will; it's just a matter of when. Personally, I've been waiting for this to happen since 1995.
How come? Because Yahoo! simply can't scale over time. It can't and it won't. The Web changes too quickly for them to keep up the hierarchy. The hierarchy covers too broad a spectrum of topics to do a good job of supporting user searching and browsing. It's too expensive to hire a zillion librarians to manually classify all that stuff. And automated classification tools just won't succeed in such a dynamic, heterogeneous environment.
OK, I'll admit that I'm just a crackpot with an axe to grind, but even Jakob Nielsen agrees that Yahoo! faces some big problems. And I'm guessing that the folks at Yahoo! already know this, as they've completely diversified themselves over the past two years far beyond the original directory (hey, even they refer to themselves as a "media company"). So, sorry, Yahoo! fans, at some point, you're going to have to kiss your favorite directory goodbye...
The Yahoo!-ization of the Corporate Intranet
...and say hello to its babies. They are the corporate intranets, for which Yahoo!-like subject classification schemes increasingly are applied in hierarchy form to knit together the distributed islands of information that make up corporate intranets: Departmental sub-sites, Web-enabled applications such as staff directories, and other HTML-ized corporate detritus.
It's an interesting trend: The Stone Age of corporate intranets is winding down: Sites will no longer employ the "org chart" as their main means for organizing content. Instead, the new approach uses subject hierarchies based on the Yahoo! metaphor; these hierarchies allow employees to find the information they need by topic, not according to which department owns it. This trend is borne out by the proliferation of new software products that are designed to support the "corporate Yahoo" approach (Perspecta, Plumtree, and GrapeVine, to name a few), not to mention the coining of a new Nielsenism, the "mini-Yahoo". Even our company is profiting from this trend, as our gigs increasingly involve Yahoo!-izing corporate intranets.
(Hey, thanks Yahoo!! Guess I'm shouldn't have said all those bad things about you!)
This trend is a Good Thing, because it means that corporate decision makers are finally realizing that their investments in intranets are completely flushed down the toilet if their employees can't find what they're looking for in those intranet environments. And a navigable tree is definitely an improvement over what was in place before which, practically speaking, was nothing at all.
Be Like Jerry and David
So if you're trying to become the Jerry Filo or David Yang of your company's intranet, congratulations: You're headed in the right direction. But be cautious as well. Because if you're setting up a corporate Yahoo!, then you need to know something about the significant effort that will be required. Here are four issues you'd better be prepared to tackle:
1. The Content
If you're creating a subject hierarchy for your corporate intranet, what do the nodes in the hierarchy lead to? Do they link directly to content? Or to records that describe the content, much like cards in a card catalog? In either case, what is the appropriate level of specificity or granularity to link to? Do records correspond to departmental sub-sites? Or to major content areas within those sites? Or to even more finely grained bits of content? The answers require some heavy-duty bottom-up architecture planning.
2. The Thesaurus
In this context, a thesaurus is a subject classification scheme that provides the predetermined terms that will populate your site's hierarchy, and describes how these terms are related to each other. Why predetermined terms? It's important to use a standard set of terms because users will want to find relevant content in one place (e.g., "Employee Investing") rather than in multiple locations (e.g., "Employee Investing", "401Ks and Pensions", "Human Resources", "HRD", and "Touchy-Feely Stuff") in the hierarchy.
Your site's thesaurus needs to come from somewhere. You may use an existing thesaurus as your source of terms, or even as a model to customize. But pray that the subject area your site covers has a corresponding thesaurus. You might also build a thesaurus from scratch. Both propositions require intellectual effort, and are, to say the least, costly.
Just as a thesaurus is expensive to build, it's also expensive to maintain. A successful thesaurus matches the users' information needs with content, and as we know, users' needs and content are pretty danged dynamic. And the thesaurus must keep up with both.
Finally, who will apply the appropriate terms from a thesaurus to the intranet's content? The classification process is tricky and requires some centralization. It's better to make it the responsibility of an individual or small committee of "big picture" people who know something about the thesaurus, its users, the content, and the corporation as a whole. This centralization ensures that terms get applied consistently and don't reflect the narrow bias of one group of content owners. But is your company ready to support some centralized maintenance? For political, cultural, and budgetary reasons, many companies are not.
3. Navigational Alternatives
Having a subject tree to navigate is great if you're in a browsing frame of mind and you're not entirely sure what you're looking for. But what if you're not? Let's say you know exactly what you want, but simply need to find it in the corporate intranet? Consider providing some alternatives to browsing the hierarchy, such as a search interface and a site index. Remember, even Yahoo! allows users to enter search queries.
4. Organizational Politics
Before you try Yahoo!-izing your corporate intranet, realize that you are about to create a logical, unified interface for your whole company. This probably hasn't been done before. It means you will need to get all sorts of players to the table, many of whom have never worked together, some of whom refuse to, and all of whom believe that their content is the most important thing in the world. Your job is to get them to agree to an approach that goes beyond their own turf wars. My advice: Find a group of angry cats and start herding them now; it's the best practice you can get, and you'll need it.
Thanks to the many of you who contacted me about my last column, Is Less Really More?". My apologies for not responding to each of you individually; there were just too many. A couple of you pointed out a glitch: The cartoon picturing George Washington is indeed misleading. If you read Scott McCloud's book (which you should), the source of the original cartoon, you'll see that a generic human face is used. When viewing the iconic version of the face, you ideally would realize that a human face was being represented, not necessarily that of the first U.S. president. Our mistake; thanks for pointing it out. And please keep those comments coming: firstname.lastname@example.org.