While many parts of the Internet—including the creation of social networking sites and interactive communities—have embraced Web 2.0 capabilities and beyond, the management and usability of online information has not kept apace. As a result, many intranet and internet users are still struggling to find useful and relevant information, leading to frustrated staff and disgruntled customers.

Stuck in the dark ages

Web 1.0 was the first time that the concept of the Internet was embraced on a large scale by consumers, and compared to today, it was very basic. Sites were mainly text based, the content was predominantly static, and didn’t encourage interactivity with users. The information available tended to be presented in a hierarchical, list-like way, with search technology being designed around this.

The Internet has moved on a lot. As any current user knows, sites are much more interactive, encouraging users to engage in a conversation with the Web site, and present much more than just text—pictures and video are standard for any site. Content is also no longer static—sites are constantly updating as other users add content and information is gathered from other sites. This trend is also mirrored on corporate intranet sites, making it easier for employees to collaborate and share knowledge.

Despite this huge shift in the type and volume of content available online, many intranet and Internet sites are still missing a trick and have yet to update their search technology to enhance the user experience and improve the way content is presented. Current search technology is fine for search engines cataloguing the internet, such as Google.

However, when this technology is applied to a single Web site, it doesn’t work as well because there is less content for it to use. As a result, the search terms entered by a user are required to be far more precise in order for them to find what they are looking for, which makes the search process much less intuitive than it should be and while this may sound trivial, it can have serious effects on the sales and efficiency of a business.

On corporate intranet pages for example, ineffective search technology can result in staff wasting time trying to look for information. Indeed, studies have shown that this can be up to an hour a day, which quickly adds up over weeks, months and years.

For customer-facing sites, a lack of intuitive search and navigation capabilities can make visitors frustrated if they are unable to find what they want, and they may end up leaving the site. It is also common that when a customer does find what they are looking for, additional revenues are lost if the search results don’t display accessories that are available for the product being searched for, for example. In the current economic climate, any lost revenue is a disaster.

Light at the end of the tunnel

There is however, a light on the horizon which is threatening to bring the concepts of search and navigation kicking and screaming into Web 3.0. Current developments in search and navigation are based on semantic Web technologies such as Topic Maps, an ISO standard for the management of knowledge.

The concept underpinning Topic Maps is that Web site searching can become a much more natural process by organising web site data according to a subject-centred, classification-based approach that makes it possible for users to find and navigate between both content and the key concepts that define the business or services offered.

This is achieved by identifying the concepts that are important to what a business does, and linking them to each other and to the related content on the business’ intranet or the Web. In practice, this means that users can search for concepts and ideas, and the search results can be filtered and organised to be presented in a much more logical manner. Search results can include related concepts, not just those containing the key words used in the search.

For example, if an employee was searching the corporate intranet for information on a new product launch, they might try a search on the product name and the word ‘launch’. Such a search would present them with a list of links to documents containing both relevant and irrelevant information. A Topic Map-based search would be able to display related information such as the key contacts for the event as well as the related documents and links—information that is far more likely to help the user searching the intranet.

Taking the plunge

Despite the obvious benefits, these advanced search and navigation solutions have yet to be widely adopted by information professionals (with many considering them to be for large corporates or costly to upgrade). However, taking advantage of new techniques needn’t mean a complete overhaul of existing content management systems and can be bought as add-ons to provide an enhanced solution.

With concept-based search technologies yet to be widely embraced, it also provides a chance for companies to differentiate themselves from the competition as well as making their Web sites much more user friendly which should lead to additional sales and improved efficiency.