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Dec 07, 2009: A Union Index?

I've been kicking around an odd idea ever since starting Rosenfeld Media—the idea of a union index, a compilation of all of our books' indices. Now that we've actually got a few books out (#6 is due in about six weeks), it's time to revisit the idea and consider the indices' collective potential.

Want to help me figure it out?

First, imagine a single, combined index—possibly a single page—that'd reference whichever books where an index entry occurred. Then picture the ability to filter that index by individual title. Now we're ready for some questions:

Does it make sense to put an individual book index on the web? Each Rosenfeld Media book has its own web site, and we already make each book's tables of contents, FAQs, and other materials available. Would there be additional utility in viewing a book's index? Coming from a background in librarianship, I know that there are a few index fetishists among us who might judge a book by its index (a character in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle goes further, judging the indexer's personality). I imagine one might indeed get a sense of a book's scope, but unless there is a link to a webified (and, likely, free) version of the book, there'd be no navigational value. (Given that we're a for-profit, we'd likely link to a way to quickly purchase the relevant title.)

Does it make sense to put a collective index of many books on the web? If the term "remote testing" or "Axure" occurred in multiple books, that might be an interesting factoid. Even more interesting—a report of the most frequently-occurring terms (hmmm, this is starting to sound suspiciously like site search analytics). Of course, a union index would say something about the collective scope of Rosenfeld Media books, but I'm not sure who—aside from me—would find that useful. So the jury's still out.

Does it make sense to create individual pages for each index term? On the surface, this may seem like the least useful idea yet. But what if each page could provide these things for an index term:

  • Link to a glossary definition (if available).
  • Retrieve the term's results from Google (duh).
  • Retrieve the term's results from UX Zeitgeist (yes, we're still working on it, and it's going to improve radically).

That's still likely not much value to users. But to Rosenfeld Media? Could be quite promising:

  • If we SEO these pages reasonably well, the more specific terms might bring in a decent amount of essentially free traffic. (After all, who else is going to do this?)
  • We can promote our own books on those pages.
  • We can insert some Google advertisements on those pages, which, while not bringing in retirement money, might fund some future Rosenfeld Media holiday party.

This is my first pass at fleshing the idea out, and frankly, my own reaction is lukewarm. Then again, these pages wouldn't be hard to create, nor would they get in the way of other, more critical aspects of the rosenfeldmedia.com user experience. So I'm tempted to go for it.

Still, it seems like I'm missing something. Any suggestions? Good ideas are always worth a free book, according to this publisher.

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Comment: Stephan Wehner (Dec 7, 2009)

Looks like a good, and interesting idea. Should be easy to try out, or not?


Comment: Crispin (Dec 7, 2009)

A multi-book index would certainly prove useful for those of us who have more than one Rosenfeld book! Especially if we were wandering through our UX collection searching to compare and contrast info on a specific topic. Can you just index my entire library for me, that would be even better? ;)

Comment: Scott Rippon (Dec 7, 2009)

Sounds like an interesting idea. You've probably already considered this but what if the different terms in the combined index pointed to a couple of pages (or a short section) from the book in question. Kinda like Google Book search does.

I know if I was able to find an answer to a question I had I'd be very tempted to click the big obligatory [Buy now] button that would also appear on the page :D


Comment: Andy Breeding (Dec 8, 2009)

If the marginal effort is small, adding a book index to the web may be justified, even if only a small number of people use it. Analytics could help you quantify this benefit (so long as _that_ didn't take too much time).

One thought: I like the idea of connecting the index to a broader body of literature. For example, I like the "statistically improbable phrases" that Amazon provides, which lets you find other authors and books that have used that phrase. But again, I might be an outlier.

Comment: Maish Nichani (Dec 8, 2009)

I agree with Crispin. I regularly find myself browsing through the different RM books looking for particular concepts.

Would be great if the index is search-able with auto-suggest. But then we are looking at thesaurusification costs which then may warrant heavy usage.

So first let's get the basic index up!

Comment: Andre Hagenbruch (Dec 8, 2009)

Why not make the books' metadata part of the Linked Data cloud and make the subjects in the index reference e.g. dbpedia topics. This would open up a wide range of possibilities for subsequent use of your data...

Comment: Peter (Dec 8, 2009)

I think it's an AWESOME idea! And it also positions you as "reinventing books", which is a (small perhaps) part of what you're trying to do I believe. You should totally do it.

1. Every book should have, in its index, references to other books. Awesome idea.

2. Yes, a combined index should be online. Again, awesome.

As for the questions: individual book index has some value, but combined index has much more value. And individual pages for each term: some value, yes. If you construct it well, you can get all these with the same amount of work. The index should be able to generate interesting tidbits like "concepts ordered by the amount of books they're used in", etc... I'd start with a simple db scheme, import all the indexes and publish with a few simple views on that data and a simple api (just expose via rss or something).

Anyway, yes, like the idea. I'd be browsing it, and it'd be quite linkable.

Comment: Jan Wright (Dec 8, 2009)

I like the idea of both the book's own index being available, AND a search across all the books for specific terms. But the frustration for the people who do not have the book is this: just because it is in the index, does the book have enough about this topic to buy the book? I think you might increase sales by having a small pop-up of content when you hover over or click the index entry, displaying a sentence in context. Not more than that, since you don't want to give away everything, but enough to let the reader know that this is really covered, and that they want to read the next sentence.

Comment: Pilar Wyman (Dec 8, 2009)

What she said. That is, combined indexes could give you lots of benefits, including an overview of what material has been covered across titles, as well as potential to increase sales -- both for those who think they know what's in your titles as well as for those who might be pleasantly surprised to see what else is in your titles. Either way, it's a great service to your readers to provide both individual and combined or cumulative indexes.

Comment: Colleen (Dec 8, 2009)

Legal material utilizes this idea already. It's not uncommon for, say, a statute to be indexed, and then the entries for that statutory index to be compiled with entries for the entire statutory code.

Comment: ranti (Dec 8, 2009)

I think this is a great idea. For some reason, O'Reilly Safari book online site come to my mind when I read your post about this combined index. Basically, it shows you which books that has the term you're looking for and the relevant pages/paragraphs within them.

Comment: Lou Rosenfeld (Dec 10, 2009)

Thanks all!

My take-away is that this would be a GREAT idea if index entries could, when clicked, at least bring up a snippet of actual text from the book.

This, however, would be a lot harder (and more expensive) to pull of technically. I'm honestly not sure it's feasible.

If that's the case, I'm wondering if you'd still find such an approach to providing access to the indices at all useful...

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