You’ve probably seen a tag or word cloud somewhere; if not, the easiest way to understand what one is might be to head over to Wordle for a second or two. Although it’s such a cool site that I’m likely to lose you entirely.
But if you’re still with me, here’s what OSU’s move has got me thinking about. Searching for information online can be a real challenge, so anything that dependably makes it easier/faster can feel like a godsend. My tolerance for poorly organized websites has gone down over time, I think. If I can’t find what I’m looking for in a few seconds, I often leave in exasperation, and I know I’m not alone.
Google’s answer to the challenge of search was to give some weight in the equation to what other people have found helpful. If you’re looking for the website of the Museum of Modern Art, and don’t particularly care about the millions of sites that talk about the Museum of Modern Art, one thing to look for is how many other sites link to the ones that come up in a general search. Google’s (top-secret) algorithm(s?) enable them to ferret out the website most strongly associated with MOMA, and so that site floats to the top of the search.
For some years now a standard college response to the search challenge is to offer visitors to their sites the chance to identify themselves as belonging to a particular group. (The most common breakdown runs something like “Prospective Students,” “Current Students,” “Alumni,” Parents,” “Staff,” and “Faculty.”)
What OSU is doing is mining its own local data and then reflecting that out to all new viewers of the site. “Hey, glad you’re here! We don’t know anything about you yet, but here’s what some other people visiting our site have checked out today.”
This approach could potentially help a school avoid having to figure out which information is most germaine to which audience (and, as Karine points out, potentially avoids the inevitable “put me on the homepage” battles that go along with a site redesign), but it doesn’t address the quandary of minority interests. (Guidance counselors are unlikely to be a significant enough visiting presence to their site to affect the word cloud on any given day.)
So as cool as word clouds are, I think the tribal self-affiliations are here to stay. Now if only all colleges would remember my small but mighty tribe. 🙂