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section heading icon     navigation and retrieval

This page considers how people are navigating the web and retrieving information.

It covers -

There is a more detailed discussion of search behaviour (along with pointers to academic studies), complemented by notes on search engines, directories and metadata.

subsection heading icon     introduction

Andrew Odlyzko, one of the most perceptive analysts of the 'New Economy', argued in a 2001 paper that "Content is Not King".

Odlyzko's research is highlighted in the intellectual property and electronic publishing guides elsewhere on this site. He argues that although the net is primarily regarded as a content delivery mechanism, connectivity has mattered much more than content and email is still the true 'killer app'.

That primacy of connectivity over content explains the enthusiastic embrace of SMS (Short Message System) and the anaemic state of WAP.

subsection heading icon     the NAS Signposts study

In March 2005 the US National Academies - scientists and engineers - released a major report on Signposts in Cyberspace: the Domain Name System and Internet Navigation. The report had been announced in March 2001 as a two-year study into web searching and the domain name system.

The project was to examine the impact of technological developments and policy changes on the domain name system and other mechanisms used by individuals in finding online resources.

It included exploration of intellectual property concerns, in particular dispute resolution mechanisms and treatment of trademarks. As we've noted in our discussion of ICANN, use of a specific domain name is often disputed: what the NAS describes as

sometimes as an honest conflict among multiple, legitimate claimants; sometimes by cybersquatters seeking to profit in the secondary market for domain names; and sometimes by those who wish to post negative information or parody a like-named organization.

The project encompassed the effect on domain name allocation, addressing and searching of trends such as

  • continuing growth in the number of internet users and sites
  • the growth in embedded computing devices
  • introduction of permanent personal and object identifiers.

The report seeks to identify, describe and evaluate emerging technologies that affect internet searching. Approaches considered include -

  • addition of generic top level domains
  • new name assignment, addressing and indexing schemes
  • new directory structures for locating information or sites of interest
  • improved user interfaces for accessing information.

The study considers the potentially competing interests of domain name owners and intellectual property owners; the different interests of large multinational corporations, small business owners and individuals; and public interests such as freedom of speech and personal privacy.

subsection heading icon     recent academic work

The report is expected to extend more restricted academic studies such as Lara Catledge & James Pitkow's 1995 paper Characterizing browsing strategies in the World Wide Web, Linda Tauscher & Saul Greenberg's 1997 paper on Revisitation Patterns in World Wide Web Navigation, Cockburn & McKenzie's International Journal of Human-Computer Studies paper (PDF) on What Do Web Users Do? An Empirical Analysis of Web Use and Erik Selberg's thesis Towards Comprehensive Web Search.

There are pointers to other studies in the Design and Accessibility guides and in the discussion of search behaviour elsewhere on this site.

subsection heading icon     six clicks of separation?

In July 2001 Albert-Laszlo Barabasi's paper The Physics of the Web suggested that the typical number of links in the chain connecting any two sites is a mere 19, ie the internet version of the famous 'six degrees of separation' connecting most people.

That notion was first proposed by Stanly Milgram and Ithiel de Sola Pool but questioned by Judith Kleinfeld in a 2000 social network study (PDF).
A discussion is here; we have explored personal networks in our consideration of online social spaces and sites such as Friendster.

An exploration of the number of email links between people is underway as part of the US Small World project.

They are placed in context in Bernardo Huberman's crisp The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information (Cambridge: MIT Press 2001) and Six Degrees: The Science of A Connected Age (New York: Norton 2003) by Duncan Watts.

subsection heading icon     theoretical perspectives

For broader questions of information seeking a useful starting point is Elaine Svenonius' The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organisation (Cambridge: MIT Press 2000) and Preferred Placement: Knowledge Politics on the Web (Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Akademie Editions 2000) edited by Richard Rogers.

Research by Chun Wei Choo, Brian Detlor & Don Turnbull may also be of interest. Apart from their Web Work: Information Seeking & Knowledge Work on the World Wide Web (New York: Kluwer 2000) we commend the paper on Information Seeking on the Web, the paper on Information Seeking on the Web - An Integrated Model of Browsing & Searching and their First Monday article 'Information Seeking on the Web - An Integrated Model of Browsing & Searching'.

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© Bruce Arnold
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