Using a tree structure for websites

This page is part of my series on Content creation: the organization and dissemination of knowledge.

A website may be thought of as having a rooted tree structure; we look at this concept more closely here.

Vipul Naik considers two questions

  1. How specific should the individual leaf node pages be? In other words, at the bottommost places of the tree, how much content should be in those pages?

  2. For a particular choice of leaves, how should we trade off the breadth versus depth of the tree? In other words, how many intermediate levels should the tree have?

To understand the two questions better, consider the following pages that might be on a website:

Question (1) asks whether all of these deserve a page: is it better to have a single comprehensive page (at one extreme) or be as modular as possible (at the other extreme)? Between these extremes, we could combine just some pages; for instance, “proof” and “thmtools” could be combined into a “math packages” page.

For question (2), given that each of the above deserve a page, we want to know how to organize the list as a tree. At one extreme, we could just have a “How to use LaTeX” container-page that links to all of the above pages. This would be pushing breadth to the maximum, and would look like the following (any page with brackets around them are container-pages that link to the actual leaves.):

    [       How         to        use        LaTeX       ]
    /      /         /     |     |      \         \      \
proof  thmtools  symbols  Vim  Emacs  Japanese  Spanish  mix

On the other hand, we can have intermediate pages like “Math and LaTeX”, “Editing LaTeX”, and “LaTeX and languages” all under “How to use LaTeX”, and then have the relevant pages linked under the intermediate pages. This has more depth than the first example, and looks like:

            [     How     to    use    LaTeX    ]
            /                |                  \
    [Math and LaTeX]   [Editing LaTeX] [LaTeX and languages]
    /      |       \       |     |       /         |      \
proof  thmtools  symbols  Vim  Emacs  Japanese  Spanish  mix

At the other extreme (i.e. the most depth), we can make a “math packages” container-page that creates a new level and have something like:

                    [How   to   use   LaTeX]
                    /         |            \
     [Math and LaTeX]     [Editing LaTeX]  [LaTeX and languages]
      /           \           |      \         |        |     \
 [Math packages]  symbols    Vim    Emacs   Japanese Spanish mix
  /        \
proof  thmtools

Some points:

See also a comment by Viliam_Bur on LessWrong, talking about the Cognito Mentoring wiki:

Seems to me that your current wiki structure uses too much introductions, too much redirection. For example: On the main page, you have a link to “What we offer and why”. Why not put that into the main page? The page “What we offer and why” contains a link to “Learning portal”; the page “Learning portal” contains a link to “Our category on the benefits of learning particular subjects” (and also directly to math, algebra and economics; this part well-done!), and the page “Category:Subject learning benefits” contains a link to e.g. “Chemistry learning benefits”. And the “Chemistry learning benefits” contains a text “We’re still working on this page, so check back later!” (and a hyperlink to a useful topic). – Uhm, seriously? It takes four clicks to discover the page about to chemistry, only to learn that you have almost nothing about chemistry?

On the other hand, I guess I understand how this all happened. This is a “top down” approach: you create a huge abstract structure where you want to fill the details later. This feels very high-status. But it’s optimized for how you feel about it, not for the convenience of the reader. – I suggest the opposite, “bottom up” approach. You have the valuable pieces of information (for example the external link to quora article about learning chemistry). That’s the value you provide, and you want to navigate the reader there as easily as possible. So you build the navigation pages around the content you already have, not around the content you wish you had.

For example, one external hyperlink is not enough to make a separate page about chemistry. You probably have more such links for other subjects, so it makes sense to create a page “Advice about specific subjects”, divide it to subjects by headers and subheaders, and put the links there. (In future, when you have more than 10 chemistry-related links, or perhaps if you have 5 chemistry-related links but you also provide a short summary below the link, then it’s the right time to create a separate “Advice about Chemistry” page.) And your main page should link directly to the “Advice about specific subjects” page, because that’s one of the main things you provide. There: Just two clicks, and the reader is reading the Quora article. There is the same information there as before, it’s just easier to find.

See also