Nice Web site

A successful online presence requires three things: content, structure and relevance. The first two were covered in previous columns – now we will look at relevance.

The word “relevance” in context of the Web means the ability of a site to present information that satisfies the user’s immediate needs. The key to understanding what makes something relevant lies in recognizing that relevance is never a static, unchanging aspect of the content you provide: some things must change regularly, some must stay the same, and some may fall into both categories, but at different times.

Knowing which information falls into each category – and when – can be tricky, since it relies on sound knowledge of the people who will be using your information. And if you thought only the computer industry changes quickly, you haven’t been paying much attention to the people around you. Nothing is as unpredictable and ever-changing as your users are.

Given this unpredictability and mutability, learning how to cope with those messy human visitors would seem to pose an insurmountable challenge to someone trying to design a continuously relevant site. Fortunately, considering a few examples of each category of information can shed considerable light into the types of information you present and how to keep them relevant.

One of my favourite oxymorons is the constancy of change, and it’s certainly true that some things must change regularly to remain relevant. For investors, stock prices must be updated as instantly as feasible; for politicians and business executives, local and international news must keep up with the rapidly changing world; and for travellers, the weather forecast must be equally up to date. In each case, the content that you provide mimics some aspect of reality, and when that reality changes, the content must change to reflect this.

Some things rarely change: dictionary entries change only slowly to reflect changes in word usage, the physical constants of the universe change only in response to advances in the measurement tools used by physicists and programming language reference manuals remain largely constant even when the languages acquire new features.

Some things require both change and constancy. The same listing of stock prices that changes by the minute must also preserve historical stock prices so that investors can gauge a potential investment’s track record. The same news channel that provides up-to-the-minute election coverage must also preserve articles from throughout the year-long campaign that preceded the election to satisfy historians and those who will dissect the election results based on the history that preceded them. And scientists and farmers need to know both tomorrow’s weather and the weather trends for the past several years or decades so they can predict what will happen next year or even next decade.

Lastly, some things benefit from change, but don’t require it. Entertainment offers a fine example, since most of my generation still have records or even CDs of music that goes back decades, and we keep returning happily to these things to the dismay of our children. That’s been going on for centuries with some classical music. Yet even those who sometimes feel that rock-and-roll died in 1970 still find new bands and new music to keep us going. Similarly, many of us have movies that we rent time and again, even though we still try to maintain a semblance of culture; for me, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was an annual post-exam ritual throughout university and remains an occasional rental, yet this doesn’t stop me from catching the latest and greatest movies, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Confused yet? Don’t be. The key lies in understanding your audience well enough to know which things they want to change, which they want to remain constant, and which they feel would benefit from both. Even when the solutions to meeting those human needs proves to be technological, the needs remain human.

Hart ([email protected]) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.

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