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Information Wants to be Found

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A modern paradox: As information becomes more abundant and easier to access, it's often more difficult to find what we're really looking for. That needn't be the case, writes respected information architecture guru Peter Morville in a new book.

Those of us who spend a lot of time in the search space tend to focus on our own needs, without giving much thought to other players and what's important to them. For example, people who spend a lot of time searching tend to focus on learning the ins-and-outs of their favorite information finding tools, rarely considering that their search results are influenced heavily by search engine marketers.

Similarly, search marketers tend to be so obsessed with optimization techniques or methods for improving conversion rates or other metrics that they lose sight of the actual people who are interacting with their web sites—the forest is important, not the individual trees.

I see this constantly as I move between the worlds of information professionals and search marketers. This lack of awareness bordering on ignorance is unfortunate, for both camps. Searchers become much better consumers of information when they understand at least the rudiments of search marketing. And search marketers get better results when they move past mechanics to truly reach out and satisfy the needs of search engine users.

That's the underlying theme of Peter Morville's new book, Ambient Findability. Morville has been involved with search even before the web, developing the concepts of information architecture that have been influential in shaping how we interact in the online world.

Ambient Findability is ostensibly a book about how both information consumers and providers can improve the online experience. But there's more to it than that. Ambient Findability is really an intellectual romp through a wide range of ideas, history and concepts all related to information: How we find it, interact with it and consume it. As the subtitle suggests, "What we find changes who we become."

The book is very much in the tradition of Edward Tufte, analyzing large, complex ideas with the goal of simplifying without trivializing. Morville tackles the concept of wayfinding and how it's a crucial activity that we all rely on, sometimes with life and death consequences.

Morville looks at how wayfinding strategies developed in the offline world, and how they've evolved in the online world. Unsurprisingly, he finds many problems, but also proposes many approaches for potentially solving those problems.

It's refreshing to see topics like search engine optimization and web site usability viewed through this broader lens. While the book does offer a number of concrete tips and suggestions, Morville tends to lob them like grenades, blowing up conventional wisdom and then effortlessly moving on to his next subject. Blink and you might miss these gems. This is definitely not your conventional how-to book.

But it's also rare to find a book that makes the internecine squabbling about various metadata standards downright fascinating. Morville's musings on the future, including the emerging semantic web and whether it will be salvation or a massive failure, are also a great read.

Ambient Findability is unlike most of the books that I've reviewed, which tend to focus on practical tips and techniques for search marketers and information professionals. It's a book about ideas and concepts, a well-reasoned plea to all of us who work and play with information to think harder about what we do.

Ambient Findability won't appeal to everyone, but if you enjoy watching a skilled information architect play with ideas and support his musings with some great illustrations and numerous quotes from a wide range of experts, it's an excellent read.

Ambient Findability
Peter Morville
O'Reilly, $29.95
ISBN: 0-596-00765-5

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