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Table of Contents or Index?

What’s more important- The table of contents, or the index?

Your answer most likely depends on the reason you’re reaching for a book to begin with. When you pick up a book, what determines which one you turn to?

The reason I ask is that I just read (vice president of community at Yahoo) Mike Speiser’s comments from the recent Supernova conference regarding Yahoo!’s position in the search community- and it makes a lot of sense. Basically, Yahoo! aims to leverage social networks to make portals relevant again.

How’s that? By being the Web’s table of contents.

(from Znet’s “Between the Lines”) Speiser described search and social networks as dealing with two different problems. Search is more like the index of a book, with keywords with pages references. A social network, like Facebook, is like a table of contents, and more about discovery and easier navigation.

We know who is winning on the search front today, and if Google were to acquire Facebook, we know who would be one of the leading table of contents, at least in terms of user profiles and relationship connections, in this second (Web 2.0) round of the battle.

“We can be a giant table of contents for the Web,” Speiser contended.

I think this makes a world of sense. Google has a strangle-hold on the world of search, so let them keep it. Search essentially relies on an algorithm- something relatively impartial and robotic – that the rise of human powered search engines aims to take advantage of.

Let’s get back to books – What determines where you go first?

If I’m looking to purchase a book on a subject, I go straight to the table of contents. I want to know how the author structured it and what they’re trying to accomplish. Usually I’m already informed on the subject, I just need some more information before I feel confident that my money will be well spent. At this point I want to know if the book and its author fit my personality.

Now, if I’m looking for information on a subject- most likely looking through reference books- and I’m headed straight for their indexes. I’m not unnecessarily looking to buy- I’m going to be more interested in facts.

The difference:

Table of Contents:
Focus – I’m looking for the Big Picture.
Time – I’m looking to spend more time on a few choices.
Objectivity – I’m looking to be influenced.

Index:
Focus – I need Specific Details.
Time – I don’t have time to dwell anywhere particular.
Objectivity – I’m just looking for facts.

What does this say about relevance? If Yahoo! manages to strengthen its position as the Web’s table of contents (either by buying facebook or finding a way to gain some traction with Yahoo360) people may get used to choosing it over Google when they want to be influenced.

For instance, after some Googling about pollution and gas mileage you get enough facts that you decide you want to buy a hybrid car. Now you want to find some opinions- you could spend the next hour getting lost in facts and figures again, or…

You leave the index and head to the table of contents. After a quick skim of the Yahoo!/Facebook hybrid car community you find out which make and model is the most popular/has the least complaints/attracts the most chicks/etc.

In the future, instead of immediately searching for something, you may first end up deciding “do I want to look at the index, or the table of contents?”

Max Speed

If the Pole Position Marketing team had a muse—and it does—it would be Max Speed. We love Max’s occasionally off-color, usually amusing and always pointed “Maxisms.” (Maybe “Maxims” would be a better word.) Max gives voice to some of the things we think but, bound by professional decorum, aren’t permitted to say. At least, not out loud.

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