Is a bad index better than no index?

Subject: Is a bad index better than no index?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 23 May 2001 09:20:54 -0400

David Castro wonders: <<... is it better to create an index that isn't great
(due to my lack of an indexer's skill), or to leave the document without

Any help is better than none, and there's a big difference between a bad
index (unusable or actively harmful) and one that's just not a shining
example of the craft. I'm not a professional indexer either, yet having done
a reasonable bit of reading on the subject and practiced with a few simple
indexes, I've found that I can nonetheless create a useful and
semiprofessional index that helps my readers. I'll bet you're in the same

<<We distribute the documentation in PDF format, which means that our users
can search on a particular word or phrase, so they *do* have that option if
we don't create an index. (Not that I'm claiming full text search is
equivalent to an index...I know it isn't.)>>

As you note, full-text search is no substitute for a good index. Not even
close, and it never will be until it includes synonym searches, stemming,
and so on by default. Because it's easy to produce documentation that uses
perfectly logical language that simply isn't the language the user thinks of
first when they search, you need the ability to seek synonyms. That's an
index. Ditto for any search involving related concepts.

<<I find myself doing little more than what an automatic indexing tool would
probably do...indexing certain key words (application module names,
application features, and so on) that users could easily search on if they
really wanted to find out what was written about them.>>

There's nothing wrong with using that as a _starting point_ for an index.
The trick is to go one step further than the initial keyword and apply some
creative thinking to the resulting key words. Start by creating at least one
synonym for each keyword. Then figure out what you'd do with each keyword
when you use the software: if the keyword is "documents", you might print
them, save them, copy them, edit them, e-mail them, etc. Continue by
referring to related concepts under major index entries (e.g., recovering
deleted documents). Make sure you're using both the keyword (e.g., indexing)
and some obviously related concepts (e.g., indexing = helping users find
topics). Think of this from the perspective of what the user is thinking: "I
need to find help on how to ___. What words would I use to look for that
topic?" Read any of several good books on indexing, or take a shortcut and
read the chapters in the Chicago Manual of Style or Read Me First (Sun's
style guide), for a quick primer on how to do this. Send techwr-l questions
about the fine points of indexing (e.g., run-in entries vs. subheadings,
verbs vs. nouns).

<<Do you think it would be worth the effort to create the index, on the
off-chance that someone might skim the index looking for something to prompt
their memory, or to lead them to the answer to a question they don't know
how to ask?>>

Unquestionably. I use even amateurish indexes this way when I need to find a
specific topic whose location simply isn't obvious from the table of
contents. In fact, I rarely use the search tools in online help because they
almost never find what I'm looking for; I always start with the index, and
turn to the search tools only when I'm desperate.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence, the second listening, the
third remembering, the fourth practicing, the fifth -- teaching
others."--Ibn Gabirol, poet and philosopher (c. 1022-1058)


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