What Happened to A-Z?

by Christian Knoebel

We’ve received a lot of great feedback on the public beta from the Princeton community. (It’s all been helpful, so keep it coming.)

One comment we’re hearing has to do with A-Z. Here’s a comment that exemplifies what we’re hearing:

“Where is the A-Z index? Have I missed it? It is so easy to use that instead of scrolling through all the possible things to click on to find what one is looking for.”

A-Z has come to the end of its life. To understand why, we have to look back to “Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web.” That was the name of a website by Jerry Yang and David Filo, two Stanford University graduate students who were trying to make sense of the early commercial Web by cataloging sites they found interesting. Jerry and David's guide would become Yahoo! in 1995.

Yahoo’s early success was based on its idea of organizing website links into a super directory, called a portal. Search at the time was dodgy (Google’s relevance-based approach was still a few years away) and most people found sites in the growing Web through portals (remember America Online, Excite and Lycos?).

The portal model was adopted in lots of places, including early higher ed sites. Princeton’s A-Z began its life at about the same time as Jerry and David were creating their guide, as we see in this screenshot from 1996’s princeton.edu:

In fact the earliest incarnation of princeton.edu was a public-facing intranet that married a curated directory of sites with university news.

Fast forward 21 years: Yahoo’s directory business is long gone (the company itself is soon to be history when its sale to Verizon is complete), and the portal model it created died when the dot-com bubble popped. The way we find anything on the Internet today is with search, most likely from Google.

A-Z was a vestige of a time (not so long ago) when human curation was the best we could do. We can do a lot better now. Today we use Google to power princeton.edu’s search, and it indexes nearly every website under the princeton.edu domain. Where the old A-Z took a lot of work to maintain and was never completely accurate, Google takes no work and is considered the standard for finding things on the Internet.

It’s also easier: Finding the Physics Department on A-Z takes manually wading through 105 entries on the A-Z’s “P” page to find “Physics, Department of.” Search is something we do every day.

Search may be the better way to find the Physics Department but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve it. We are looking at ways to make departments and offices more visible in search results as part of our commitment to continuous improvement. Stay tuned.