Is the Table of Contents Dead Online?

In the past two days, I’ve had two experiences at work that make me wonder if search has killed the table of contents (TOC).

In the first instance, our Robohelp Server was down. Users could view content, but not search, and we weren’t able to collect usage stats.

I received an IM from a user, asking if search was down on our “web site”. At this client (a major financial firm), everyone refers to help as a web site. I’m personally OK with this; as I’ve mentioned before, we technical communicators need to stop thinking of help any differently. When I told him we were aware of the outage, he then asked me if I knew the answer to his query (human-powered search?). Using the TOC, I quickly emailed him a link to the topic with his answer. He apparently never thought, or couldn’t take the time, to navigate using the TOC.

In the second instance, a new contact with whom I was working became confused because she couldn’t see the “listing on the left” (a result of a bug in a script we were previously using). She had no idea it was a TOC or functioned like one.

I’m pretty sure the TOC isn’t going away anytime soon, especially as the breadcrumbs in RoboHelp are based on the TOC hierarchy, but it does seem like they have become less useful.

Update: As I was going through our server usage statistics for the month of May, approximately 97% of hits came from search; the remaining 3% were direct hits to topics. The TOC may well be dead.

Have you seen similar issues? Do people in your organization still use the TOC, or is search their primary navigation tool?

7 thoughts on “Is the Table of Contents Dead Online?”

  1. TOC (and site map pages) caused their own demise. Google put the nail in the coffin.

    They are typically completely overloaded (sometimes by necessity) and most users don’t know about Ctrl-F to find things inside of an individual page.

    Users are used to ‘search everywhere’ and are paralyzed when it isn’t available. Good thing people don’t need a physical card catalog to find a book in the library…

    BTW, nice site design. What WP theme are you using?

  2. Kurt-
    Good points. As one user noted, people are used to Google and Bing. Is that a bad thing? I’m not sure.

    Thanks for the compliment on the design. It’s just a Twenty Ten theme I modified.

  3. TOCs are dead insofar as it’s SO much faster to search for the term that you’re interested in finding. However if you’re new to a document and want to peruse what the doc is about, then TOCs still have their place.

    That being said, I do like TOCs that “come along for the ride”, as the twitter bootstrap TOC does – http://twitter.github.io/bootstrap/components.html (scroll down to see the TOC become sticky, and to highlight the current section you’re on)

  4. I think search is great if users know what to search for. But a TOC (or any another means to provide structure and guidance) is useful for teaching the things users are not aware of. Users might only use the TOC once or twice as long as they are still novice users. So there are few clicks. Nonetheless the TOC can be important.

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