indexesarticleLast month I wrote how indexes seem to be a thing of the past, at least in e-books. I’ve revisited the topic and would like to offer a possible vision for the future.

Long ago I learned the value an exceptional indexer can bring to a project. A huge difference exists, for example, between simply capturing all the keywords in a book and producing an index rich in synonyms, cross-references and related topics. While we may never be able to completely duplicate the human element in a computer-generated index, I’d like to think value can be added via automated text analysis, algorithms and all the resulting tags.

Perhaps it’s time to think differently about indexes in e-books. As I mentioned in that earlier article, I’m focused exclusively on non-fiction here. Rather than a static compilation of entries in the book I’m currently reading, I want something that’s more akin to a dynamic Google search.

Let me tap a phrase on my screen and definitely show me the other occurrences of that phrase in this book, but let’s also make sure those results can be sorted by relevance, not just the chronological order from the book. Why do the results have to be limited to the book I’m reading though? Maybe that author or publisher has a few other titles on that topic or closely related topics. Those references and excerpts should be accessible via this pop-up e-index as well. If I own those books I’m able to jump directly to the pages within them; if not, these entries serve as a discovery and marketing vehicle, encouraging me to purchase the other titles.

This approach lends itself to an automated process. Once the logic is established, a high-speed parsing tool would analyze the content and create the initial entries across all books. The tool would be built into the e-book reader application, tracking the phrases that are most commonly searched for and perhaps refining the results over time based on which entries get the most click-thru’s. Sounds a lot like one of the basic attributes of web search results, right?

Note that this could all be done without a traditional index. However, I also see where a human-generated index could serve as an additional input, providing an even richer experience.

How about leveraging the collective wisdom of the community as well? Provide a basic e-index as a foundation but let anyone contribute their own thoughts and additions to it. Don’t force the crowd-sourced results on all readers. Rather, let each consumer decide which other members of the community add the most value and filter out all the others.

This gets back to a point I’ve made a number of times before. We’re stuck consuming dumb content on smart devices. As long as we keep looking at e-books through a print book lens, we’ll never fully experience all the potential a digital book has to offer.

Reproduced with permission from Joe Wikert’s Digital Content Strategies.


  1. Index entries only work in context. I’m currently indexing a book about the First World War. It mentions Adolf Hitler once, so he’s in there as simply ‘Hitler, Adolf’. But the same publisher produces books about the Second World War in which Hitler’s life, character and career are spread across several entries with multiple subheadings. Similarly ‘Air power’ in WWI is very different to ‘Air power’ in WWII. Combine the two and the result will be confusion. Trying to mix the index entries from different books is going to make life harder for the user, not easier.

    I stumbled into indexing by accident, and I don’t have a strong emotional commitment to it; but those indexers who do can tell you at length and in detail exactly why crowd-sourcing an index is not a good idea.

    Indexes for ebooks certainly need new ideas and better technology; but turning them into a video game is probably not the way to go.

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