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Can Blogs Work as a Web Platform for Help? [Organizing Content 16]

Series: Findability / organizing content

by Tom Johnson on Jun 23, 2010
categories: findability technical-writing

If you know me, you know that I love WordPress. Which is why this post may seem a bit odd to you. Lately I have been exploring BlogEngine as a possible web platform for help.

BlogEngine? That little startup blog platform that runs on .NET and Windows? Yes, I will explain in a moment. But first a quick recap on where we are in the Organizing Content series.

We left off at 15, and there are nearly 20 comments on that post alone. In that post, I asked what the scope of help content should be. Should you document everything, adding topic after topic based on every question users ask, on every incident logged at the support desk, and so on? Following such a model will result in more challenges with content organization than merely documenting the basics.

In previous posts, I also highlighted the shortcomings of help authoring tools (HATs). Not only is their search feature usually primitive and hard to customize, content produced by HATs is less visible on the web. I noted that wikis are one platform that seems particularly suited to help authoring in a web environment. And then I explored ways to organize content on Mediawiki.

But what if you're in a corporate environment that restricts you from using PHP and MySQL based tools, such as Mediawiki? What if your IT department is a Microsoft shop that requires you to use ASP and .NET solutions that can run on a Windows server? Yes, I'm taking about my situation (at least for some internal projects).

After writing those posts, I wanted to explore ways to deliver help through a web format compatible with Windows server. All of my first choices -- Mediawiki, Drupal, WordPress, Joomla -- rely on PHP and usually MySQL. This means they are "off the menu," as our enterprise architects put it.

As I was lamenting the lack of WordPress one week to our application systems engineers, one of them asked if I had ever used BlogEngine, which is similar to WordPress but runs on .NET rather than PHP. At first I resisted using any other blog platform besides WordPress, because WordPress literally has 10,000 plugins and themes, which make it one of the most robust blogging platforms available.

But the more I thought about it, the more open minded I became. The engineer (who was, I should add, a .NET developer) noted that some even say BlogEngine is better than WordPress.

I decided to investigate BlogEngine more. It is a full-featured blog platform with similar functionality as WordPress (but probably not as flexible). As far as they relate to content organization, the blog features that help you organize and navigate your content are as follows:

  • Categories
  • Tags
  • Related Posts
  • Menu navigation

With the menu navigation, if you integrate jQuery, you can achieve the same effects as an expandable/collapsible table of contents in a help authoring tool. For a few jQuery TOC like navigation features, see the first few examples at 50 Amazing jQuery Examples from

Apart from the TOC, the main way to organize content on blogs is through categories and tags. Instead of putting content into folders, you arrange it into categories. When the user clicks the category, the latest posts within that category appear, and the user can navigate to older posts through links at the bottom.

Tags are more granular than categories. Tags function more like index keywords that you use to describe the content. Whereas a post usually belongs to just one category, you might use a dozen tags within that post.

The best example of a software application that uses blogging software (in this case, Movable Type) as a help platform is Jing Project.

Jing's help is on Movable Type (a blog platform)
Jing's help is on Movable Type (a blog platform)

When you click a category in the help, such as Get Started (scroll to the footer to see this), all other topics within that category (or at least the last 10) appear in reverse chronological order.

Tags function the same way. When you click a tag, all other topics with that same tag appear in reverse chronological order. (Jing Project's help doesn't use tags, but they easily could.)

Organizing content via categories and tags gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility, because you can group content quickly and easily. The problem is that categories and tags lose the hierarchy that is necessary to logically arrange the content within the category. The posts within the category or tag are ordered in a flat way (chronologically or alphabetically). This flat organizational model doesn't let the user know which topics are most important.

You could manually change the publish dates to better control the sort order, but the effect is still a flat list of posts, with no parent-child relationships or folder groupings. Because of this flat list of topics, categories would need to be limited in scope, with no more than 20 topics per category and preferably only 10.

A lot has been written about categories versus tags, particularly for the WordPress blog platform. In the next post, I'll look at these two organization systems (categories and tags) in more depth.

(By the way, how are you liking these footnotes?)

Update: Due to the negative feedback about the footnotes in this post, I decided to take them out and use more conventional hyperlinks instead.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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