Providing context: topic pages at research institutions

All research institutions seek to push the thinking on their sphere of research. Since analysts specialize in particular topics, and consumers of the content (often also analysts) also align by interest, topical pages are usually a key feature of think tank websites:

Topics are usually prominently displayed at research institutions

Topics are usually prominently displayed at think tanks

Topic pages are unique for research organizations (as oppossed to, say, a consumer products company or a news company) in many ways including:

  • Research organizations have a point of view or approach that is unique. Its projection of the topic needs to promote this.
  • Similarly, a research organization is attempting to define the topic.
  • Think tanks are not just trying to inform site visitors, but to convince and guide site visitors. The topic pages need to do this as well.

Although there are many other aspects to developing strong topic pages, in many ways topic pages are a means of providing context on topics. This opportunity is frequently missed by research organizations. Below I make five suggestions for providing better context to your research from topic pages. Note that although the focus (including the examples) is on think tanks, these recommendations apply to other research institutions as well.

Suggestion One: Quickly and clearly state where you stand on the topic

At its most basic, a research organization should clearly state where it stands or how its research is different on each topic page. In researching this blog post, I actually had a hard time finding think tanks giving any useful introductory information on topic pages (aside from vacuous statements like “we do research on economics!”). That said, there are examples of organizations clearly stating their perspective on topics. For instance, the CATO Institute hits straight with its perspective at the top of topics pages:

The CATO Institute directly states its position

The CATO Institute directly states its position on the topic

Here is an example page that mostly describes how CSBA’s research on the topic is unique:

This CSBA topic page is focused on explaining its position

This CSBA topic page is focused on explaining its position

Even a research institution positioning itself as objective should indicate what is unique about its research. This statement from RAND on a topic page is so generic that it could probably be applied to any group researching the same topic, and hence not especially useful:

On this page, RAND is not describing why it's research is unique on the topic

On this page, RAND is not describing why it’s research is unique on the topic

Suggestion Two: Highlight seminal / background research or key tools

Many topic pages feel like a shock and awe campaign (meant to instill overwhelming awe in the site visitor with long and monotonous lists of research), rather than inform and potentially drive the visitor to action.  For example, this page on economic theory gives me the opportunity to buy publications that are probably summary in nature, but the site visitor is not steered toward any clearly-marked background information (also note that this page does not clearly state the organization’s perspective on the topic):

This page does not highlight quick background materials

This page does not highlight quick background materials

Contrast the page above with the page below:

This page clearly highlights and links to background information

This page clearly highlights and links to background information

In this example, the site visitor still has the opportunity to see the list of recent reports at the bottom of the page, but also at the top of the package are background documents that the site visitor can read to get context. The above example is a fairly structured method of highlighting key information, but it can be done simply in a bulleted list as well:

On this page, CGD highlights background research

On this page, CGD highlights background research

Suggestion three: reward being close

Your institution does a variety of research on overlapping subjects. Your website needs to clearly express this web of research, especially since the visitor may not be exactly in the right place when they first come to your site. In fact, one of the reasons to even have topical pages is to enable better exploration of content. For example, if someone starts a visit on your site at a particular publication, they may not quite be interested in that specific publication but may want to see more about your perspective on the general topic. A topic page linking from the publication page will allow this. Also see Reward being close: an introduction.

Suggestion four: watch what the details are telling the site visitor

Although setting broad context for the topic as listed above is most important, the details on the page tell a story as well. Ideally these are also projecting your overall perspective. Consider what this list of articles tells a site visitor about the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s thinking on the topic of economic stability:

The details here lead the visitor to think all the research on this topic is on Europe

The details here lead the visitor to think all the research on this topic is on Europe

This list greatly increases the risk that a site visitor will think the institution only looks at economic instability from a European perspective.

Similarly, this Brookings page has a lot of prominent information that doesn’t seem to pertain to the topic of metropolitan areas (it should clearly have to do with the topic, clearly indicate that it’s just related content, or clearly indicate why these are specifically metropolitan issues):

It's not immediately obvious that these are metropolitan area issues

It’s not immediately obvious that these are metropolitan area issues

To bring these first four recommendations together, consider this Heritage Foundation topic page below that does all four:

  1. A clear statement of the organization’s position on the topic.
  2. Background information is clearly highlighted.
  3. Related issues are listed (and in this case the hierarchy of topics is clearly delineated).
  4. The list of more detailed research and features is consistent with the overall position.
This page brings the four recommendations together

This topic page brings the four recommendations together

Final suggestion: only do topics you are committed to

All of the above suggestions take work to implement, both to initially set up and to maintain over time. This blog post just focuses on the issue of context, and topic pages need to consider other aspects (read the very short Making Topic Pages Work for more) to be ideal. We have all seen blank topic pages, and these scream low quality (the last thing a research organization wants to project). To use a non-research example, consider this page on the New York Times that not only has no information from the New York Times on it, but it emphasizes that other organizations are actually publishing on the topic:

The NYT isn't paying enough attention to this topic for the page to be high quality

The NYT isn’t paying enough attention to this topic for the page to be high quality

To ensure you are truly committed to your topic pages (see this Heritage Foundation case study):

  1. Define what you are attempting to accomplish in your topic pages.
  2. Define minimum standards for your topic pages (and a process to set up a topic page in the first place).
  3. Work with stakeholders to attain those standards, and then track against those metrics over time.

What do you think makes effective topic pages? Do you feel your topic pages get the results you need?

David makes large website improvements happen, especially in very early planning. Clients include the Library of Congress, Heritage Foundation, the World Bank, MBC Group, Resources for the Future, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Jackson Lab, Center for Global Development, Realtree.com, Oak Ridge National Lab, Marriott International, Hanley Wood, BIO, Thomson Reuters, and the Centers for Disease Control. He is the author of Website Migration Handbook, and primarily blogs at http://hobbsontech.com.

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Posted in Guidance
10 comments on “Providing context: topic pages at research institutions
  1. lawrencemacdonald says:

    Dave,
    Thanks for a great post. I love the examples and the four-point checklist. A quick scan of our topic pages at CGDev.org suggests we aren’t doing too badly but I hope to use the coming summer slow season to have one of my colleagues do a more careful review

  2. Great post David. One of the challenges I have is making sure these subject pages are written for both search engines and humans alike. We go through a number of stages starting with the experts/academics/researchers to provide the draft copy then cutting down the text making sure keywords and easy to digest sentences are used. There’s always a balancing act of presenting list of internal links against the scanning reader to good headings and clear templates ensure these pages work.

    • jdavidhobbs says:

      Thanks Robin for your comment. You nailed it with an important point: “clear templates ensure these pages work.” That’s a part not explored in this post but crucial. Similarly, I think setting (and preferably, tracking) standards is key as well — for instance on the language or length (which templates can also help with if there’s only so much room for pontification).

    • A similar challenge is to make sure content is written for the web, since most people scan. At least abstracts / summaries should use headers to break up sections, highlight takeaways, and use short paragraphs instead of presenting visitors with a wall of dense text.

  3. Great suggestions – what are your thoughts on presenting a variety of content types (publications, news, video, etc) in a single stream versus segmenting them out into their own boxes?

    • jdavidhobbs says:

      Hi Oscar,

      Unfortunately, I think this is a bit of an “it depends” in my mind. But in general I’m a fan of having one interleaved list with the option of filtering by content type. That said, sometimes a particular content type may overwhelm the list with “less important” content, so I think the page overall has to be defined carefully taking into account the texture of the actual content, publishing schedules, etc. Also, as always I think it’s not very helpful to allow users to filter, then there are one or no items in the resulting list — so that has to be taken into account too.

      It’s especially good to have your comments — you and I worked together on topics pages a long time ago!

      — David

  4. 次郎 says:

    素敵な内容で、大好きです

  5. […] pages (see previous Wonkcomms post) are a key structure to encourage continual engagement. The topics should be deeply integrated with […]

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