Improving Portal Pages
|This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.|
In my commentary on Kill the Stub Pages it was mentioned that just improving the second tier pages alone would go a long way towards resolving the issue. I've been thinking on this for a while and figured I'd toss out my ideas.
Those of us who were here at the beginning of Wikipedia will remember how the original homepage was a rather hopeless mishmash of links. I remember getting so annoyed with it that one day I totally redid it (to several people's horror), using an organizational scheme used by Jefferson and the original Library of Congress. It was almost immediately reverted, but I think my point was made that improvement was required. This kicked off a long sequence of revisions, reorganizations, philosophizing over the proper structure, and polishing. Finally, we have a homepage which is actually reasonably decently organized.
Wikipedia has grown considerably, and many lower level, specific entries are being contributed daily. Unfortunately, for some reason the pages immediately off of the homepage (which we term "Portal Pages") are lacking. Some are very good. Many are a hopeless mishmash of links. Others mere stubs. Most look more like outlines or indexes than like encyclopedia pages. Few of them share any sense of consistency. Like our original homepage, they serve as a starting point, but we can do *much* better.
Like the homepage, it is important for us to have a philosophy of what a portal page is for, and a structure for how to organize it. But I would submit that a portal page has significantly different requirements than the homepage, and should not be considered *just* an extension of it. Therefore, I would put forth the following objective for portal pages: "A portal page should assist the reader in finding information on common topics relevant to or related to the subject under examination." It is a subject page, not just a listing of random links, yet it is also a stepping point rather than a destination - it must provide a good set of links into other meaty pages.
How does this differ from the principles used on the homepage? The homepage seeks to provide as many jumping off points as possible within the shortest amount of screen space. It seeks to organize these links in a way that makes it simple to find which section you're interested in. It does not explain the topics. A portal page on the other hand, does not need to follow the screen space limit, nor is organization *quite* as key, however explanation and description is more vital. It needs to provide enough surrounding information to help the reader quickly figure out a) whether this portal page is likely to have a link appropriate to their needs, b) it needs to educate about what each link is and how it relates to the others and to the topic itself, and c) it should dependably give the user *useful* subpages, not just tease them with stub pages (pages with less than a paragraph of text). Thus an ideal portal page would be more verbosely wordy than the homepage. On the other hand, it needs to balance its prose so that it is not overwhelming the links with text.
Portal pages are intended for the general reader moreso than for writers and editors; we know these people all have their eye on the Recent Changes page. ;-) But I think a reader-oriented portal page serves writers too, as it provides a consistent way for them to navigate to "the front lines".
I also think it is worth our while to make all of the portal pages look consistent. They should have a similar layout and structure. Why? Three reasons: First it makes us look more organized as a project and thus makes Wikipedia seem more "professional". Second because it will make Wikipedia marginally more useful to end users, because they will know what to expect from each of the links off of the homepage. And third and finally because it sets a standard for other editors to follow with the third and Nth-tier pages.
Using the above rationale, here is an initial proposal for some suggested guidelines and objectives to follow when developing a portal page:
- The portal page must *describe* the subject. This *is* an encyclopedia after all. The Chemistry page needs to explain what Chemistry is - not simply give a dictionary definition and a list of links. It needn't give a thorough, academically accurate elaboration, but at least a couple paragraphs that would introduce it to the lay user. Avoid overuse of jargon. Longer definitions could be linked to via relevant topic pages. Pepper the description text amply with links to the appropriate topics, if those topic pages hold sufficient detail and are relevant to the subject.
- A history of the subject should be given. But keep it brief; elaborations on a few particular periods in the subject's history should be put on their own pages and linked to, when those pages are mature enough to be worth reading. Shoot for a paragraph or two.
- Key or example figures in the subject who have good meaty topic pages about them should be mentioned (perhaps in the history or descriptive sections), but there is no need for elaboration - just link to their bio page. Again, avoid turning the portal page into a biographical index; just indicate half a dozen relevant people who have good wikipedia pages (and maybe a few key figures who don't have a decent page but should - but again remember we're trying to guide the reader towards *useful* information.)
- You should give a listing of good pages in that section, but needn't have *every* possible link. These do not need to be comprehensive indexes (instead provide links to relevant index pages), but should give a sampling. Group the links into a few categories, each containing 5-10 items in that categoriy that could be considered "popular" topics people will be looking for (e.g., on the Geography page, rather than list every country, perhaps list the USA, Russia, China, Afghanistan, and maybe a couple others, and then just link to the Countries of the World page for more.) Look at the Mathematics page for a good example of how this can be done. If there are alternate organizational schemes, set up a subpage called /Schemes to hold them.
- Include just a small number of "potential topics" - topics that are unfilled or are just stubs. By having a few it honestly admits that this is a work in progress, and suggests "Your help is desired!" yet too many unfilled links will convey the message that Wikipedia is woefully incomplete. We want to emphasize our best bits to our readers and reviewers, after all - and that's what they want too! Consider placing lists of empty but desired (or stubbed) links onto a /Wanted subpage.
- Avoid external links. After all we want them to use _wikipedia_, not shuttle them off to some other site. Plus, there is always a chance that those links will go away (affectionately called "link rot"). One or two are probably fine, if they provide good detailed information and look like they'll be around for a while, but if there are more than that, consider leaving them on the /References subpage.
- Portal pages should not merely crosslink to other portal pages (look at Performing Arts for a particularly bad example) - if this is all that they're doing, then they are redundant and may be an unnecessary layer. Ask yourself if you were searching for a particular topic, would you go to this page? (E.g., if you were looking for a page on "Romeo and Juliet" would you go to the Performing Arts link or just click on Theater and Drama?) Portal Pages seek to assist the reader in finding the information they're looking for quickly, not implement an academically perfect information hierarchy.
- References and Further Reading can be given, but if there are more than three or four items, consider making a separate bibliography page for them.
As mentioned above, standardizing the look and feel of the portal pages is important, however I'm not going to propose a template to follow; I think this needs a lot of discussion to achieve a concensus, and will take time to work out. However, some of the portal pages have already received ample deliberation on regarding their structure and appearance, and I'll point them out: Mathematics is well rounded and pretty close to idea. Politics has excellent sections of links, but the history and descriptive parts need elaboration. Philosophy is getting close and seems to have most of the desired elements but needs a bit more refactoring as its rather rambly right now, Games has a very clean organization to its link list but is too short, Religion has a very clean organization but is too long and needs a history section, Opera has a good intro and list of key figures. There might be other good pages; I extracted this list from just a quick browse over the portal pages.
I think we may want to establish a list of "standard" subpages, such as /Talk, /References, /Wanted, /Schemes, etc. We'll want to establish a standard look for headers, organizing link lists (e.g., bullet lists with one item per line vs single lines with dash-separated links), and how dense to pepper descriptive and historical prose with links to topic pages.
God, is Bryce ever right that our portal pages have to be improved. Most of them are appallingly bad compared to the best of the articles that they link to. We really should put some serious Wikipedia time in improving them. This is bound to make Wikipedia look lots better. --LMS