Monday, February 19, 2018

Have You Stopped Indexing Your Flare Projects? Not So Fast…

Many Flare authors no longer create indexes for their targets, instead relying on the search feature. It makes sense. Most authors find indexing tedious, so the search feature is a simple and widely accepted alternative. And if you use TopNav skins for your targets, there’s no index option anyway. So, you can just abandon indexing entirely, right?

You can, but there are two arguments for creating an index, even if you use TopNav skins.

Improving Search Ranking

Indexing seems to have nothing to do with search, but it can actually make topics found by search show up higher in a search results list and thus be more visible. For example, the screen below shows the result of a search for “FTP Site”. The desired topic, called “Neil’s FTP Site,” has no index entries assigned to it. It shows up in position 5.

I then add the index entry “FTP site” to the topic, regenerate the target, and re-run the search. The topic now shows up in position 2.

Why? When creating the list of search results, Flare assigns different weights to keywords depending on where they occur in a topic. (See “Ranking Search Results” in the help.) Specifically, it weights an index keyword in a topic as if that keyword is a search keyword in a level 4 heading. It’s hard to say exactly what to expect here because topics are so different but, as a general rule, the more index keywords you apply the better your search results. Try it with a topic in your Flare project that users often search for and see if it makes a difference.

Improving Search Synonyms

Adding index entries may let you fix some search synonym issues. This can be a somewhat tangled issue so follow me.

Let’s say that one of your topics describes subs (the sandwich). However, in Philadelphia, subs are called hoagies. But you, the author, being from Boston, never used the word hoagie in the topic. The result? Users who search for “hoagie” get zero hits.

You can fix this by creating a search synonyms file (File > New > Synonyms) and adding a group synonym where “sub=hoagie=torpedo=” and so on. Now, when users search for hoagie, they’ll get the Subs topic. Problem solved?

Perhaps. Users who search for “hoagie” but find “sub” are likely to do one of two things. If you have lots of credibility with your users, they may infer that a hoagie is the same thing as a sub. More likely, they’ll think the index entry was misdirected and the credibility of your material will drop a bit.

The solution is to change the wording of the synonym to make it clear that it is a synonym, like changing the synonym to “hoagie, aka sub”. However, the synonym editor only accepts single-word entries. Now what?

There are two solutions, one that works by using the meta-description feature but doesn’t involve index entries at all, and a speculative solution that does involve index entries.

Meta-Description Solution

The first solution is to add the synonyms in the topic’s meta-description (in the Topic Properties tab of a topic’s Properties dialog box, shown below.

In the Description field, you can enter a description of the topic that displays when users see the topic in the search results list. If I enter the synonyms in the Description field as “Also called grinder, hoagie, or torpedo,” here’s what the user will see in the search results list.

It’s not as efficient as seeing the full synonym in the search highlight but it does the job.

Speculative Solution

This involves creating the multi-word synonyms as index entries. Go to the topic for which you want to add synonyms, like the subs topic, and press F9 to open the Index window. Enter the multi-word synonyms, one per line. For example, for the subs topic, you might add the synonyms “hoagie, aka sub” and “torpedo, aka sub”. If users then search for hoagie, the browser will return the subs topic as the hit. The problem is that the search results screen looks like this.

The search report shows only what the users type in the search field. The complete synonym is “hoagie, aka sub” but you don’t want users to have to type that whole entry or expect them to. You want them to just type “hoagie”, run the search, and see a report that says “Your search for “hoagie, aka sub” returned 1 result(s).” that reinforces the idea that a hoagie is the same thing as a sub.

The problem is that, as of Flare 2017 r3, the search report only shows what the user typed in the search field. It doesn’t list the complete search term. I have put in a feature request to make the search report list the entire entry but there’s no way to tell whether MadCap will add this feature or when. So, you’d be adding these index synonyms on speculation that MadCap might add the feature.


Indexing is increasingly seen as a dying feature as more and more Flare authors default to using search. But there are some good reasons for continuing to add index entries, especially if you want to increase the findability of certain topics. Indexing may be old but it’s far from dead.


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