Are ‘Archives’ pages useless?

A spark hit me when reading through Jason Kottke’s redesign. He mentions that Almost every weblog has [an archive page] and for the most part, they’re useless. I thought this statement to be pretty amazing as I’ve always considered a weblog incomplete without it; its a fundamental part of the time-based structure. But nevertheless, the cogs started turning and I’ve been collecting some thoughts on that idea.

As I’ve just mentioned, weblogs are at heart time-structured writings. Their success is in no small way due to the fresh content, and that in turn has turned the web back into the popular publishing platform that it was always meant to be. But I’m getting away from the point here: my argument for this paragraph is that an archive page structured like, say, mine, really reflects the underlying structure. Indeed, it may help the visitor get their head around the new concept of a weblog.

But then again, an archive page probably isn’t the easiest nor best way of establishing said concept; in my opinion examples serve that purpose impeccably: reading through some weblog entries allows you to get an idea of what they’re about.

In addition, as Jason said, people aren’t likely to think ‘Hmm… where was that entry? Ah yes, it was from 1st July 2004′. Listing entries by title goes some way to solve this, but chances are that the user will still have to scroll through a large pagefull of flat text to find what they want. Even so, the content of the entry isn’t always given away by its title. How about listing by excerpts, the post title with a small extract describing the entry? My site incidentally does provide this functionality, but it’s hidden away and veiled under the title ‘Posts in all Categories’, and the interface is far from streamlined (edit: this functionality has now been incorporated into my archives by date page). This is certainly an idea I’m thinking of taking up, mostly because it sounds like an idea to suit the needs of most users that would be browsing the archives.

Speaking of which, I believe there’s only a small number of groups that need to use the archives:

  • Those wanting to read the entry that is just pushed off the front page by more recent posts: listing posts by title suits their needs.
  • Those who know the title of an entry (a friend may have mentioned that to them, they may have written it down sometime, etc.). Again, listing by title is fine for this group, obviously. A quick Ctrl+F can sort them out if the list gets too long.
  • Those who know what an entry is about, but don’t know the exact title. Listing posts by title with excerpts should cover this group, but not certainly: an excerpt doesn’t always cover all that’s in an entry.
  • Those who can remember a phrase from a specific entry. Searching more or less covers this group completely.

The question still remains: does the archive pages, in their current design, provide enough functionality to cover these four groups? Personally, I think that with enough user-friendly comments to let them know where they are, listing by title and excerpt, and sorting by date, it is possible that archives pages will be good enough for anyone to find a entry on your weblog about anything.

After all, what’s the alternative?