Tuesday 15 February 2011

Battle of the Giants

Last time I moaned a little about how the GeolSoc didn’t serve an aspect of educating the public quite as well as they could; this time I’ve decided to be a little nicer.

So what do people look at online?

Alexa.com records various online statistics, but its most useful function is to record the number of visitors to a website, under keywords related to that search; the most popular site with the keyword ‘Geology’ is USGS (2,714th most visited site on earth), while Geology.com is second, (24,528th most visited site on earth).  What Alexa also provides is a minor demographic of who visits it, USGS has visitors who are predominantly older that the general internet population, with some college education (but no grad school) and look at home. While Geology.com has an older audience, predominantly female with some college education. The two sites have similar, although subtly different audiences, what are their surface differences in communicating geosciences?

Given that USGS is a publically funded entity, it has to reflect various governmental projects and reports, but also provides various educational resources through links. While Geology.com appears to be funded via advertisements and the site’s shop, the lack of government interaction allows for the site to be flexible in its coverage of the geosciences. In terms of interesting and educating people the Geology.com frontpage is more exciting than the USGS one, with a variety of up to date geological stories, maps and interactive tools to help people enjoy the geosciences and answer potential questions they may have.  The articles are on topics, which people can relate to, from Tsunamis, formation of the Hawaiian Islands; they pose questions to entice people to look further.  

Beyond the front page; looking into Volcanoes – since it’s something everyone has at some point an interest into and it is fairly likely that that area of the geosciecnes will attract more ‘non geologist’ attention. The USGS’s front page on Volcanoes is hardly an exciting prospect, it introduces you with a quote, which is nice, but a bit dull. There are no pictures, considering the USGS’s enviable volcano monitoring service there is no live feed; although this feature does exist, but it’s in the menu. The information is there, but it’s not easy to get at.

Geology.com however has bountiful pictures and diagrams, although the whole site does not have as much information as the USGS – but what it does have is introduced in a better, in a more attractive way.  Looking into more statistics that Alexa records is the amount of pages viewed per a visitor, Geology.com receives an average of 1.7 pageviews per a person, while USGS achieves 3.1 unique page views per a person.   What can we see from this? Well, either the information on Geology.com is easier to get at, or people who use that site, look around a bit, then give up. While on the USGS, people either can’t find what they want immediately (maybe?) or they are after the detailed information on seismics which the USGS wants – in truth using these statistics gives such a ‘broad brush’ approach to such a massive and detailed site.

Continuity is an important consideration; we all like things to look the same from the same place, the USGS at sometimes seems to have an individual continuity for each article, since information on the  site is stitched together from various USGS publications, which results in varying continuity. From the front page of the volcano section, the 10 different articles linked from there have 4 different themes; all of which are different from the front page. It’s not a major problem, but it just reassures the reader and makes for a more pleasurable read. Geology.com does not suffer as much, yes there are differences between pages, but due to the clean, simple and efficient design of the site, (basically white) continently is maintained.

The ease of reading on both sites was fairly consistent, terms are introduced and explained (See ‘Minor Faulting’ post), moving to further articles is easy on Geology.com – while the USGS seems to be composed, as mentioned earlier of individual articles, resulting in a lack of hyperlinks between articles – which as Wikipedia has demonstrated makes exploring topics a much easier task.

This leaves the questions what site is better for geosciences communication? This results in another question; who is being educated? If it is the general public, or those who are just inquisitive then Geology.com is considerably better, while the USGS although has buckets of information, doesn’t get it across in a clean and interesting way – leaving causal visitors (my non geologist housemates) uninterested and looking elsewhere. For, say geology students and people with a basic level of geosciences education the USGS is better, particularly in the scope of the information it has, every earthquake is recorded and plenty of technical information is present. – Clearly the two sites are catering to two different audiences, and both take different approaches. Geology.com also benefits from the USGS; since it can use data from that site (amongst others) to gather the best of the web. This aspect, seems to have resulted in  Geology.com being the more attractive, easier to find information