NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, January 2006
Browsing WebRings: Communities of Web Sites
by Gabe Goldberg,
APCUG Advisor, Region 2; Columnist, AARP Computers and Technology Website

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If the Internet is the largest library created in human history, where are its card catalog and friendly librarians to explain how the Internet's "shelves" are arranged? Where's a rhyme and reason for how things are arranged, and the Dewey Decimal System http://www.oclc.org/dewey/ when we need it most? Search engines and directories like Google http://www.google.com and Yahoo! http://www.yahoo.com are helpful but can be overwhelming. And search results often appear jumbled, lacking the comfort of neighborhood libraries which shelve related books together -- so that if you find an interesting mystery, cookbook, or science tome, its nearby shelf neighbors may be an unanticipated bonus.

But the Internet does offer the equivalent of library shelves, called WebRings ("rings" for short). Not stashed where you can physically touch them, rings are linked sets of Web sites concerned with specific topics.

So rings exist for diverse topics -- physical fitness, photography, falconry, biking, etc. In fact, those topics were all featured on WebRing.com http://dir.webring.com/rw, a directory of rings, on the day I browsed it.

The WebRing concept is simple: Webmasters of sites with a common theme agree to link to each other, and to a hub Web site; each ring site includes links named Ring Hub, Random, Previous, Next, and Join Now. A ring's hub is like the center of a circle, with all the ring's sites connected to it. The hub describes the ring, gives statistics (how many Web sites belong, how many times the hub has been visited, etc.), and lists member sites with brief descriptions.

WebRing.com combines aspects of a portal site (linking to WebRing-related information and resources), a directory site (providing categories of rings such as Business & Finance, Family & Home, Health & Wellness, and Hobbies & Crafts), and a search tool. Searching is helpful when you're not sure which category includes your topic of interest or when the topic may span categories. For example, searching on "gardening" located 128 WebRings. That doesn't sound like many, but remember that each ring includes a few, dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individual sites. Among the first 20 rings, Friends of the Garden http://e.webring.com/hub?ring=friendsgarden has the most members, 243 Web sites. Its cheery greeting reads "Welcome to Friends of the Garden Web Ring. We are the largest gardening Web ring in the WebRing Community! Please visit our members and if you have a gardening web page, consider joining! We welcome both the backyard gardener with his own home page or the commercial grower. All have something interesting to add to our virtual garden tour".

Navigating WebRing.com by topics provides a hierarchical view of its thousands of WebRings -- for example, clicking the Science category yields about two dozen disciplines including Astronomy, Biology, Ecology, Energy, etc. Biology includes an amazing 3200 rings, while the new science of Nanotechnology has only one ring.

Ring hubs offer a unique search tool with two pulldown menu choices. You can enter a keyword and search only the ring whose hub you're viewing (the Ring choice), or search the entire WebRing.com list of rings (the WebRing search choice). Searching within the ring can help narrow search results. For example, the Amateur and Pro Photography ring has 87 sites. If I'm interested in English photography, rather than touring the entire ring -- entertaining though that might be -- I can use the ring search for "England" and find the four relevant sites.

Clicking the Random link is like closing your eyes and hopping to an unknown site -- it can be entertaining or not, depending on luck. Previous/Next links navigate around a ring's sites so you'll eventually return to your starting point. And Join Now is for Webmasters to enroll sites within a ring; this requires first creating a free account on WebRing.com.

WebRings don't replace search engines, directories, portals, one's own bookmarks, and referrals from friends for finding worthwhile material. And they only link sites that have chosen to enroll. But they're a useful and powerful tool for locating and navigating congenial and related Web sites, and they give topics such as gardening and photography much more a sense of community than do bare links from a search engine.

This article originated on AARP's Computers and Technology Web site, http://www.aarp.org/computers, and is copyrighted by AARP. All rights are reserved; it may be reproduced, downloaded, disseminated, or transferred, for single use, or by nonprofit organizations for educational purposes, with attribution to AARP. It should be unchanged and this paragraph included. Please e-mail Gabe Goldberg at gabe@gabegold.com when you use it, or for permission to excerpt or condense.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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