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Effective Internet Search: Template Concept Explanation

The fact that the book is organized based on a multi-level generic template allows us to discuss the topic in a way that is independent of any one search tool or engine.

Before proceeding further, you should note that:
  • In our view, distinguishing style from structure is in the eye of the beholder. In "reality," both style and structure both actually occupy space, and are therefore both "placeholders."
  • By "placeholders" here, we include not only variables, but also constants. In other words, a placeholder is similar to the idea of an "object" in object-oriented programming or software design, being anything that occupies space (as opposed to time, for example).
  • In mathematics, logic, physics, and certain other disciplines, the term "placeholder" is used in a more restrictive sense, as being the same as the idea of a variable or a dimension. So, our usage here is broader, and perhaps more in line with thinking philosophically.
  • Although most of the below examples of objects or systems are in the area of software or informational objects, any type of physical object might also be used to exemplify the ideas.
  • A system is interacting set of objects that form a whole. In our view, seeing some phenomenon as an object or system is in the eye of the beholder, i.e., based on mental templates we project onto phenomena. In other words, you might see the same phenomena in different ways. In fact, object and system are only two of several ways of viewing phenomena.

What is a template?

Why reinvent the wheel when you want to design or create a new object or system? Instead, why not use a template?  A template is a starting point for both the structural constant or variable placeholders, and basic stylistic characteristics of an object or system you want to design and then usually create. It may also include tools specialized for working with that template, such as wizards or special toolbars and menus for using software templates.

Templates may be very generic and high-level, such as ones that include only stylistic (rather than structural) characteristics (e.g., colors, fonts, margins for documents to be designed). Or, they may be specialized in various degrees, in which case placeholders/structural characteristics (e.g., field labels and slots for entering variable data into those fields on a form) are included.

More generic templates may be used as starting points for designing more specialized ones, usually by making the variables of the more generic template into constants and then adding more structural constant or variable placeholders.

Structural placeholders

Let us give some examples. Imagine you are applying for a job, and you have to fill out an application form. The structural characteristics of that form, such as field labels and places for filling out data, provide a specialized template to guide you. All you have to do is fill in the variable placeholder values. This may involve replacing certain default (assumed) values for particular boxes or fields on the form, and following suggestions or mandatory constraints as to what you might put in as values for the variable placeholders.

If you have applied for many jobs in your life, you will soon come to realize that all job application forms tend to have the same set of fields or boxes. That's because they all derive from a common, higher-level template. That template will be more generic, and will likely use more abstract terminology and more variable placeholders (as opposed to constant ones), since it has to apply across a variety of industries, firms, and cultural groups. For example, the generic template might ask for "previous organization name," instead of "previous company name," since not all previous employers are necessarily private companies (e.g., some may be public sector organizations).

Many templates come with narrative explanations or suggestions of what you should fill in for given placeholders. In our job application example, you might have accompanying explanations of what is meant for "previous company name," and how that should be written into the area for that item. In fact, explanations can become quite lengthy. Some of you may, for instance, have had the experience of using the AutoContent Wizard when producing PowerPoint slides. In that case, an entire set of slides may be given for a given purpose, such as a sales presentation, and standard slides are provided in a particular slide sequence along with suggestions as to what you might want to put for particular placeholders on particular slides.

Another example of a template, from word processing, is a generic business letter, with fields, perhaps with derivation formulas behind them, for such things as date, company name and address, addressee designation (e.g., "Dear Sir"), final salutation (e.g., "Yours truly"), and company logo. The date could, for example, be derived by a formula from the computer operating system date.

Stylistic attributes

Templates also provide basic stylistic characteristics for the object under design. For example, in word processing, associated with each template is usually some set of pre-defined styles with which you can tag individual components of your document, following which those components will immediately change appearance to conform to your choices. For instance, if you produce a business letter from template using a word processor (such as Microsoft Word), the template provides styles for document characteristics such as page margins, page headers and footers, background colors and themes, paragraph attributes (typefaces/fonts, spacing, breaks, etc.), tables, and even individual textual characters.

By changing the style definition, you can automatically change all the components of your document having that style automatically, without having to make the changes to each component to which the style is applied. This saves time and ensures that the change is applied consistently everywhere. You can still override the style for parts of the component. For instance, if your level 2 document header style does not italicize the text, and you want to italicize a single word in one instance of a level 2 header paragraph in a document based on your selected template, you can still make that single word italicized.

Templates versus prototypes

Prototypes are actual, working examples of something you might want to follow. For instance, if you need to produce a letter to someone and happen to have one on hand that is close to your needs, you might want to start from the existing letter. Using that as a base, you can then make the necessary additions, subtractions, or modifications to suit your needs, thereby creating the new letter you need.

If we had using the prototyping method, we would have taken a single search engine as an example, and then described other search engines in terms of how they differ from that search engine.

Note: The idea of "conceptual prototypes," a term developed by Ed Baylin in one of his previous books, is similar to that of a generic template. However, this refers to a slightly different kind of generic template, namely, one in which specialization in particular directions has occurred, while still keeping the lower level templates at purely abstract levels.


Effective Internet Search: E-Searching Made Easy!     Baylin Systems, Inc., 2006