Creating Custom Graphical Web Views Based on User Browsing History

Frederick J. Hirsch, W. Scott Meeks, Charles L. Brooks

The Open Group Research Institute, 11 Cambridge Center, Cambridge MA 02142, USA


An acknowledged problem with a rich hypertext system, such as the World Wide Web, is the tendency for users to become lost when following a number of links between different Web pages, or when using browser navigation controls. A visual representation of the tree depicting the paths the user has taken makes it easier for a user to return to pages previously visited.

Our approach allows one to create one's own structures overlaid upon the World Wide Web. We allow users to rearrange and prune the tree (thereby creating their own representations of how they believe Web pages should be organized), as well as to easily create named sets of pages from this tree and to perform operations upon those sets, such as determining which pages have changed. We also allow users to automatically add pages to the tree (by running a robot for example), without having to visit each page with the browser. The combination of these capabilities allows users to quickly build their own customized views of pages of interest in the Web.

The ability to easily create customized linked representations of pages in the Web, without requiring the ability to modify the original documents, puts considerable power into the hands of users. The ability to save and share these representations means that the effort of organizing web information can benefit others as well as individuals creating the representations.

Keywords: Bookmark Organization; Browsing Aids; WWW Navigation; Hypertext; Visualization; History

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

1. Introduction and Motivation

The World Wide Web has popularized and made hypertext publishing accessible to large numbers of people. One well known problem with the Web is that it is possible to "get lost in the Web" during the process of following links, using the browser "Back" button, and trying to remember the URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) of previously visited pages [Conklin86], [Neuss94], [Ayers95]. Web browsers allow users to specify pages they wish to remember by saving URLs as bookmarks, but the accumulation of large numbers of bookmarks can make retrieval and manipulation difficult. In addition, the user must consciously choose to save a page as a bookmark rather than relying on the browser to automatically record it. A graphical history of browsing activity [Meeks87], [Dömel94], [Ayers95] built automatically as a user navigates, is a powerful way of generating organized views of information from the Web. This visual history can then be used as the basis for creating and presenting additional organized views of information from the Web.

Such a history records the pages visited by the user, and organizes them initially into a tree showing the paths the user has followed in the Web. The user may graphically reorganize and prune the tree to restructure the information. The user may also decide to select a set of pages from the tree and run a robot on these pages, automatically expanding the tree without needing to browse. In addition, the user may use sets of pages from the tree for performing other operations which report on the attributes of the pages, such as determining which pages have changed. The ability to create, name and save sets of pages is useful for managing views of the Web.

The structure of a customized view of the Web does not necessarily mirror the inherent structure of the Web, since the links in the view are the personalized relationships the user has created in the view. These are independent of, but may have been derived from, the links embedded in documents, which represent the view of the document authors. The ability to link documents without modifying document source is a powerful concept, since it allows users to create trails through the Web without needing to write or modify HTML documents. Such views may be saved across sessions, and shared with others.

The rest of this paper is organized as follows. We present a brief scenario to illustrate how Web views can support using the Web to do research. We then describe the HistoryGraph, our Web visualization prototype, and two tools (WhatsNew and LinkTree) which can be used in conjunction with it. Finally, we discuss how this visualization environment may be extended by incorporating concepts and work of other researchers.

2. Scenario

The following scenario both illuminates and motivates our initial work. Imagine that it is 1998. Greg is a graduate student in economics working on his dissertation. He believes that another major depression like that of the 1930's is imminent and wants to support his hypothesis by examining the parallels between the 1920's and the 1990's. He already has collected various economic, historical, and anthropological documents, both text and electronic. He will continue to explore the Web, finding and noting other connections and selections which support or contradict his hypothesis. He will then write his thesis, forming a new hypertext document linking together the documents that best support his hypothesis and refute counter-arguments against it.

Greg's material is collected into one master HistoryGraph visualization tree containing two major subtrees--one for the 1920's and one for the 1990's. He also has other branches documenting various lines of thought that he has been pursuing. Today he wants to continue with a particular line of research he started yesterday on the Protectionism branch. He sees the tree node which represents the site he looked at describing protectionist legislation passed during the 1990's, and accesses that page by activating that node. From a section on sanctions aimed at Japan, he follows a link to a document on Japanese imports and exports, and from there to a document on the balance of trade. Nodes are automatically added to the tree for these two documents.

Greg knows that the balance of trade has always been a key issue in protectionist arguments. He wants to know about all documents which are the destinations of links in the protectionism document without reading the documents right now. He selects the tree node for the protectionism document and creates a new set that he labels "Protectionism documents". He then runs the LinkTree tool on this set. LinkTree finds all the documents which are linked to the protectionism document and adds nodes for them to the tree. These nodes include links to several articles from economics and politics journals arguing for and against the validity of the trade balance as an economic indicator.

Greg wants to explore some of these articles and guesses that the most important ones will be those with the most links to other documents. So he creates a new set containing the nodes for these articles and invokes the LinkTree on this new set to import nodes for all the links from the articles. Three of the economics articles and two of the politics articles have a large number of links. Since, as Greg reminds himself with a glance at his tree, he started out examining a political situation--protectionist legislation--he decides to examine the article in the politics journals. He browses to one of the articles by activating its node.

As he is reading the article, he perceives a similarity between the arguments in a section of the article and those in a similar article he read on the politics of the 1920's. He doesn't remember exactly which article it was, so he searches the 1920's branch of the tree for the keyword "politics" in the title, finding two matches. He views one by activating its node, quickly decides it is the wrong document, and then views the other document. This is the document he wanted. He finds a paragraph in the document he wants to remember, and creates a position marker, which is added to the tree. This marker creates a virtual named anchor in the document and adds a special node to the tree referring to that anchor. Just in case, he also adds an annotation to the link between the nodes describing the connection he thinks he sees.

He saves this representation of his dissertation research to discuss with his advisor tomorrow and begins reading one of the hard-copy texts.

3. Requirements for Organizing Browsing Histories

This scenario demonstrates how visualization technology makes it easier for individuals to access and work with information on the Web. In order to easily and naturally track, organize, and build upon browsing activity, such systems must provide the following capabilities:

4. The HistoryGraph Visualization Framework

The HistoryGraph visualizer provides a graphical user interface by creating a tree-structure which traces the browsing activity in the Web (See Figure 1). Each node in the tree represents a page which was visited; each link represents the user's shift of focus (whether by following a link, using a browser control such as "Back", or by typing in a URL directly.) The HistoryGraph tracks the current URL in the user's browser. Whenever the URL changes, it checks to see if it already has a node for the new URL, and if not, will add a new node with a link to the previously visited URL. If the URL already exists in the graph, then HistoryGraph marks the corresponding node as being the current node. If the user then navigates to a new URL, a branch will be created in the graph. HistoryGraph acts as a peer with the browser: activating a node in the graph requests the user's browser to display the corresponding URL.

[HistoryGraph Screen]
Figure 1: Sample HistoryGraph Screen.

An elided title or URL is displayed next to the node icon. The standard icon is a simple file folder icon and indicates no additional information about the page. Other icons are used for nodes that contain additional information. For example, the document icon ( [Icon of Page with Lines]) indicates that the document is stored in our document management system; the stack of documents icon ( [Icon of Stack of Pages]) indicates that this document is an index of managed documents. Managed documents are pages which have owners, and exhibit controlled access. The management service provides an index of documents as well as producing the original documents to authorized users when requested.

Our current interface uses user-configurable colors to display members of the current set, and the current node. (Fonts and pop-up lists could convey the same information in a color-independent manner). The node ("Detailed|ormation") (colored blue) represents the document currently displayed in the browser. The red nodes ("WAIBA *" + "Transpor| College") indicate the members of the currently displayed set. The highlighted node ("Mediator|web-team") indicates the currently selected node: the complete URL, complete title, and visit count for this node are displayed at the bottom of the window. The box on the lower right corner indicates a successful browser connection when colored green; it would be red with a diagonal line through it otherwise ( [Red Icon of Circle with Line Through It]).

HistoryGraph requires several facilities from a Web browser. The browser must provide a means to register with it in order to receive events when pages are retrieved, and to pass both URL and page to the HistoryGraph. The browser must also accept requests to fetch pages. Browsers which do not support both means of communication cannot be used with HistoryGraph, and, depending on the mechanisms provided, other browsers may require HistoryGraph modification before they may be used.

Our first HistoryGraph implementation is written in Tcl/Tk [Ousterhout94] [Welch95]. It communicates with the Netscape browser on Windows NT using DDE [SDI] [NetscapeDDE95], or with NCSA Mosaic using the Common Client Interface [CCI95] on various Unix systems. The tree display is generated using the Tk Tree Widget [Brighton].

Novel Ideas

In addition to a history mechanism, the HistoryGraph visualizer provides a means for using and manipulating the visualization, and for interacting with the browser and other tools. The visualizer displays a tree of nodes which represent pages visited and links representing an ordering relationship between nodes. Both the pages and links may have properties associated with them.


Properties are characteristics associated with a page which are directly useful to a user or software tools. Some properties are assigned automatically, while others may be user-defined. A user may define properties of a page in order to remember its content without having to re-fetch. Properties may be used for searching or pruning the tree and for generating sorted lists of pages extracted from the tree. They may also be used to compare pages with similar or different characteristics. Some example properties include

Links in the visualization may also have properties, such as the number of times traversed, which may be represented by the thickness of the line in the tree.

Properties can be extracted from the document itself, added manually in the visualization environment, or added by an external tool such as the LinkTree tool. Properties which are extracted from the document itself include the URL, title, and embedded HTML META information. Properties which may be added by the user include notes and annotations. Properties which may be added by tools ("property generators") include information added by a notification mechanism (such as a notification that document ownership has been changed).


In addition to individual pages, the visualizer allows the user to work with groups of pages, or sets. A set is a group of pages that is treated as a single entity, and may be used by another tool or displayed to a user. Sets are useful for identifying and manipulating pages which are related in some way, and are an important tool for helping users personalize their work. A set can be created in several ways:

Multiple sets can be created, saved, and displayed by highlighting the nodes in the tree. Sets may be manipulated by performing operations against them. Such operations include:

Sets are important because they provide a means to categorize and work with pages in the tree which is not dependent on the current tree organization, but rather on the attributes of the individual pages themselves. By providing multiple sets, the user may have multiple ways of categorizing the same pages (e.g the set of pages I want to print, the set of pages which I must update, etc.)

5. Browsing Associate Framework

We designed our visualization environment as a group of cooperating browsing associates, extending a theme of modular, browser-independent "agents". A browsing associate is a relatively small and simple application which is not coupled to a particular HTTP stream and which can independently and asynchronously access the Web on the user's behalf. [Brooks95]. A browsing associate is designed to enhance a user's browsing experience by adding additional capabilities to the browser, but through a separate user interface. The associate may be loosely coupled to the browser through one of a number of possible mechanisms, such as the Common Client Interface [CCI95], but this is not a requirement.

We integrate individual browsing associates into the visualization environment by allowing the associate to maintain its own control window, which is used for setting operational parameters. However, we pass URLs and requests for execution from the HistoryGraph to the associate, and the associate returns results by creating nodes in the HistoryGraph tree, creating new sets, or modifying properties (including set membership) of existing nodes.

The WhatsNew Browsing Associate

We have integrated the HistoryGraph visualizer with the WhatsNew associate. When run as an independent application, WhatsNew allows a user to determine whether or not pages of interest have changed since a specified date. The WhatsNew controls allow the user to specify

HistoryGraph adds a new item under the Set menu: WhatsNew? on Set. When selected, this item will cause the URLs of the members of the current set to be sent to the user's WhatsNew associate as the pages of interest. WhatsNew will then perform its check as usual. When done, if the tell HistoryGraph option has been selected, then the URLs of the pages that have changed will be sent to HistoryGraph, where the set named "WhatsNew" will be updated to contain only these pages, creating the "WhatsNew" set if necessary, and then setting it as the current set.

The Linktree Browsing Associate

The LinkTree associate was originally designed to function as a World Wide Web robot [Koster94]: namely, a program that (when given a starting URL) would explore the hypertext graph starting from that node by examining the links contained in each document. The search is limited by specifying both the depth of the resulting tree and by an expression that each URL would have to match (for example, indicating that all URLs must incorporate the same hostname). LinkTree is informed by the client's browser when each new page is displayed. The search can be invoked automatically, or only when instructed by the user. LinkTree initially generated an HTML page representing the hierarchy of hyperlinks starting at the given page: if so requested, the Linktree would automatically cause this page to be redisplayed in the browser.

Linktree has also been integrated with HistoryGraph to allow the user to conveniently and automatically expand the tree from any set of nodes. The new nodes generated by Linktree are not displayed in the browser, but simply added to the tree, where the user can choose to view them, save them for future reference, prune them, or perform additional operations using these new nodes.

6. Previous Work

Browser History Mechanisms

Most browsers support some kind of history recording mechanism. NCSA Mosaic provides a "Window History" item under the "Navigate" menu which provides a linear list of the titles of URLs visited. Netscape Navigator provides a similar list under the "Go" menu. Both lists suffer from the limitation that they are linear and thus lose information whenever the "Back" control is used. Microsoft's Internet Explorer records all the pages visited in the History Folder which may be examined later. URLs in this folder may be sorted by title, URL, visited date, expiration date, or update date. Clicking on one will cause the browser to revisit the page. After a while the list gets large and it is hard to make sense of it, but it does address the problem of recording one's activity automatically (although losing the structure).

Browsers offer some facilities for recording URLs and organizing and managing them. NCSA Mosaic originally offered a Hotlist, a linear list of bookmarks. Navigator 3.0 offers a hierarchical list of Bookmarks, with the ability to drag and drop bookmarks between folders, associate text with bookmarks, and to determine which have changed since they were recorded. Each bookmark includes both the URL and a title (originally derived from the document). Internet Explorer 3.0 offers favorites, which, like bookmarks, may be organized into hierarchical folders. Unlike Navigator bookmarks, arbitrary text may not be associated with favorites, although favorites may be dragged from the menu into internet aware applications such as Word 7, and then have text or other material associated with them. Clicking on them within such an application will cause Internet Explorer to display the page.

The HistoryTree[SmartBrowser] product from SmartBrowser is similar to our HistoryGraph. HistoryTree provides a pair of standalone applications for Windows which communicate with Netscape to build an interactive tree of the user's Web explorations. The nodes are displayed as featureless rectangles which, when pointed to will either display the page's title in the status line or popup a window containing the page's URL, title, and last visited time. Clicking a node navigates the browser to the corresponding page. Rudimentary display configuration, tree editing and saving and restoring are supported. HistoryTree does not have the concept of "sets" of nodes or the means for easily working with the nodes in the tree to perform tasks.

Graphical Visualization

MosaicG[Ayers95] generates a graphical history of a user's browsing activity. It provides many of the same features as HistoryGraph, but does not provide for tree rearrangement by the user, configuration of display options by the user, sets, or integration of the tree into a framework allowing manipulation of the nodes. It is implemented as part of the Mosaic browser (which limits its generality), but is an excellent source of ideas .

The Webmap system [Dömel94] pioneered the graphical display history for Web browsers and included the concepts of associating attributes with links (such as whether or not the link goes between servers), and the idea of employing tree traversals to perform actions such as fetching or printing pages. It introduced the notion of sets, but did not use them in a browsing associate environment to accomplish user tasks, and used a non-standard mechanism to communicate with Mosaic.

Other Hypertext Systems

Several other non-Web hypertext systems supported labeled or graphical history lists.

Apple's HyperCard provides a "Recent" card which records in miniature the 42 cards most recently visited, in the order in which they were visited. The most recent card is highlighted and selecting a miniature transports the user to the corresponding card. This early form of "thumbnailing" suffers from two problems. First, the miniatures are ordered according to their time of first visit; eventually the order may bear little relation to the actual ordering of most recently visited cards. Second, the miniatures have no additional labeling and thus similar looking cards are indistinguishable.

The TextNet[Trigg86] system was organized around links between text chunks and table of contents nodes. The system kept track of the user's current position in the overall table of contents and could display this position at any time. In addition, the system had paths, ordered lists of nodes for viewing hyperlinked text in a specific linear arrangement. Paths could be saved to be reused later or given to other readers. However, each path exists only as a linear list with no mechanism to create links or branching structures.

The Electronic Document System (EDS) at Brown University provided for special timeline pages:

Miniatures of the pages are drawn, each nested in its parent chapter's band, starting with the oldest on the left, with the time at which each was accessed appearing below it. The miniature pages are made into buttons that when touched transport the reader back to the selected page. Buttons permit the reader to move forward and backward along the timeline to examine miniatures of pages viewed earlier.[Feiner82]

This presentation of history is constrained by the hierarchical chapter/page structure of the system and doesn't capture any information about non-hierarchical movement.

7. Futures

In order to more fully implement the functionality described in our initial scenario, we anticipate that additional features will be added to HistoryGraph. Additional associates may be integrated with it, and the whole environment implemented inside a browser or desktop to make it more transparent.

Support Internal References

In addition to recording pages which are visited, such as HTML and FTP pages, we would also like to allow the user to name sections of text within an HTML document without modifying the document, and then create nodes which would scroll the browser to that section of the document. For example, this could be useful to someone using the history path to mark relevant passages of a document that will need to be referred to later.[Meeks87] We have been working on a system to support inline annotations in a document without modifying the document [Schickler96]. This would extend that work to allow hidden annotations to serve as named marks and be recorded in the visualizer.

Search Associate

A generalized Search associate would be useful to users in presenting a standard search user interface, which would then query various configured search engines to find relevant pages. The responses of the search engines would be parsed, and the results added to the visualizer as new sets. The user could then prune the sets, save the work for later, or reorganize the information. This is similar to work reported on user agents [Eichmann96].

Automatic Reorganization of Sets

A system described in [Maarek96] allows the automatic reorganization of Netscape bookmarks, under user control. This system could be applied to subtrees or sets in the HistoryGraph to automatically reorganize the visualization according to the similarity between pages. The results could be combined with the results of the Search engine or LinkTree without requiring the manual addition of numerous bookmarks. The HistoryGraph pruning mechanism could then be used to remove nodes which did not meet specified criteria (such as being within a similarity tolerance of a specified starting node).

Additional Features

Flexible Pruning
One useful feature would be the ability to prune the visualizer tree, subtree, or members of a set based on properties of the node or link. An example would be pruning nodes which had been visited fewer than three times, or which were older than a specified date.
Extended Visualization
The visualization should support the ability to collapse subtrees into a node, and to display data in each node representation (e.g. thumbnail), perhaps increasing the amount of information displayed as one zooms into the representation, changing the granularity level of the display.
Support Printing
We would like to support the printing of a set, allowing common formatting, pagination and other features which are currently difficult to achieve.
Improve URL display
The abbreviated URL display is intended to use a small, fixed amount of space to convey a large amount of information. It consists of three fixed-width fields: protocol, host and URL-path, each separated by vertical bars. To see the full URL and title we need only look to the bottom of the HistoryGraph window. The abbreviated title displayed is either the full title, if short enough, or the first characters, up to half the maximum label width, a separator (|), and the last characters, up to half the maximum, of the title. We would like to provide configurable options on how the nodes are named in the tree, using the concept of dynamic naming and the preservation of full words based on the title-shortening algorithm described in [Ayers95].
Provide Virtual Nodes
We would like to preserve the complete navigation history by creating virtual nodes when a node is revisited via a different path, presenting a deemphasized node which is associated with the original node (all are in one set). We recognize the need to prevent cycles, but would like to maintain information on each path by which a given node was reached.
Support Annotations
We would like users to be able to add annotations to the nodes and links in the tree. The ability to add annotations would allow commentary on the pages without modification of the pages. Annotations could be viewed as a special property.

8. Conclusions

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". This may be restated in the Web as, "Those who do not organize information effectively are condemned to spend hours searching for it over again".

A graphical visualization of browsing history is essential for managing activities on the Web, but that it is not enough. One should treat the result of browsing not as merely a past to be repeated, but as a first-class hypertext entity in itself. This entity, the HistoryGraph visualization, may be customized through reorganization, selective pruning, and the addition of property information to the nodes in the tree. The links are first class in this representation, and manipulated directly, unlike HTML where the text is first-class and the links secondary.

By using browsing associates to perform tasks on sets drawn from the representation, it is possible to work meaningfully with large numbers of pages which meet certain criteria, determining which have changed, printing or validating them for example. When a browsing associate takes a set of nodes as input and generates new nodes in the tree automatically, it is possible to greatly increase the rate of Web learning, since it is not necessary to "browse" each page manually. By developing custom associates and integrating them with HistoryGraph, it should be possible to learn from ones personal browsing history.

In constructing and using HistoryGraph we have learned a number of lessons:

  1. A graphical user interface is essential for easy accessibility for most users, providing a clear view of paths and alternatives.
  2. Tools should perform their primary functions (recording history, determining last modified times, searching links) with minimal intervention from the user
  3. The ability to customize is critical since everyone has his own way of visualizing, and this customization includes the ability to reorganize the tree, change links, and update property information, as well as control display attributes.
  4. Use of browsing associates provides an extensible architecture with both standalone and integrated functionality
  5. Use of sets provides a framework for understanding and manipulation
  6. Being able to save and restore state is useful to the user both individually and when cooperating and sharing with others

We are exploring alternatives to running HistoryGraph as a browsing associate. We are interested in plugins, such as the Spynergy[Eòlas] Tcl/Tk plugin, as well as exploring component-based architectures such as OpenDoc or ActiveX.

Availability of Software

A version of the software is available at .

9. Acknowledgements

This research was supported in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under the contract number F19628-95-C-0042. The views and conclusion contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or the U.S. Government.

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Frederick J. Hirsch Image Frederick J. Hirsch is a Principal Research Engineer at the Open Group Research Institute. He is currently working on the Prism project which is integrating the OSF Distributed Computing Environment with the Web. Previously he worked on software to add functionality and ease use to the Web, by extending browsers, filtering HTTP streams, and implementing server plugins. Before joining the Research Institute he worked on the Datakit local network at AT&T Bell Laboratories, in the network analysis department at BBN, and on security trading software at the MacGregor group. His interests include Human Computer Interaction and marketing. He has an MBA from Boston University, a Master's in Computer Engineering from Stanford University, and a BS in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from MIT.

W. Scott Meeks Image W. Scott Meeks is a Senior Research Engineer at the Open Group Research Institute. He is currently working on the Prism project which is extending and enhancing the application of the OSF Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) to the Web. Previously he worked on projects investigating ways to transform the Web into a platform that facilitates the use of Web-based information and supports group-related activities. Before joining the RI, Mr. Meeks worked in the OSF Motif group and for Bell Communications Research, where he helped develop the Rendezvous platform for building interactive applications with multiple distributed cooperating users. His Master's thesis at Brown University involved designing and implementing a browsing history mechanism for the Intermedia system. He also has BS degrees in Computer Science and Cognitive Science from MIT.

Charles L. Brooks image Charles L. Brooks is a Principal Research Engineer at the Open Group Research Institute, an international shared research facility supported by government and industry. He is currently working on the Distributed Clients project in support of ongoing, adaptive mobile access to Web-based information resources under conditions of variable of intermittent connectivity. He previously worked on extending Web services for collaboration via application-specific proxy servers and desktop browsing assistants. Prior to joining the Research Institute, Mr. Brooks was a principal engineer on the OSF DCE 1.1 core technologies project, where he worked on the RPC and the DTS components, and worked for BBN, Inc., and Dataware Technologies, where he developed systems and software for management information, network management, and CD-ROM based document retrieval. His current research interests are in the areas of mobile computing and Human-Computer interaction. Mr. Brooks holds an MS in Computer information Systems from Boston University, and an MA and BA in English from Clark University.