Tech & Work

How to annotate the web for the world, your group, or your students

Using proper annotation can help you add context to content. Andy Wolber looks at three Chrome web extensions that let you add another layer of information to a web page.

Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

Look at Facebook or Twitter and you'll see plenty of links and comments. But, to understand and discuss a post, you have to follow a link, read an article, and return to comment. Many people skip some, or even all of those steps. At best, social sites let us share comments out of context.

Annotation tools let you select words and add a comment. Unlike a web link, which takes you to ideas on another page, an annotation gives you ideas to consider next to the text. Annotations add content in context. (If you've seen a picture of highlighted text on Twitter, you've seen a person who needs an annotation tool.)

The following three annotation tools provide distinct capabilities for different needs.

Public annotation

The most well known annotation tool may be Genius, a tool originally created to help people understand the full content and context of rap lyrics. In 2014, the site expanded to offer annotation of all types of lyrics and text.

Genius Web Annotator lets you select text on any web page, then add a public annotation.

Genius annotations are public—anyone can see them. You might annotate an otherwise ordinary press release, product information page, technical documentation, a help page, or a speech. In fact, the White House turned to Genius to add annotations to the State of the Union address in January 2016.

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Genius offers three ways to add an annotation: The Genius Web Annotator Chrome extension, a browser bookmarklet, or a special URL (i.e., type before any website, select text, then annotate—even from a mobile browser). In every case, you'll need a free Genius account to annotate.

When I installed the Chrome extension, I initially got stuck in a login loop. I block all third-party cookies by default, so I needed to allow Genius to configure cookies in Chrome Settings > Show advanced settings > Content settings > Manage exceptions. After I added and as exceptions, the extension worked.

Private annotation provides both public and private annotation. You can make an annotation just for yourself, share it with a private group, or make your annotation public for the world to see. Annotations may include Markdown formatted text and mathematical notation. You can add tags to annotations, too.

b-hypothesis-annotation.jpg gives you a powerful, free tool to create private or public annotations — or to share an annotation with a specific group of people. also offers three ways to add an annotation: The Hypothesis - Web & PDF annotation Chrome extension, a browser bookmarklet, or a special URL (i.e., type before a URL to annotate on a page). As you might expect, you'll need a free account to annotate.

More importantly, is built by a non-profit organization with a team committed to web standards and free software principles. This is an annotation power tool that researchers, educators, and people who work in enterprise organizations should explore.

Annotate and educate

The DocentEDU tagline describes their goal: "Make the Internet your lesson." In addition to highlights or notes, a teacher may insert questions or discussions into any web page, and DocentEDU saves student responses. The system works with a Chrome extension, as well as with an Android and iOS mobile app.

DocentEDU allows educators to annotate and add questions and discussions to any web page, and to save student responses.

DocentEDU may appeal to web-savvy teachers who want to supplement textbook materials with video, text, and other resources the teacher selects on the web. Combined with all sorts of open educational resources, DocentEDU might help a teacher eliminate the textbook entirely.

Unlike the above two annotation tools, DocentEDU isn't entirely free. A teacher will pay $40 a year to use DocentEDU for an unlimited number of classes, students, and lessons. Think of it as one inexpensive textbook you can use to teach all of your classes. DocentEDU also works well with tools such as Google Classroom, YouTube, and Google Apps for Education accounts.

Web Annotation isn't the norm—yet

A few modern tools support annotation. Amazon Kindle readers can highlight text and add notes, and may choose to make those notes public. readers can add a note next to any paragraph. But in both cases, the annotation connects only to text in the Kindle or Medium system.

The idea of connected, annotated texts has been around awhile. In the 1960s, Ted Nelson's original version for hypertext included the concept of transclusion—a way to include a portion of any document in any other document. The modern web doesn't really work that way. Instead, we have links. Even Google tried to add annotation: Google Sidewiki allowed people to add a comment on any web page. Google shut the project down around 2011.

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Compared to the total number of people who use social media sites today, web annotation serves a niche audience. My hope is that the tools above and the social sites we use continue to evolve. We need more tools that amplify thoughtful reading and discussion.

What are your thoughts?

What have you learned from using annotation tools with your team? Or, if you teach, how have annotation tools played a role in your work?

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Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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