ONLINE, March 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.
Webforia Reporter is an excellent tool for the Web researcher who needs to find, organize, and share information with others. Reporter combines Web search, bookmarking, and page-capture capabilities with a heavy-duty presentation tool. Reporter places equal emphasis on providing powerful tools for information gathering and organization, and on features for creating high-quality, professional-looking reports. All of these capabilities are seamlessly integrated into a deceptively simple and easy-to-use program that's one of the most useful tools for Web research that I've come across in recent months.
To test Reporter, I used it to research an article on online bookmark services. I've placed the resulting report online for readers to examine at http://websearch.about.com/library/bl_webforia.htm.
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There are four toolbars available. The General toolbar features IE browser commands and controls the overall operation of the program. The Author toolbar contains icons for creating, editing, and formatting report content. The Address toolbar is for entering URLs. And the somewhat confusingly-named Markup toolbar is specifically for working with Notes (why not call it the Notes toolbar?).
Beneath the toolbars are work areas that open as panes. To the right, the Main Pane displays Web pages and other content that make up the meat of your report. The left pane displays the Report Outline, a display of the sections and links to pages in your report. Other optional panes include Display Properties, which contains information about specific parts of the report, Web Search options, and Clip Tray contents.
Reporter operates in two modes: Authoring mode, used to capture and organize the information for your report; and presentation mode, used to view the report in its final, stylized format.
When you start Reporter, a Start-Up dialog box gives you the choice of creating a new report (either blank or based on a template), or opening an existing report. Reporter automatically opens in authoring mode for new reports and presentation mode for existing reports.
Toggling between the two modes is as easy as clicking the appropriate button on the General toolbar. This lets you continuously check the layout and format of your report as you build it, eliminating the time-consuming, post-processing step that's usually required when you use nonintegrated research and organization tools.
Reporter gives you two options for archiving your research discoveries in your report: you can either bookmark a Web page or "clip" the document. Bookmarks are simply links to pages that must be retrieved each time the link is clicked, requiring a live connection to the Internet. Clipped pages, on the other hand, are actually downloaded from the Web and stored to your system, making them available offline. Since they are stored locally, clipped pages require more storage space than bookmarked pages.
Bookmarking is the best choice for content that changes frequently, or that you have little need to modify. Clipped pages are more flexible-you can "trim" clipped pages to include only the part of the page that's relevant to your report. This can be handy for hiding distracting or unimportant information, like ads, off-topic external links, and so on. A clickable icon that replaces trimmed items allows the viewer to redisplay the item if they desire.
Adding content to a report is a snap. Reporter allows you to type the URLs for Web pages directly into the address window, or use the built-in Web-search function. Clicking the Web Search icon on the Author toolbar opens a Web Search pane above the Main Pane, offering one-click access to the major search engines. This seamless integration of search engines with Reporter is a nice touch.
You can select which engines display in the Web Search pane, though you can't add your own choices. Glaring omissions from the available engines are the meta search engines, such as Dogpile, Mamma, or Profusion, and some of the specialized "invisible Web" catalogs. I hope Webforia lets you add the search tools of your choice in future versions of Reporter.
When you add a page to an outline, Reporter automatically stores the page title and copyright information, and creates a summary of the page. A word of caution here: Reporter gets the summary from the "description" meta tag included with many Web pages. If the description doesn't exist, Reporter extracts text from near the top of the page, and like search-engine spiders that do the same thing, the result is often bizarre or unusable.
Word documents, Power Point, or PDF files can also be included in reports-though it's not immediately obvious how to do so. The trick is to open your Windows Explorer and drag the icons for the file into the Report Outline pane.
You can also add your own content to a report, writing introductions, summaries, or other comments. The New Content pane allows you to type or cut and paste text, and provides standard text formatting controls for your words.
Another feature lets you add "Notes" to the report. Notes aren't intended for readers of the report, but rather for co-authors or reviewers. Notes appear as small icons on pages, which expand simply by moving the cursor over the icon. Alternately, all notes in a report can be expanded or collapsed. High-priority Notes can also be flagged with an "Urgent" icon.
Once you've created a report, you can easily rearrange it by simply dragging and dropping pages or even whole sections within the Outline pane. Unfortunately, there is no automatic sorting capability built into the program, so reorganizing a large report can be quite time-consuming.
Sections in the Digest can be expanded or collapsed by clicking the triangles next to a section. Expanded sections display links to pages in the report; clicking on a link causes the page to display in the right frame.
Presentation mode has some powerful controls. For example, you can create a variety of different Views for the report, each containing specific sections. This allows you to selectively share only portions of your research, based on viewer need, without having to maintain multiple versions of your report.
Managing your views is easy. Once you've created a new view, a drop- down menu is added to the title bar of the Report Outline pane. Simply select the view you're interested in working with from this menu. You need to be careful working with pages or sections when you've created more than one view. Renaming or deleting pages or sections in one view will cause the same result in all views. However, if you move a page or section in one view, this won't affect its position in other views.
Reporter presentations can be exported as either a zipped (.zip) or self-extracting executable (.exe) file. Executable files are easier to work with, since they open automatically in the default browser. You can also use the Send command to automatically send an exported file as an email attachment.
The program does have some weaknesses: there is no automatic sorting of URLs or Sections, which can make reorganizing a large report a time-consuming chore; the limited number of available search engines is problematic; and some basic operations, commonplace in all Windows applications, are missing, like a file-save icon and a list of the most recently used reports. But these are all relatively minor irritations, and one hopes that they will be rectified in future versions.
Bottom line: Webforia Reporter is one of the most useful Web research tools to come along in recent months. It automates several essential functions, freeing you to focus on finding the best possible information without worrying about the underlying mechanics of organizing a report-while having a heck of a lot of fun in the process.
Chris Sherman (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Web Search Guide for About.com (formerly MiningCo.com), http://websearch.about.com. He holds an MA from Stanford University in Interactive Educational Technology and has worked in the Internet/Multimedia industry for two decades, currently as President of Searchwise.net, a Web consulting and training firm.
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