On The Net
By Greg R. Notess
Reference Librarian Montana
It is always a guessing game as to which online technologies and products
will succeed and which will fail. As an ONLINE columnist, I constantly watch
the various Internet-related news that I think might be of interest to information
professionals. The latest public relations campaign for any commercial product
(and even many free ones) tends to overstate the impact and promise not-quite-yet
released features. In general, PR departments promote as the latest killer
application something that is more than likely to die itself in the next year
Yet sometimes, technologies come along that slowly, over an extended period,
cause a shift in our use of the Internet and our own information seeking habits.
For that reason, it is worth revisiting some older technologies once in awhile
to see which have lasted, improved, and managed over time to build a niche
This month I am revisiting a variety of technologies from previous columns
to see which have changed my online habits and which have not. From browsers
to toolbars to bookmarklets to RSS, technologies on the Web can alter the way
in which we interact with that huge information space we call the Web.
OTHER WEB BROWSERS
When I last wrote about Web browsers ("Browser Diversity," July/August 2001),
Mozilla had yet to release its browser out of beta and the Firefox name had
not yet appeared. The Mozilla browser suite has been in full release since
June 2002 and has been building market share. Meanwhile, even before the full
release of Mozilla's stand-alone Firefox browser, scheduled for late 2004,
it has also been building momentum and has been downloaded millions of times.
The past few months have seen the first small decline in Internet Explorer's
market share for many years. Several reasons have influenced the shift. First
of all, Internet Explorer's security flaws have been widely publicized, along
with the recommendation to switch to another browser for better security. Great
improvements to speed and reliability and compelling new features (such as
pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing) that the Mozilla suite and Mozilla Firefox
offer have been another incentive. Plus, most Web sites will display equally
well in a Mozilla browser as in Internet Explorer.
The pop-up blocking, tabbed browsing, and several other features have made
me a confirmed Mozilla user for the past several years. The ability to increase
all nongraphic font sizes has been quite useful in teaching, giving presentations,
and helping the visually impaired. While pop-up blocking is available from
Internet Explorer on Windows XP SP2 and for other Windows versions by using
various toolbars, Mozilla has more capabilities. With the Adblock add-on [http://adblock.mozdev.org],
even Flash ads and iframe ads can be blocked. Tabbed browsing lets the multitasking
information seeker open up many different Web pages all in the same window.
Since all these features are available in both the Mozilla suite and Mozilla
Firefox, which browser should you try? For those who want the suite of applications,
including the Mozilla e-mail client, Composer for Web page editing, or the
ChatZilla IRC chat client, the Mozilla suite is more appropriate. Firefox is
just a Web browser. Without the other applications, it tends to load faster.
Firefox has fewer options than Mozilla, but it also has some unique features,
including the Live Bookmarks for RSS feeds. If you are still using only Internet
Explorer for Web browsing, take some time to try out either Mozilla or Firefox.
Just last year, in the January/February 2004 ONLINE, I wrote about the flood
of toolbars search companies and others were launching. Most of these toolbars
work only with Internet Explorer, and each additional one takes up screen space.
Thus, most users will keep no more than a few toolbars. However, it should
come as no surprise that, since I generally use Mozilla, toolbars are one technology
I have not yet adopted. I did add the Yahoo! toolbar to Internet Explorer to
suppress pop-ups, as well as its Anti-Spy button for a quick spyware and adware
The idea of a toolbar providing quick access to frequently visited sites
and frequently used functions is certainly a good one. Unfortunately, most
toolbars center all shortcuts around just one company's products and services
(as with the Google, Yahoo!, and Ask Jeeves toolbars). For those who would
like to use multiple sites and functions, it either requires multiple toolbars
or a different approach. For now, the personal toolbar (called the Links toolbar
in Internet Explorer or the Bookmarks toolbar in Firefox) has begun to fulfill
that function. The Mozilla browser has a personal toolbar above the five tabs.
By using cryptically short names for the bookmarks on the personal toolbar,
even more can be crammed in up there. But rather than just using bookmarks,
it is the bookmarklet technology which dominates on the personal toolbar.
Bookmarklets have been around for years. When I looked at them many years
ago, in the days of Netscape's dominance, I did not see any that were compelling
for my browsing habits. It was not until reading about Jon Udell's library
lookup bookmarklets that I got interested in them again. After further research
into their various uses, I wrote in July/August 2003 on "Bookmarklets, Favelets,
and Keymarks: Shortcuts Galore."
Since that time, I have begun using bookmarklets more frequently. I added
a list of the ones I find most useful to my Web site [www.searchengineshowdown.com/bmlets].
For my Web browsing, it has not been the library lookup bookmarklets that get
frequent use. Instead, it is a collection of the search engine and display
bookmarklets. Those that quickly switch from search engine results to another
search engine and those that take select text on a Web page and send it to
a search engine can expedite the search process. Others change the display
and make some hard-to-read Web pages legible.
From a page of Google search results, displayed in the Mozilla browser, one
click retrieves a page of Yahoo! results for the same search (the @Y one).
One more click, and a page of Teoma results appears (@T). From another search
engine, the @g finds the Google results with a single click. When a Web page
uses a small font size on a similarly colored background or has animated Flash
advertisements, simply clicking a zap bookmarklet makes the page easily readable.
As their usefulness increases, simply placing several bookmarklets directly
on the personal toolbar means they are always quickly accessible. To make more
room on the toolbar, give them shorter names. The transfer search bookmarklets
were renamed from something like @Yahoo! to just @Y, or the Google Site Search
bookmarklet could become g site, making more room available to add others.
RSS AND SITE SYNDICATION
RSS has certainly been a technology increasingly mentioned at conferences
and in the press. Whether standing for Rich Site Summaries or Really Simple
Syndication, RSS is another technology from the good old Netscape days. Others
had been promoting its benefits for years before I wrote my "RSS, Aggregators,
and Reading the Blog Fan-tastic" column (November/December 2002.) Yet for about
a year after that column, and after trying several RSS newsreaders, I still
rarely used them. Every once in a while I would try them one again, but nothing
really caught my attention.
Part of the problem, given my personal Web use patterns, was the need to
use another program for RSS reading. Most of my online time is spent with a
browser (or two) open in addition to my e-mail program. I just did not have
the need to constantly check for new postings and news stories at the various
blogs and news sites in my fields of interest.
In addition, there has been further confusion of standards. Which version
of RSS is the best? Various sites use widely different versions: RSS 0.90,
0.91, 0.92, 0.93, 0.94, 1.0, and 2.0 have some significant differences. More
recently, Google's Blogger (whose blogs often appear under a blogspot.com domain)
has moved to a related but different standard called Atom [www.atomenabled.org].
All types of RSS and Atom are Syndication formats, and fortunately, most well-maintained
aggregators like Bloglines should handle all the RSS versions and Atom feeds
It was not until I tried Bloglines [www.bloglines.com], one of several Web-based
news aggregators, that I finally turned the corner. Bloglines is a free service
for reading newsfeeds, blogs, and even e-mail lists. It does require users
to establish a free account.
Since Bloglines is an online aggregator, the same account can be used at
home, at work, or on the road. One great advantage to an aggregator such as
Bloglines is that it keeps track of which items it has displayed. So if you
don't check in for a day (or week or more), when you do look again, each feed
has the number of items that have not yet been displayed. Like other aggregators,
Bloglines helps avoid wasted time re-reading old news, and it lets the reader
decide when to view each feed and each posting.
Other useful features have been introduced over the years. Users can divide
feeds into user-specified categories. Each posting has a "Clip/Blog This," which
lets users either keep a posting in their clippings folder or post it to their
own blog. Users can e-mail posts to others (or themselves), and the procrastinator's
friend, a "Keep New" check box, makes a posting continue to display as unread.
Bloglines includes several search options, such as searching all the syndicated
feeds it tracks (even without registration). For those who have set up individual
subscriptions, a "Search My Subscriptions" can be used. One use of these abilities
is to set up a separate category for feeds just for searching. These can be
feeds that may not be read every day, or at all. The advantage to having them
listed is that the feeds will then be included in the "Search My Subscriptions" search
option. It is a simple way to create a customized search of specific news sources
and RSS feeds.
Syndication and an aggregator can be a great combination. Certainly, in the
two years since my first RSS column, it seems that more and more conference
speakers are talking about RSS. But be warned. Conference speakers and writers
may tend to try and follow news much more closely than the average surfer.
Most audience members are still not using RSS readers on a regular basis. While
it is wise to be aware of such trends, news aggregators work best for those
who like to check specific news sites and blogs on a frequent basis. Do you
visit news sites, blogs, or any other site with site syndication available
on a daily basis? Then by all means try Bloglines or another aggregator. Too
busy for the daily approach? Prefer to catch up on the news once every month
or so? Read ONLINE, what else! Seriously, for many busy information professionals,
a syndication aggregator is not yet essential.
Another midway approach is to use the RSS reader at My Yahoo!. Add RSS (or
Atom) feeds to a personalized My Yahoo! page, and the top few listings appear.
Instead of listing all items in a feed, only the most recent are shown. With
this approach, you can read syndicated feeds, talk about RSS with others, without
having to spend as much time trying to keep up with a full type aggregator.
Consider revisiting technologies from the past. While 4 years ago switching
browsers may not have been tempting, the current crop from Mozilla have some
compelling advantages. Revisiting toolbars, on the other hand, still failed
to convince me to make them a regular part of my Internet tools. Bookmarklets
have proved extremely useful, greatly speeding up some tasks and making many
Web pages much easier to read.
RSS and the capabilities of syndicated content are important for information
professionals, at least for an understanding of what kind of information is
disseminated via RSS and Atom feeds. Subscribing to some feeds in Bloglines
or My Yahoo! is an easy way to sample RSS, and for those who frequent numerous
news sites each day, these tools can be a real time saver.
Trying out both new and old Internet technologies can be time consuming.
Many fail to live up to the hype, and what works great for one user leaves
their neighbor cold. But every once in a while you can find some tools that
can change for the better the way you use the Web.
R. Notess (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.notess.com)
is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com.
Comments? Email the editor at email@example.com.