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|VOLUME 26 • NUMBER 6 • November/December 2002|
ON THE NET •
The Blog Realm: RSS, Aggregators, and Reading the Blog Fantastic
by Greg R. Notess
Reference Librarian, Montana State University
I explored the realm of the Weblog in my last column ("The Blog Realm: News Sources, Searching with Daypop, and Content Management," ONLINE, September/October 2002, pp. 70-72). The content management capabilities of blog software and the search options from Daypop provide incentives for information professionals to be aware, at least, of blogging. But for every blogger out there, there are probably a dozen or more others who prefer reading to writing. With the explosion of Weblogs come new ways of reading them.
The solutions used to keep up with blogs are often called news aggregators. Much of the current software is still buggy and imperfect. It is in some ways like the early days of the Web when many issues were still being resolved, but these approaches may well become more integrated into e-mail, Web browsing, and stand-alone software in the next few years.
THE DAILY CONUNDRUM
Weblogs and news media sites share a common strength and a common weakness. With frequent updates, these sites help us keep track of the latest news, opinions, and rumors. Unfortunately, the frequent updates mean that we spend more time trying to keep up with them. So, we can check all of the news Web sites and blogs of interest every day, starting from our bookmarks or some other source. But this gets tedious rather quickly, especially as the number of sources of interest multiplies.
Another alternative is to get e-mail notification of updates. Many news sites offer this option. For other sites, current awareness tools like InfoMinder and WebSpector can be used to check for Web site updates and e-mail alerts and even include some of the changes. But again, as the number of sites covered increases, the daily e-mail inundation gets tedious as well, especially when combined with list mail, other e-mail, and all the junk mail that slips past the filters.
For those who like to skim many of these frequently updated sources, a better approach is to find something that summarizes the new content, presents it in a compact format, combines multiple sources in one interface, and provides links to the full content to make it easy to pick and choose which new articles to read. And this is exactly what a news aggregator is designed to do.
RICH SITE SUMMARIES
The whole idea of Rich Site Summaries (RSS) came from Netscape back in its glory days. But the capability of RSS has been combined and expanded with the rise of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) to create the Internet's version of a news wire.
RSS is a way of creating a broadcast version of a blog or news page. Anyone who has frequently updated content and is willing to let others republish it can create the RSS file. Typically called syndication, the RSS file is an XML formatted file that can be used at other sites or by other intermediary software such as news aggregators. The original incarnation was to use RSS to include several headlines on a personalized portal page. But an RSS feed can also be easily pulled into other functions, such as an aggregator.
Sites that offer an RSS file will often display a small icon with either RSS or, more commonly now, XML in a small box, usually orange. An RSS feed can just have headlines, or it can have headlines and summaries. Due to varying formats of the RSS file, publisher vagaries, and the capabilities of the specific news aggregator, summaries may or may not be displayed.
Once you have found some RSS feeds, what can you use them for? Opening an RSS link or trying to view the file linked to the XML button within one of today's Web browsers will just show strange XML code. Another piece of software is needed, namely a news aggregator. Fortunately, there are some online aggregators that require no extra software beyond a Web browser.
The more full-featured news aggregators are software programs. These need to be downloaded and installed on your computer, but tend to have more options and capabilities. Some of them come bundled with blog creation software, such as the Radio Userland suite. But others are freely available to anyone. As mentioned earlier, these are all still-developing programs and have a variety of kinks to work out, but let's take a closer look at a few current options.
Of the online options, one interesting site is not exactly an aggregator. Syndic8 is more of a directory of available syndicated news feeds. This includes both standard news media sites and plenty of blogs and at the time of this writing has close to 8,000 different sources. There is even a section for encouraging specific submitted sites to syndicate their content.
While Syndic8 links to the Web pages and XML feeds for each of the sites, it does not provide a centralized reading area. Instead, use Syndic8.com to track down new news sources and relevant Weblogs.
The best of the online aggregators is NewsIsFree. Because NewsIsFree is online, no software downloads or installation is necessary. Just go to its site and register. Then view the default choices or choose your own sources. It offers several ways to choose from the list of sources. Users can configure which sources show at the top and in which of three columns. And the headlines can be displayed on one or more pages. In this configured NewsIsFree display, there is a second page for search engine stories under what I have labeled "Search 2."
One of the problems with the NewsIsFree display, as can be seen in the example, is that the headlines are not as compressed as they might be. Plus, with the three-column display, it can be difficult visually to quickly browse the headlines. And if one source has lots of headlines, it may push the second source in the column quite far down.
Desktop software must be downloaded onto your own computer. Then it has to be installed and sometimes configured. It will only run on that computer unless it is installed on others as well, so keeping a desktop and laptop computer synchronized with the same feed configuration can take a little extra work. However, client programs can run faster and offer some special features not available in online counterparts. Two free client programs are AmphetaDesk and Feedreader.
AmphetaDesk, a free program for Windows, Mac, and Linux, is somewhat of a hybrid. The free download does need to be installed on your local computer, but once it is loaded, AmphetaDesk presents its results on a local Web page in your default browser. Figure 3 shows this presentation. It only uses one column, and again, it does not make the most efficient use of the screen real estate and requires scrolling down to see the other sources.
Adding new feeds is as easy as clicking the "Add a Channel" link at the top and then telling AmphetaDesk the URL of the feed. AmphetaDesk calls these channels. Note that these should be URLs for an RSS feed, often identified with that XML icon shown in Figure 1. The feed URL typically ends with xml or rss.
The "My Settings" link gives only a few customizable options. Headline links can open in the same window or a new browser window. You can change how frequently AmphetaDesk checks for new headlines, with 1 hour as the minimum. Other options include changing the default Web browser, proxy server settings, and a time-out setting.
Another free option is Feedreader, although it is currently only available for Windows. Feedreader is a self-contained news aggregator. It uses Internet Explorer internally to display Web pages, but as can be seen in Figure 4, the layout is different from the other aggregators.
Feedreader shows headlines from one source at a time, but the folder icons in the left-hand window mark those with news. The headlines are then displayed in the Headline window, with unread ones denoted with bold. For some feeds, selecting a headline will provide a text-only summary of the articles, as in the example in Figure 4. Unfortunately, not all feeds have summaries. A few might even include a logo.
The third window can also display the whole article. Double-clicking on various headlines can either open the link in that "minibrowser" window, or sometimes it will open it up in your default Web browser. Right-click on the headline to get both of those options along with an "E-mail article" choice.
To subscribe to a new source, click on the "New Feed" button at the top. That opens up a new line (that you might miss if you look away after clicking the button) right below the button for entering an RSS's URL.
Feedreader also has a small icon in the system tray that will produce a pop-up window announcing new headlines. It says how many, which news sources, and even includes the headline.
WHERE TO START
So with all these options, how best to start reading blogs and news sites? We started off looking for something to summarize new content in a compact format, combine multiple sources, and link to the full text. The current crop of news aggregators does well at combining disparate sources and providing links. The summaries and the presentation still need work. In addition, all the aggregators mentioned here seem to have intermittent failings and may not properly retrieve the latest headlines or might miss some content from a particular source. While part of this may be due to mistakes on the part of the source publisher, you should be aware of the limitations.
For an initial foray into RSS news reading, start with NewsIsFree. It requires no payment, software download, or complex installation. It is a good starting point for trying an aggregator. If its capabilities appeal, then take the additional effort to download AmphetaDesk and Feedreader. See for yourself which matches your news browsing style better, or which handles your favorite blogs or other news sources best.
Greg R. Notess (email@example.com; www.notess.com/) is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com.
Comments? Email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.