The Coolest Tools for Trawling & Tracking the Web
Ahh, Boston in springtime. Duck boat armadas on the Charles. The vinegary smell of the wood-chip mulch landscapers spread everywhere. Tow trucks hauling away cars so that street sweepers can get at the dead leaves accumulating since October. A guy on a recumbent bike pulling a train of three skateboarders along the Esplanade.
I could have spent the rest of this 70-degree afternoon watching the city come back to life from my park bench. But out of commitment to you, dear reader, I’ve wandered back inside to write my first annual spring roundup of new and/or improved tools for finding and tracking information on the Web. If you’d rather be outside yourself, just bookmark this article using Diigo (of which more below) and come back to it when the temps dip back below 40—which will probably be this weekend, knowing New England.
The advent of the RSS syndication format has made it so easy to grab and repurpose chunks of information from around the Web that there’s a sudden surfeit of websites that aggregate content from other sites. But not all of these aggregators are equal, and I thought I would share a few of my favorites.
For convenience, versatility, and beauty, it’s hard to beat Netvibes, which somehow manages to array 100 or more RSS headlines across a single page without looking cluttered. I’ve been using it for a couple of years now, and have always been impressed by how easily I can add feeds to my Netvibes page and organize them across multiple tabs. And with the launch of Netvibes’ Ginger release about a month ago, the site is even more powerful than before, acting as a platform for sharing and republishing your favorite finds. While it’s still best at aggregating RSS feeds and podcasts, Netvibes can also be used as a gateway to your e-mail, social-networking, and photo-sharing accounts; communications tools such as Twitter, Skype, and instant-messaging programs; and hundreds of widgets that bring you everything from weather reports to TV schedules.
If Netvibes is all about customization, Alltop is all about simplicity. Launched last month by prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki, Alltop is a clean and spartan collection of the five most recent headlines from 50 to 100 leading blogs in each of 55 categories, from books to extreme sports to Linux. If you mouse over one of the headlines, the first few sentences of the story pop up in a bubble (Netvibes does this too, but Alltop’s snippets are longer, which I appreciate). As far as I can tell, Guy himself determines which blogs are worthy of inclusion in Alltop, but I’m impressed by his editorial taste so far. (Full disclosure: Xconomy is one of the top blogs listed in Alltop’s Venture Capital category.)
Many software geeks protested after Alltop’s launch that there was little new technology under the hood, beyond the site’s sleek transparent banner. I think that’s exactly the point. It’s so simple that you can learn how to use it in seconds, and you never have to fool with adding an RSS feed manually (a concept still entirely foreign to most Internet users).
I think there’s always room for Web developers to try out new variations of established products such as RSS aggregators. That’s exactly what the brand-new site Naubo is doing in the area of news spidering, a genre pioneered years ago by Google News. Naubo is, in fact, a virtual copy of Google News, right down to the way its columns are laid out and color-coded—except that it’s all about technology. I’m really enjoying the way Naubo surfaces the latest key stories in the world of software, hardware, and the Internet from both the blogosphere and traditional news sources like Reuters and Computerworld. In principle you could personalize Google News to emphasize certain subjects, but it has only one category for Sci-Tech, whereas Naubo has more than a half-dozen, including sections devoted specifically to Apple, Microsoft, and Linux.
Sometimes, the aggregators lead you to articles or sites that you want to save and remember. And for that, I have another favorite tool: Diigo. While it would be easy to describe Diigo as a social bookmarking service, that would make it sound too much like Del.icio.us or Furl or Reddit (all of which I’ve tried and tired of at various times). It’s really more of a research tool with social, collaborative features.
Most importantly, Diigo (which is operated through a toolbar that works in the Firefox, Internet Explorer and Flock browsers) allows you to bookmark pages on a list that’s saved forever online and accessible from anywhere. No more messing around with your Web browser’s built-in bookmarks, which won’t be available to you if you happen to log into the web from a different computer. Just as fun, Diigo makes it easy to highlight passages within a Web page—so you can return later and see what it was that caught your attention—and even attach floating “sticky notes.”
You can also attach tags to your bookmarks to make them easier to find later on, and you can click on individual tags to see what other Diigo users are bookmarking publicly under those tags. (As a journalist, I’m secretive enough about what I’m researching online that I tend to keep my Diigo bookmarks private.) In late March, Diigo rolled out Version 3 of its system, which includes enhanced “social browsing” features such as the ability to see how other people have annotated a given Web page, follow what your friends are bookmarking, or subscribe to other users’ bookmarks based on tags. These are nice additions, but I’ve always appreciated Diigo mainly for its simple, reliable bookmarking and highlighting tools; I’ve got close to 700 bookmarks on the site going back to early 2006.
Recently I’ve been experimenting with another new collaborative Web information-sharing tool called Twine, which is still in beta testing and is built around small communities of people following specific subjects or “twines” such as virtual worlds and semantic Web apps. I haven’t used it enough yet to be able to tell whether it’s a sound concept, but I’ll let you know in a future column. Meanwhile, if you like trying out new Web 2.0 applications as much as I do, CNET’s Webware blog, edited by Rafe Needleman, highlights several new ones every day. But before you go there—go outside! Unless, of course, spring has gone back into hiding by the time you read this.