THE MAGAZINE      October 2002
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Surviving Information Overload

A host of applications, utilities and online services bring ease to the lives of organized knowledge seekers.


Information everywhere, and all the news did wane; information everywhere, nor any fact to gain. The original stanza, which appears in Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," depicts irony in the prevalence of water destructive to both sailor and ship. A similar incongruity between expectation and reality exists today for many who depend on current information. Yes, it’s everywhere, but does it alert you or bog you down?

Think about the sources you rely on to stay abreast of developments in your practice or fields of interest. You may receive new information in a variety of formats and styles. It may be formal or informal, confirmed or unverified. It may arrive in traditional print-based newsletters, magazines or newspapers, via telephone or by various electronic communications.

In the electronic arena, e-mail, discussion groups, Web-based services, intranets, RSS/XML news feeds and weblogs all vie for attention. How do you take control of this digital flood of information without waiting for the long-promised magic bullet of a true knowledge management system? First, acquire lasting organizational skills. Then, break open your wallet and prepare to spend a few dollars on timesaving services and software.

Filter, Blacklist and Bounce Spam

A friend admitted that she checked a long-standing e-mail account infrequently because she received tons of spam. The burden of weeding through it seemed to outweigh the benefit of receiving occasional e-mail from current or prospective clients. Making a tough decision, she recently moved to a new account. Now experienced, she will not make the same mistakes that contributed to the spam onslaught. She especially will not use her primary e-mail address to register for access to Web sites or to subscribe to, or participate in, electronic discussion groups.

But what do you do when you can’t move cold turkey to a new account? Consider subscribing to a filtering service like Spamcop (www It supplies customers with a Web-based filtered e-mail account for a small annual fee. It fetches and filters e-mail from other POP-compliant servers, provides additional optional spam filters, detects and deletes viruses, supports rules for managing incoming mail and assists with spam reporting.

If you prefer a standalone application, check out MailWasher (www or SpamKiller (www These programs fetch, filter, blacklist and bounce spam. MailWasher recently announced it would soon support fetching e-mail from Web-based accounts like Hotmail and AOL.

Let Web Tracking Services Run Repeat Searches

Do you regularly perform the same queries at Google or other search engines? Do you frequently check the Web site of a government agency, client or competitor for changes or updates? Save time with Web tracking services.

Many of the better ones require payment, but typically offer limited free monitoring. While not on a par with the commercial services, WatchThatPage ( tracks changes in Web pages for free.

Of the fee-based services, I prefer TrackEngine ( It’s easy to use and reliable, and it provides a range of payment options. More importantly, it offers powerful features such as the ability to track changes at password-accessible sites, or to use data stored in cookie files.

As editor of an alert service for lawyers and librarians that reports on new Web resources as well as laws, regulations or events that affect information sources or research strategies, I have to stay one step ahead of readers. TrackEngine helps me do this in two ways. First, it monitors government, publisher and other select Web sites for new press releases, documents or news. Second, it performs multiple queries daily in various general and specialty search engines.

How News Monitoring Works

Imagine that you want to watch for new press releases issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission. First, visit the SEC Web page that provides a table of contents, or index, for the press releases ( Then, invoke the TrackEngine bookmarklet. A bookmarklet is a small javascript application that resides in your Favorites folder. For ease of use, I keep the TrackEngine bookmarklet in the Links toolbar.

Configure the tracking page, giving it a distinctive title for e-mail sorting purposes. Upon detecting a change, TrackEngine sends a highlighted report by e-mail, mobile phone or pager, and stores it in your Web-based account.

Now, suppose you want to monitor the news for mention of a client or competitor. Connect to Allthe Web’s ( news search engine and perform the search. Note the number of results displayed. If it’s fewer than 100, edit your preference settings with this engine. Turn the offensive content filter off, unless you don’t want to know about the use of a client’s or competitor’s name in this context. Set the results display to the maximum amount. Save the settings. If necessary, perform the query again. From the first search results page, invoke the TrackEngine bookmarklet.

To cast the widest possible net, repeat this process at other news search sites. These include Google (http://, AltaVista (http: //, Daypop (www and RocketInfo (www NorthernLight News Search ( .html) provides its own alert service.

Once the tracking reports begin to arrive, create rules to sort them into special folders.

Those who work primarily on one computer should review the monitoring software WebSite-Watcher (www. It matches TrackEngine in power and reliability, and it costs less.

Use Newsreaders to Filter the Noise

How many times have you accessed a Web page only to forget what you read because of distracting advertisements? New York Times articles, for example, feature animated and voice-activated ads, pop-ups and pop-unders, and ads that move with the page.

But more than just ads contribute to noise on the Web. Some weblogs—or commentaries displayed in reverse chronological order on virtually any topic of interest to the author or contributors—border on verbosity as the writer crosses the line between sharing information and raving (or ranting) about it. Also, the use of graphics and flash animations sometimes serves no purpose other than competing for the viewer’s attention.

Newsreaders, such as Newzcrawler (www.newz, filter this noise by providing headlines and text-based summaries for sites and weblogs offering informative RSS/XML news feeds. Note, however, that some news feeds consist only of hyperlinked titles. Because the titles often mean nothing to the reader, such only serve to link back to the noise.

Where do you find news feeds? For news from leading regional and national newspapers, begin with Moreover ( ories/category_list_rss.html). Moreover also enables creation of custom news feeds using keywords (www.more Another useful source, Syndic8 (, collects information about a number of news feeds. And NewsIsFree (www harvests headlines from a variety of sources.

Take Advantage of Toolbars and Browser Add-ons

Specially designed toolbars and browser add-ons can save you time, reduce clutter and perform a variety of other functions. Most search engines now offer free toolbars that work with newer versions of Internet Explorer. Those who want access to more than one search engine should review Ultrabar (, a customizable toolbar that supports numerous searches and site queries, including those run from an intranet. Two of the three versions available are free.

If you write while performing research, you may want to download the Merriam-Webster toolbar (www. It enables dictionary and thesaurus look-ups from any Web page.

The Teoma toolbar (http://sp.ask. com/docs/teoma/toolbar) provides another useful feature. With a single click, users can e-mail a Web page without invoking their software-based e-mail program. This toolbar also supports dictionary look-ups.

Tired of pop-up ads? Free Surfer ( eliminates them and optionally stops GIF or flash animations. It also lets the user define rules that allow pop-ups. For example, composing, or replying to, e-mail with Spamcop opens a new browser window. Create a rule to allow the Spamcop pop-up.

Another add-on, IE Booster (www, enhances the Internet Explorer context menu (right mouse click). It enables opening frames in new browser windows, viewing forms and applets and their source codes, listing hyperlinks and more.

Learn about other browser add-ons and software utilities at Web

That’s the Price of Success

Unlike the seawater of Coleridge’s poem, the prevalence of electronic information doesn’t have to be a burden. Managed properly, it will do what it ought to do—inform. But success will demand that you get organized. You may also have to part with a few hard-earned dollars for Web-based services and software that assist you.

Alternatively, you could wait for the magic bullet.

GENIE TYBURSKI ( is Web Manager of The Virtual Chase, a service of Ballard Spahr Andrews &Ingersoll, LLP.