If we rewound the clock a decade, we’d find ourselves immersed in the breathless announcements that followed the launch of PointCast. PointCast, you may recall, was the software application that delivered news to you when you wanted it.
Its downfall was its popularity: Bandwidth was nowhere near as inexpensive (or ubiquitous) as it is today, so as multiple users installed PointCast on their desktops, its bandwidth needs far outstripped the networks on which the users were surfing. Corporations and universities banned it, and PointCast eventually faded away. Although not meant to be, it was an exciting glimpse of a future involving the delivery rather than the retrieval of information.
The magazines of the time were eager to call this something new. And so was born the “push vs. pull” debate—“push” being content delivered by a source, “pull” being content retrieved by you. If only someone had explained Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Physics to the journalists of the day, maybe we’d have been spared years of trying to decipher whether the distinction really meant anything at all.
In truth, the innovation was, and is, not the means of delivery. It’s the means of retrieval. If you’re the one doing all the looking, you inevitably end up spending a boatload of time looking. If you can somehow get others (people or computers) to do the searching for you, you’re more likely to leverage your limited time. And you’re more likely to retrieve information that is useful while retaining time to focus on your work.
Today, at last, there are powerful tools to exponentially increase your searching abilities without requiring any ongoing time on your part. Here is a summary of some of the more useful and exciting tools that can uncover hidden gems of information faster and more efficiently than ever before.
Feed Me, Please: News Alerts from Google and Yahoo
Everyone knows about Google’s ability to search Web pages, but a much smaller number know about Google News (http://news.google.com). It’s an index of more than 4,500 online news sites that is updated throughout the day. Looking for the latest coverage of a particular topic? Google News is the place to go.
Even fewer know about Google News Alerts, a service that will send you an e-mail whenever an article matching your search criteria is published in any of the index’s sources. After typing in a query at Google News, just click the “News Alerts” link in the left-hand column, then make a few selections and bingo: Your first automated query is running. From there, simply watch your inbox.
You say you’re not a fan of e-mail?
A non-supported hack is available at www.justinpfister.com/gnewsfeed.php that will create an RSS feed from your Google News query. (Note: This could vanish at any time.)
If you’re interested in a more “official” service, be sure to check out Yahoo! News, which lets you create an RSS feed from any news query. After typing in your query at http://news.yahoo.com, just click on the “View as RSS” link in the lower-right corner.
Add that URL to your news aggregator and you’ll get always-updated links to the latest news automatically.
To the Blogs! On the Watch with Monitoring Tools
Weblogs are an increasingly fertile source of current information and opinions, as other articles in this issue of Law Practice make clear. But with millions of blogs out there on the Web, finding the ones you should care about is increasingly a Sisyphean task. Where do you look? Who started blogging yesterday that’s writing about information you absolutely need today?
Several services provide critical tools for monitoring the ever-increasing chatter in the blogosphere. In my book, Technorati and Blogpulse make sifting through the noise to find the right information almost trivially easy.
Technorati. Now indexing more than 800,000 posts a day—from close to 11 million blogs—Technorati ( www.technorati.com) lets you search the “World Live Web.” In addition to keyword searches (what blogs have written about My Firm today?), you can also do URL searches (who has linked to www.myfirm.com today?). Both are wonderful ways to find information related to topics and Web sites of importance to you.
Best of all, with a free account at Technorati you can create a “watchlist,” which provides an RSS feed that you can plug into your aggregator. Given the speed with which Technorati updates its index, you can often have posts in your aggregator within an hour or so of their original publication.
Blogpulse. Blogpulse indexes around 400,000 posts per day ( www.blogpulse.com). The service calls itself an “automated trend discovery system,” which I think means it searches blogs (though their wording sounds cooler, I’ll admit). While it has some overlap with Technorati, you’ll see some content at Blogpulse that you won’t find at Technorati (and vice versa). Blogpulse also has a very slick interface, with graphs that let you display trends and compare search results against each other. In addition, it provides the ability to subscribe to an RSS feed for your searches.
Where to Put the Information? NewsGator Does the Trick
Not surprisingly, processing all this information requires a decent news aggregator. My aggregator of choice these days is NewsGator ( www.newsgator.com), mostly because it’s actually several aggregators in one.
NewsGator first gained attention as an Outlook plug-in, pulling RSS feeds into Outlook so users could consume RSS feeds just like they consume e-mail. NewsGator also has a powerful synchronization engine, which allows you to maintain folders for your feeds in Outlook that are then replicated online. In this way, if you’re away from your computer, you can view all the information through another Web-connected computer. You can view items, mark them as read, and delete them. Then when you return to Outlook on your own computer, you’ll only see the items newly delivered to your inbox. NewsGator
Mobile lets me browse my feeds from my Treo (my Palm-based smart phone). Plus, the recent acquisition of stand-alone client FeedDemon now brings another aggregator into the mix (a Windows-based client that also synchronizes).
What if you don’t use Outlook for e-mail? No worries. NewsGator includes e-mail-based news aggregators that will deliver RSS feeds to your inbox. All of these end points synchronize with each other. Thus, you can ensure that once you’ve read an item in one location, you don’t have to read it anywhere else—unless, of course, you want to.
Best of all? Because NewsGator items appear as messages in Outlook, every RSS item I receive is indexed by Google Desktop Search. This ensures that I not only get the information I want delivered to me, I also have a full-text index of that content that’s searchable in just a few seconds.
Oh, did I mention this is all free? It’s the Beauty of Choice
There are hundreds of aggregators from which to choose. (Oh, what choice you have!) But regardless of which you prefer, the beauty of using RSS as your information conduit is this: New services like those discussed here keep arriving to ensure that you’ll always find what you want when you want it.And that, it seems, would prove Mr. Thoreau’s point. Then again, he’s also the one who wrote, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Still working on that one….
Rick Klau ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Vice President of Business Development for FeedBurner and a Law Practice technology columnist.