Web News Wranglers

These tools and sites can help make you an incredibly well-informed person -- in a hurry

Technology advances quickly, but information grows at an even faster clip. The torrents of blog posts and news feeds on today's Internet hold way too much data to keep up with if you just browse the Web normally. Fortunately, help is here in the form of sites that filter the news for you with ever-increasing efficiency, and improved news readers that let you subscribe to news feeds and sort through them like e-mail.

For example, sites such as Digg rely on Web 2.0 techniques to turn users into editors. Other approaches include sites that mine the linking structures of top blogs to provide a front-page-news view of the Internet's conversations, and personalized news-recommendation engines that monitor your reading habits to bring you more-focused news.

What is the best news-management approach for you? We'll examine a number of sites, Web apps, and programs that can help you sort through the best news and commentary on the Net.

First, though, a little background: Almost all of these tools depend on RSS (for Really Simple Syndication) feeds--specially formatted XML files that sites use to quickly publish and exchange bare-bones information about new articles, blog posts, or other updates.

They're often identified on a Web site by a small, orange 'XML' button. (You can right-click the button or link, and then copy the link location.) Once you add that feed into a news reader, the software will periodically check it for new stories. Good news readers let you read through sites in half the time that you would take using a browser. Plus, if you're getting spam on one feed, you can just unsubscribe.

Of course, while feed readers can help you plow through stories quickly, they create a new temptation: Once you realize you've read your news in half the time, it's easy to subscribe to more and more feeds until you're spending as much time reading news as you did before.

Filtering the Feeds

That's where today's crop of news filtering sites come in. By taking into account the structure of Internet conversations, your own reading habits, and the browsing habits of like-minded readers, a good news filter can help you zero in on the news you care about. And while a lot of these tools are still in their infancy, many are plenty good enough to merit addition to your list of critical news sites.

Techmeme is among the best of these services. The site (formerly tech.memeorandum) bills itself as "Page A1" of the tech blogosphere and displays the most talked-about stories of the day. Techmeme repeatedly crawls the feeds of the top tech news sites and blogs, and identifies the most-linked-to stories. It then points you to discussions of those stories, as well as to nested related items.

Simply put, it's a condensed guide to the latest technology news on the Net--and incidentally, a fantastic place to find blogs whose feeds you might want to subscribe to. Gabe Rivera, the site's sole proprietor, harnesses the same algorithms to power an ever-growing list of news filters devoted to politics Memeorandum.com, baseball Ballbug.com, and celebrity gossip WeSmirch.com, and he intends to continue adding new topics.

A similar Web service called TailRank tries to create a top-level "newspaper" tailored specifically to your interests, based on the feeds you tell it to monitor. It then counts the number of sites that link to stories in your feeds and presents the articles in order of popularity. TailRank also produces a personalized version of Amazon.com's "people who like item X also like item Y" feature, based on a comparison of your feeds to those of others.

While TailRank doesn't have quite the sophistication of Techmeme in weeding out duplicates and making sure that related links are actually related, it does possess one mysterious, somewhat creepy, yet very useful feature: At the click of a button, TailRank can check your browser's history, cache, or cookies and figure out which blogs and news sites you've recently visited so you can add them to your list of feeds.

Link Popularity: Techmeme vs. TailRank

Techmeme showcases the top tech stories of the day, which the service identifies by monitoring A-list blogs and news sources. It provides a conversational view, rich with links to online discussions. The site skews heavily toward Web 2.0 news, and it often links to the same group of top-echelon blogs. While Techmeme could use some customization options, the site presents a handy overview of the tech-blog world.

Like Techmeme, TailRank relies on the conversational model of the Web, but it lets you create your own news filter that looks at the most-linked-to items in the feeds you tell it to monitor. It's rougher around the edges than Techmeme and prone to duplication, but TailRank captures a richer array of voices. Eventually, TailRank's personalization options may pull it ahead.

Edge: Techmeme

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