Power User: More Google power

John McCormick

Try out a makeshift RSS feed of news and info

The announcement of a project to digitize millions of old books from university libraries put Google in the news recently. But Google is also a great place to find news.

You've probably noticed the News link at www.google.com, but did you know you can set up an automatic e-mail alert so Google notifies you when breaking news hits the wires? Sure, other online news sites have alert services, but they don't monitor more than 4,500 news sources, as Google News does. You can also have Google alert you when its search bots index new information anywhere else on the Web. It's like one enormous RSS feed of important updates.

To automate the process, click on the News Alerts tag on the Google New page (or go to www.google.com/alerts) and enter your search string, then select whether you want to be notified as news and Web updates happen, once a day or just once a week. To monitor multiple topics, you'll want to sign up for a Google account.

If you get too many hits, try variations of your search string through the regular News Search site. When you find a string that nets the results you're looking for, copy that string into your Alert. Remember, you can save complex Google search strings by creating a shortcut on your Windows desktop. After a successful search, Internet Explorer users can click, File, Send and choose Shortcut to Desktop. User of other browsers will need to copy the resulting URL then create a shortcut on their desktop and paste the URL into the Create Shortcut box.

Monitoring the news is useful, but alerts from a variety of Web sites could be invaluable. With fine-tuning, Google can be set up to let you know when a new vulnerability is discovered in some software you use. It may spot network security exploits, based on Web postings, before a vendor is aware of the threat. It can also let you know when information you publish gets indexed.

And Google recently launched yet another new service. Scholar.google.com is still in beta, but it is poised to change the way researchers find peer-reviewed journal papers.

I tried a search for M theory and got 4,050 hits. On the first page, I found several useful links to full-text scientific articles, including a 26-page Acrobat file covering the origins of the 11-dimensional supergravity manifold theory that has supplanted string theory in modern physics. (I also got five excellent hits for Jacob Sheep, which I raise. That same search on Google's main site generated more than 9,000 hits, which I would have had to wade through to find the good info.)

A Google alternative

Google isn't always the best search site. The number of hits you get is often overwhelming, and the way Google ranks its pages'in essence, by popularity'can be limiting.

Vivisimo (www.vivisimo.com), a relatively new company in my neighborhood, Pittsburgh, has built a new kind of enterprise metasearch tool already in use at NASA, NSA and other government agencies. In short, Vivisimo organizes searches into related categories'or clusters'instead of presenting one long list of results. You can either search the Web at the Vivisimo site or deploy the software inside your agency to help search internal data sources.

Users of Internet Explorer or FireFox can add clustering functionality to their Web browsers today by downloading the company's Clusty Toolbar at www.clusty.com. My M theory search using Clusty sorted results into String Theory (43), Music (25), Number Theory (22) and more than a dozen other categories, greatly facilitating my research.

Give it a try.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].

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