Staying in the loop

November’s edition of Total Politics carries the following piece from me about finding information on the internet. Here’s a slightly extended version of the piece:

There is no shortage of information out there, but getting what you need, when you need it can be a challenge, particularly when your inbox, mailbag, radio and TV are all thrusting new pieces of information at you all the time. There are though a few simple steps you can take to radically improve and refine the information you find on the internet.

If you want to know what is happening in the world of UK politics, Politics Home (www.politicshome.com) is a great start, as it pulls together the latest content from traditional and online news sources into one regularly-updated front page. For more specialist political news and comment, the various ‘home’ sites focusing on the main parties are a good start: conservativehome.blogs.com, www.labourhome.org and www.libdemvoice.org.

However, one of the major tricks to getting the most out of websites in the most time-efficient manner is to cut back on the amount of time you spend going round checking websites and instead make the websites come to you whenever they have something new – and there’s a special sort of software that can do this for you.

It’s called a feed reader. These days nearly all news sites and blogs, along with many other websites, offer an RSS feed (sometimes called a ‘news feed’, or simply ‘RSS’ or ‘feeds’). You can sign up to the feed with a feed reader, and then, in future, when a new story appears on the website, either the full story or a summary of it will appear in your feed reader, saving you the time otherwise spent checking on sites to see if there is anything new.

There are various feed readers available, of which my favourite is Bloglines (www.bloglines.com). It is free and, because it is web-based, there is no software to install and you can check it from any computer; useful if you are travelling or otherwise away from your usual computer. Google have their own reader (www.google.com/reader) and there are also offline readers you can use, which involve installing software on your computer but then still let you look up previously-acquired information even if you are not online.

Once you have set up your feed reader, you can tell it to keep an eye on a website either by inputting the web address into the feed reader software, or by visiting the website and then looking for the ‘sign-up to a feed reader’, ‘subscribe to RSS’ or similar option on screen (frequently accompanied by an orange square with curves cutting across it – the standard icon for RSS feeds).

Feed readers let you pick the sites you want to be informed about. However, plenty of interesting information may appear on other sites. This is where search engines like Google come in useful, and just as feed readers save you the chore of having to go and check sites, Google Alerts saves you the chore of going to a search engine regularly and trying out a set of searches to see if anything is new.

Just visit www.google.com/alerts, enter the search term you want (such as William Gladstone) along with your email address. You can choose how often you want to receive the alerts and, unless they are alerts that require a quick response simply set them to ‘once a day’ so that the alerts are reasonably timely but don’t tempt you during the day to get distracted from what you should be doing!

All the usual Google search options can be used when setting your alert. The most useful is the minus sign to indicate that a search must not include a particular word. For example, Liberal Democrats will give many results from Japan, where the main political party has that name. Liberal Democrats -Japan therefore works better for those interested in the UK. For search terms that need a bit of work to be optimised, it is useful to test them out on the Google News search (www.google.co.uk/news), refining the search phrase until you get a good-looking set of results. Conveniently, at the foot of each search results page is a link-through to set up a Google Alert.

As with normal Google searches, you can use quote marks to ensure you only get results containing that exact phrase – for example, “Private Finance Initiative” will work much better than Private Finance Initiative as those three words in different orders and with other words between them crop up in all sorts of different stories that may or may not be about PFIs.

Good though Google’s coverage is, Google Alerts don’t capture all the internet content you might be interested in. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of other search engines that offer news stories searching and blog entries in particular. My experience of looking for news about UK politics information is that Google performs far better than its rivals, and so is the main source to use. Yahoo, for example, offers a similar service (with nicer-looking alert emails) but only finds a small proportion of what Google finds – and almost never finds something that Google has missed.

If you are going to use a second search service, the trick is to find one that complements Google. Therefore, I regularly use Topix (www.topix.net) because it is very good at finding stories that Google misses. There are other search engines that return more comprehensive results than Topix, but if those extra results are ones Google finds anyway, that is not of much use. Topix also has an easy to remember web address structure, so change the end part of the URL to any other search any time you like (or enter a new search on the website). For example, http://www.topix.net/search/article?q=gordon+brown does a search for news about Gordon Brown, but you can change those last two words to something else.

A final piece of advice on how to get information quickly: if you use your web browser a lot, your computer may become noticeably slower, especially if you have accumulated a large amount of junk, add-ons, extra pieces of software and so on. Keeping your computer in a reasonably clean and tidy shape brings many benefits.

The internet is flooded with tips on how to speed up your computer. Not only are some of questionable accuracy, but many bring such a small time saving that the time taken to find out about and implement the tip will never be made up by the savings. However, there are three ways of speeding up your computer that generally provide a good return on time.

First, if your computer can take it and you can afford it, extra memory is a good idea. Second, have a look at what software is installed on your computer and, if it is no longer used (or was never really used), remove it. Particularly if you have children using your computer, you can very quickly end up with large numbers of programs clogging up the system. Third, run a reliable computer clean-up program every now and again. The speed benefits from doing this are somewhat debatable, but there are many other benefits – such as helping make sure you do not run out of disk space. CCleaner (www.ccleaner.com) is a reliable and free one that will bring most of the benefits of a more skilled and nuanced approach for only a fraction of the time and knowledge.

But above all: a small amount of time put into improving your computer and how you do things can bring you big benefits in terms of better and quick locating of the information you need.

Got any other tips to add? Post them in the comments and share them with other readers.

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This entry was posted in Online politics.
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5 Comments

  • Hywel Morgan 6th Nov '08 - 1:59pm

    Excellent article Mark – I find it useful to have a “how I use the Internet” MOT every so often.

    If you use Firefox then it’s worth having a look every few months at what add-ons are available as there may be some that will make browsing much more convenient.

    If you use a lot of Google alerts then set your email software to file them automatically (and tag them appropriately on Gmail)

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