Making the Most of the Internet
Peter Suber & Liffey Thorpe

Issue #1. April 19, 1998.
Customizing A Web Portal

What page comes up first when you run your browser? If you haven't changed the default, it's probably the Netscape or Microsoft corporate page. If you open the settings or preferences on your browser, you can change this to any page you like, including the Earlham College front page, your favorite search engine, or your personal page.

Some of the major search engine pages have recently started to offer customization options that make them attractive candidates for your opening page. Excite, for example, will collect news stories in any category you select. The range of categories is very large, from broad topics like politics, technology, science, and business, to narrow ones like the tobacco industry and the state of Indiana. Your customized page can also show you the weather forecast for your area, selected stock prices, and the columnists of your choice (though from a small selection). It can even handle your personal to-do list. The to-do list can remind of you of one-time events, like appointments with advisees, and recurring events, like committee meetings. If you don't want to view some categories of information (like local TV listings and your horoscope), you can make them disappear.

The most powerful feature on the Excite menu is the "clipping service" that allows you to enter special search terms to bring up news stories on the topics of your choice. Essentially this lets you define your own categories to suit your teaching and research interests. For example, if you teach genetics or philosophy, you can ask Excite to look for news stories on cloning. If you teach Peace Studies or Politics, you can ask Excite to look for stories on the Irish peace accords. If you're about to lead an off-campus program to Greece, Japan, or Kenya, have Excite brief you on local and regional news. When Excite finds stories that match your interests, it lists the headlines as links on your customized page. Simply click on the headline to read the story.

The stories come from a huge number of online periodicals. If your scholarly skepticism leads you to check the list of sources yourself, you may be pleasantly surprised by its breadth and depth, especially for a free service.

Yahoo offers a similar set of customizing options. Sites that try to organize everything, search everything, and now also support customizing, are coming to be called portals. They hope you'll make their portal the "start page" that comes up by default when you boot your browser. Even if you don't give them this prominence, you might well visit, bookmark them, and revisit periodically to catch up on your customized set of news topics.

We like portals for their useful information. You needn't make them your home base on the net in order to take advantage of the power they offer. And if you do make them your home base, you needn't limit your searching to their search engines. Excite and Yahoo both offer competitive search engines, but the two most comprehensive search engines nowadays are Alta Vista and HotBot, neither of which (yet?) offers portal options. Lesson:  bookmark sites that do well what you need done and visit them when you have a job to do. The web is too versatile to make one site do all your work for you. But perhaps it's too large and chaotic to disregard what portals have to offer.

WireWise is an occasional newsletter of tips for academic users of the internet. We welcome your feedback, questions for us to answer, and topics for us to cover.

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Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College
A.L.P. Thorpe, Classics Department, Earlham College
Copyright © 1998, Peter Suber, A.L.P. Thorpe.