Features - Searching for Bookmark Management Solutions: Clickgardens, Backflips and the Trails of Breadcrumbs

Dennis Kennedy is an attorney who writes and speaks frequently on Internet and legal technology topics and was named the 2001 TechnoLawyer of the Year by TechnoLawyer.com. He practices in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department at Thompson Coburn LLP in St. Louis. Dennis has collected many of his articles on legal technology and Internet topics at http://www.denniskennedy.com/ltprimer.htm.


As a research tool, the Web has often been compared to the ancient Library of Alexandria, a vast repository of all the world’s knowledge. Too often, though, the Web seems like a great library where the card catalogs have been shredded and all of the books have been knocked off the shelves and scattered all over the floor.

Even when you find a valuable resource, it can be difficult to find your way back to it. You begin to feel like Hansel and Gretel, finding that the trail of breadcrumbs you cleverly left to guide you back has been eaten by the forest birds.

So we find that we are continuing to battle the two major problems of web research - finding information in the first place, and then returning to it when we need it - with only limited success.

We definitely are losing ground on the front of finding things. Search engines are increasingly out of date and include a diminishing fraction of the Web, especially new information. As search engines increasingly focus on "business model," "profitability" and "pay to play," their results seem to become less and less reliable and useful.

Anyone who has submitted a web page to a search engine recently has learned how long it takes to get listed in a search engine and how difficult it is to get a page onto the list of responses for the obvious queries. Trying to search for a page that you know is on the Web when you do not have the URL handy can be a maddening exercise and, at times, will make you wonder why you use search engines at all.

The shortcomings of the search engines have placed a premium on being able to return to excellent resources once you find them. The basic tool that allows you to return to previously-visited sites is well-known to most readers of this article - a form of shortcut called the "bookmark" or the "favorite." I contend that this simple tool has become the most valuable resource heavy users of the Web can have and that extensive collections of bookmarks can be treasure troves. The purpose of this article is to help you tap into that treasure and put it to work for you.

Bookmarks and Favorites -  The Basics

Historically, the term "favorite" is used in connection with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and the term "bookmark" is used in connection with Netscape’s Navigator. Bookmark is an older term and tends to be used more generically, especially by longtime users of the Web. I’ll generally use "bookmark" throughout this article to refer to both terms.

Bear with me a moment for a quick review. Assume that you are using Internet Explorer 5 and you have found a web site that you want to keep. You go to the dropdown menu category of "Favorites." There you’ll find a choice called "Add to favorites." Click on that choice and you’ll get a selection box that allow you to add a link to that the page to your Favorites list, put the link into an existing subfolder in your Favorites list, add a new subfolder to place the link into, or even make a copy of the page available to you for offline viewing.

Once you’ve added the page to your favorites list, you can again go to the favorites dropdown menu and you’ll find a link to that page on your list of favorites. Simply clicking on that item will take you back to that page on the Internet. In other words, placing the item on your favorites list gives you a shortcut method of returning to the page without the need either to remember or to type in the web address ("URL") of the page. You’ll also notice in the Favorites dropdown menu a choice called "Organize favorites" that allows you to copy and move favorites, set up and move subfolders and delete favorites.

Bookmark Management

Working with and organizing your favorites or bookmarks is generally called "bookmark management." Longtime users of the Web will remember the early days when bookmark management tools in the browsers did not even allow you to create folders or edit titles of bookmarks. The included bookmark functionality of browsers has come a long way since those early days, but I still find the bookmark management tools built into the browsers to be cumbersome and inadequate.

While researching this article, I found that I’m not alone in that assessment. There are literally hundreds of programs available that can be considered "bookmark managers." (See, for example, the list at http://www.webwizards.net/useful/wbbm.htm or search for bookmark managers on http://www.dmoz.org). They vary in approach and address one or more of the shortcomings of the bookmark management tools built into browsers. The sheer number of these programs emphasizes the depth of the problem.

Unfortunately, I was not able to check out each and every one of these tools, but I’ve sampled the various categories as part of my ongoing quest to find a solution to my own bookmark management problems. More important, it has become clear to me that your preferred solution to the bookmark management problem is likely to be different from my preferred solution just as your systems for keeping notes, setting up filing systems, naming files and other similar tasks are likely to be different from my systems. In other words, there is an important personal element to how you will best address the issue of unlocking the value of your bookmarks. For this reason, bookmark management is a key part of what is now referred to as "personal knowledge management."

This article surveys the various approaches to bookmark management, gives examples in each category, discusses some of the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, and then concludes with some of the solutions I’ve found most helpful. I haven’t yet found the complete and definitive answer, but I’ve found some very useful answers.

The Problems with Bookmarks

Overwhelmption - While bookmarks are helpful tools, as a practical matter, their utility swiftly diminishes over the course of time. The biggest problem for a heavy Web user is that the sheer quantity of bookmarks can easily overwhelm the basic browser bookmark tools. As you accumulate a few hundred (or more likely, a few thousand) bookmarks, it becomes nearly impossible to find a specific bookmark in your list. Even a system of subfolders can easily get overwhelmed. Is it easier to find a specific bookmark in ten folders of 100 bookmarks or in 100 folders of ten bookmarks? The answer, of course, is that you probably will not be able to find it easily in either case.

Cumbersome - Assuming, however, that you are one of the few people who does a good job in setting up folders and is rigorous in assigning bookmarks appropriately to the correct folders, you will find the browser organization tools are cumbersome, non-intuitive and time-consuming. Here’s an example: I’ve often simply wanted to print out a list of my bookmarks, including subfolders, so I could mark up the list and make changes later to the folders. I’ve done a lot of research on that specific issue, including a few visits to the Microsoft KnowledgeBase, and have never been able to find an answer (although there are ways to work around the problem and get something close to a workable result).

Subfolders - Even people who use subfolders regularly will run into the problem of proper assignment of bookmarks to folders. When you start making folders, you tend to start with broad categories ("legal research," "intellectual property," "music"), but gradually find that what would be most useful would be a much more granular approach ("Intellectual Property - Copyright - Software - Registration - Deposit Materials"). While granularity is an attractive concept, it can turn into a path to frustration. First, you seldom find people who can maintain that type of approach to organization on a consistent basis. Second, you typically do not find time to reorganize your folders into a logical system and transfer file contents to appropriate folders. Third, the more granular your filing system, the less likely it is that you can find something simply. Consider the above example. I might have trouble remembering whether I put a particular bookmark was in the "copyright," "software," "registration" or "deposit materials" subfolder if I could not find it on the first try. As a result, I would likely go to a search engine to try to locate the page from scratch rather than continue to rummage through my bookmarks trying to find the right folder. Fourth, many pages fit multiple categories and should be in several folders, something that few people will take the time to do. Fifth, browsers do not include search functionality for bookmark lists.

Titles -  Another problem with bookmark lists is that they are simply lists of titles of web pages. They pick up the <title> tags in a page’s HTML code. As a result, you often see many pages in an alphabetized list of bookmarks that say "Welcome to . . . " since that is how the page creator titles the page. Not only does this mess up an alphabetical system, but the titles may not help you remember anything about a page when you later look at them. If, instead, you were able to save an image of the page, a thumbnail or a more detailed description of a page, it probably would be more useful to you.

Dead Links - If you have ever put a list of links on a web site, you will be well aware of another drawback with bookmark lists. Web pages move addresses, change substantially or even disappear. A substantial percentage of your bookmark collection at any given time are likely to lead nowhere. As an example, I used to run a substantial links site called "Estate Planning Links" (http://www.estateplanninglinks.com). At one point in 1999, nearly 30% of the links went bad over a three month period. There are two opposite means of addressing this problem: keeping a copy of the pages that you find on your hard drive or acknowledging the changing nature of the Web and saving the actual search queries that found you the resources so that you can run them again from time to time. The good news: some bookmark management tools include link checkers and verifiers.

Portability - Finally, even if you have your bookmarks up-to-date and well-organized, the bookmark you want to find will all too often be on the list you have on another computer. The coordination of bookmark lists on different machines can be a frustrating problem. It is rare that someone is able to keep the same collection of bookmarks on work, home and notebook computers. New services, such as backflip (http://www.backflip.com) allow you to store your bookmarks privately in a central place on the Internet so you can reach the same bookmarks no matter what computer you are using.

Other Problems - Although any longtime Web user can probably identify a few other problems in bookmark management, these problems are the primary ones. Some of these problems may be minor to some people and major to others. Some people may be looking for a total solution to bookmark management, but for most of us simply addressing the specific issues that really bother us can make a huge difference in our Web experience. As you consider the various options, consider where you have experienced difficulties and what approaches and tools may do the most good for your particular situation and issues.

Bookmark Repositories

Probably the most common and infuriating issue in bookmark management is that the bookmark you want will often be on another computer. Since many people use multiple computers today, this problem has become more common. Also, if you are using someone else’s computer, you simply will not have access to your own bookmarks.

The conceptual solution is an easy one: copy your bookmarks onto, for example, a floppy disk, and then copy them onto each computer you use. Anyone who has tried this approach knows that it is problematic, primarily because you seldom remember to do it and, in part, because, especially on an office network, it can be a little tricky to find where your bookmark files are located. Worse yet, the file structure of Internet Explorer favorites makes the task of copying favorites difficult and time-consuming. In Internet Explorer, each of your favorites is kept as a separate file, not as a single file containing all of the favorites.

Especially in older versions of IE, you will need to copy each of the separate files to a floppy disk and then recopy them onto another computer. This process is cumbersome, especially when you have a lot of subfolders. It can also take an extraordinary amount of time. It has taken me nearly twenty minutes to copy nearly a thousand favorites in about twenty folders. In fact, it is often faster to get a tool such as Bookmark Converter (http://www.magnusbrading.com/bmc/) and convert favorites to Netscape bookmarks, which are kept in a single file, then copy that file, transfer it to another computer, and then convert the bookmarks back into favorites.

The good news here is that there are now a large number of Web services that allow you to place your bookmarks on the Internet. Two examples are Backflip (http://www.backflip.com) and Blink (http://www.blink.com). I have used Backflip on a regular basis for the last few months. Backflip is both a web site and web application. You export a copy of your current bookmarks up to the Backflip web site. Your Backflip bookmarks are password-protected (although you can share them with others if you wish). Then you save URLs to Backflip rather than using your browser’s bookmark functionality. When you save a URL to Backflip, a small window pops up to let you to describe the page and assign it to an existing or newly created category. You stop using the favorites or bookmarks function of your browser.

When you want to return to a page you have "backflipped," you go to www.backflip.com, log in with your username and password and see all your bookmarks presented in well-organized folders, in a familiar Yahoo-style view. Backflip bookmarks reside on the Internet rather than on your computer and you can access them no matter what computer you are using.

Backflip and the other online bookmark managers, not surprisingly, work best with a fast Internet connection. They represent a very good solution to the problem of multiple bookmark collections, but you need to remember to add the bookmarks to the online list, not to your browser bookmarks, and it can be easy to forget to do that. Backflip’s prompt for you to assign a URL to a category on the initial save is a good feature, but it takes some effort to establish a new category, and I’ve found it far too easy to be lazy and simply assign URLs to existing categories or to a steadily-growing category called "To Be Assigned." Your satisfaction with an online bookmark manager will likely be proportional to the speed of your connection, but even with a fast connection, reorganization of folders and moving bookmarks to new folders can be cumbersome and slow.

If you have multiple bookmark lists or travel a lot, you will definitely want to investigate the online bookmark managers. Backflip and Blink are good starting points, but you’ll want to check a list such as the one at http://www.webwizards.net/useful/wbbm.htm for other possibilities. Interface, features and customization will all play a key role in your choice of such a service. The ability to import and export large bookmark collections will also be important, because backup will be important. You do not want to rely on an online service and then find one day that its server is down or it has gone out business and you no longer have access to your bookmarks.

Bookmark Replacements

Another category of bookmark management tools are actual bookmark replacement tools. Historically, bookmark management solutions have taken the form of small database applications that run concurrently with the browser, but are not integrated into the browser. A good example of this approach is the highly-regarded Powermarks (http://www.kaylon.com/power.html). Tools like Powermarks incorporate your bookmarks into a small database that you can use to search and otherwise manage your bookmarks. A big benefit of this approach is that it becomes easy to search your bookmarks to find the one you want. You rely on traditional database search queries rather than the usual tree-structure of folders and subfolders.

If you like working with databases and using keyword searches, these tools can be quite powerful. If you don’t like the database approach (and I don’t), they are less attractive than some of the other approaches. When you are saving a page, you will typically save it into the separate database and assign categories and keywords. The database application is easily accessible while you are browsing, but, as a general matter, it will not be as easy to share bookmarks between multiple machines using this type of tool as it is with the online bookmark managers. If sharing among computers is important, you will need to check into the features of any such program you are considering.

Another approach to bookmark replacements can be found in program called Clickgarden (http://www.clickgarden.com). (As a matter of disclosure, my law firm does some legal work for the maker of Clickgarden.) Clickgarden is a suite of useful tools, most relating to the browser. It offers an alternative to bookmarks called "home pages." Home pages allow you to establish a collection of folders of URLs accessible simply with the right-click of your mouse. Since Clickgarden gives you the ability to open multiple pages as a series of tabs in your browser, you can open multiple home pages at the same time, either within a folder or across folders. For example, you can literally open every web page whose URL you have collected on a given topic at the same time and switch between them by clicking on tabs. This approach can be a powerful way to use URLs you have previously gathered.

Cached Pages

Tools that let you cache web pages you have visited serve two valuable purposes. The first is that they let you retrieve information that might have moved, expired or disappeared. The second is that saving images of pages, including thumbnail images, can help the more visually-inclined remember what pages were actually helpful to them, far more so than can a simple list of page titles.

There are a number of tools for caching web pages. As I mentioned earlier, Internet Explorer will let you save pages for offline browsing. Caching programs such as WebWhacker (http://www.webwhacker.com) have been used for several years by presenters who want to show web pages but do not want to take the risk of using a live Internet connection. There are a number of other programs in this category.

In its organizer mode, Clickgarden (http://www.clickgarden.com) allows you, with the click of a mouse, to collect cached copies of web pages in folders of your own choosing called "collections." You can collect a copy of the page, with or without graphics and with or without ads blocked. You can collect the entire web page or any portion of a page, and even add your own highlights or annotations on the copy of that page. iHarvest (http://www.iharvest.com), an online service, is another example of the same type of approach.

In Clickgarden’s collection folders, you will see a thumbnail image of each page you have added to a particular collection. Clicking on this image opens a full-sized copy of the page, from which you can either return to the actual "live" page on the Internet or simply use the copy, particularly useful in the case of static content or if a page changes or is unavailable. I’ve found that seeing an image of the page is a great help in remembering my experience with a page. You can send a Clickgarden collection to other people who are using Clickgarden or who download a free Clickgarden reader. You can also add other non-Internet documents, including word-processing documents and spreadsheets to the collection folder, giving you a handy way to create a research folder that includes all relevant documents as well as Internet research. The collection folders even offer a good way to make presentations that incorporate web pages.

Saved Searches

Rather than cache pages, some people may prefer to acknowledge the changing nature of the Web and simply retrace their paths to finding information rather than keeping track of their earlier destinations. In that case, it may make sense to save the actual searches instead of the results.

One well-regarded tool for doing that is Copernic 2000 (http://www.copernic.com). Copernic is a high-powered multiple search engine tool. It allows you to search selected search engines simultaneously and then collates and prioritizes your results. You can save actual searches so that they can be repeated as well as results of previous searches. It can be an excellent tool for people who routinely perform the same searches. On a related note, the new Copernic Summarizer offers some potential as a bookmark management aid. Summarizer can, among other things, automatically generate a list of keywords for a web page, which might be helpful in assigning a bookmark to subfolders.

Some of the search engines, such as NorthernLight (http://www.northernlight.com) offer the same sorts of saved search capabilities. For some people, these tools will have much more appeal than will the standard bookmark managers.

"Pull" Pages

There is a new approach to retrieving information from a set of sites that you visit regularly but where information on the sites changes on a regular basis. You can create a single web page through a service such as Octopus (http://www.octopus.com) that pulls information from designated sources into a single convenient web page for you. "Tabbed" browser tools (for example, Clickgarden (http://www.clickgarden.com) and NetAviator (http://www.realsol.com/netaviator/), also allow you to open several pages that you visit on a regular basis at the same time, making it easy to monitor developments and changes.

Do it Yourself Approaches

Because bookmark management tools were all but nonexistent in the early days of the browsers, people developed a number of "do it yourself" approaches. Some of these approaches are still quite viable, and, for some people, might even be the preferred approach. As standard programs such as word processors continue to grow in Internet capabilities and functionality, these "do it yourself" methods may be even better now than they were originally.

One example is to put together a "bibliography" or list of bookmarks with descriptions and notes as a word processing document. Current word processors let you have "live" links in your documents and you can click on the links in the document to take you directly to the web pages. The bookmarks, and your comments on them or other notes, can be arranged in a logical and informative manner.

Outliner tools can also be a useful means to put together your own bookmark manager. As long as an outliner allows you to include active hyperlinks, you can organize bookmarks in a way that fits the way you work or the particular research project you have. With the ability to collapse and expand outline sections, these tools can be a great bookmark management options for fans of outlines. There are a number of examples of outliners, but I’ve been working with a beta version of CaseSoft’s new NoteMap (http://www.casesoft.com), due to be released later this year, that has this functionality.

Another form of the outline is the visual outline or "mind map." These tools capture outliner functionality but organize information by using visual methods and metaphors. For some people, these tools are worth a close look. The Personal Brain (http://www.thebrain.com), Visual Mind (http://www.visual-mind.com) and Inspiration (http://www.engagingminds.com/inspiration/) are good examples of this genre.

Finally, there is the time-honored method of simply putting your bookmarks up on your own web site as a links page. My first web page was a collection of links and my current web page (http://www.denniskennedy.com) contains a number of links pages that started out as part of my bookmarks list. When they grew to a certain size or seemed to have some value, I moved them onto my web site. By doing so, you get the benefit of ready access from anywhere and the ability to organize the bookmarks in a layout and in a style that you like. You also have the ability to share your wealth with other users of the Internet. Not a bad way to go.

Conclusions

If your bookmarks have grown to epitomize the wild, wild web, tools like Backflip, Powermarks, Clickgarden and other bookmark managers and browser additions can help you tame your bookmarks and improve your Internet experience. One or more may fit your style. I’ve recently found Clickgarden to be a great tool for me because it combines a number of useful tools in a single package. I have also liked using Backflip as a way to share bookmarks among several computers. I continue to create my own links web pages as yet another approach. And I’m intrigued by the possibilities of the outlining and mind mapping tools.

I don’t believe that there is a single bookmark tool that will accomplish everything for everyone. Don’t be reluctant to use several of them. The tools mentioned in this article run the range from free programs and services to moderately-priced shareware to the $100 to $200 range. Bookmark management tools might also be a part of an expensive enterprise knowledge management solution. You definitely should look at multi-phased approaches and many of the tools are available in demo and trial versions. This article attempts to survey the various approaches now available. If you have other good ideas or solutions, I’d love to hear about them.

Bookmark management is an important component of "personal knowledge management." Making and keeping useful what you’ve found on the Internet can help you in a variety of ways - from eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel to making information truly available at your fingertips. Identify some of your current problems with bookmarks and then try out some of the tools now available to address those problems. You may well find something quite valuable.