Features - A Selected Review of Web Utilities for Browsing, Monitoring, Collecting and Printing Web Sites

Roger Vicarius Skalbeck is the Library Systems Specialist at the Washington, D.C. firm of Williams and Connolly, and is the Assistant Chair for the Web Committee of the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.  Current work activities include efforts to develop creative solutions to technology based legal research problems, from a librarian's point of view.


If you use the Internet for performing research, monitoring Web sites or printing collections of documents from selected resources, you have probably come across many situations in which the process of performing these tasks has proved to be cumbersome, slow and perhaps quite onerous. Limitations such as connection speeds, web traffic, and indeed the nature of the information desired (or that which is requested of you) can often hinder what could otherwise be an efficient and indeed enjoyable experience.

There are no magic solutions out there that will address all of the shortcomings that come about when performing Internet-based research, but there are dozens of software programs which can be used to extend the life, versatility and performance of your browser and browsing experience. Each type of program has its pros and cons, and each will have specific and often quite discreet features. With this article, I will briefly introduce a handful of software applications that are designed to extend the process of browsing in some way. These programs aren't all brand new, but their development is a continual process, and new versions and enhancements are coming along on a regular basis.

In this article, I will present five software applications that fall into one or more of the following categories. In presenting these programs, I will suggest the potential research use for each program as well as some perceived positive and negative aspects. For current pricing information and system requirements, check out the vendor's web site.

  • Web site organization utilities - SurfSaver from askSam Systems.
  • Off-line browser utilities - WebBuddy from DataViz; WebWhacker from Blue Squirrel Software.
  • Web site monitoring - Highlights2 from Tierra Communications
  • Web printing utilities - WebRecord from Canon Software Publishing

 

 

Web Site Organization Utilities

Product info: SurfSaver from askSam Systems.

Description: SurfSaver is a program that integrates into the toolbar of your browser (Netscape or Internet Explorer 4.0 or greater) which allows you to download, annotate, categorize and collect web sites that you have identified to be relevant.

Potential Research Use

SurfSaver would be a great tool for a researcher who wants to identify a set of key sites of interest and then search through them as a select group, based on keywords in those sites. Also if you want to add personal annotations to your collection of sites, SurfSaver does this quite well. It can be utilized for collecting web sites for browsing and using them in a fixed or static format.

Perceived Positive Impacts

For people who are adept at categorizing items, SurfSaver can provide a complex method for collecting considerably more information than just the URLs included in bookmark files. The rudimentary search interface allows for searching of downloaded sites based on: keywords you assign, folders in which you store them, or the resident page titles found in the pages themselves. SurfSaver allows you to save imbedded graphics and media files, and it integrates quite well into a standard (higher version) browser.

Potential Negative Impacts

The proprietary search engine and database more or less necessitate that the information that you gather stay locked in with SurfSaver. Web sites are mostly saved in their resident format, which might cause confusion over "version control" for frequently-changing sites that you download, which would be exacerbated a bit if you collect a large number of sites.

Worth Noting: For a detailed review of SurfSaver, including a comprehensive description of its features and options, check out the product review here on LLRX by Susan Charkes. For information on other web site organization programs, check out one list at: Internet Product Watch, under their Organizing Utilities index page.

 

Offline Browser Utilities

Product Info: Web Buddy from DataViz; WebWhacker from Blue Squirrel Software.

Description:

Both programs are offline browser utilities, which means that they offer users the opportunity to set up a scheduled process for downloading web sites automatically, or as immediacy demands (and bandwidth permits). WebWhacker, now available as version 3, was one of the first offline browser programs. It has a clean, crisp interface, and it allows for versatile and customizable downloading of sites. Web Buddy performs most of the same functions, and also has a file export feature for saving sites in a variety of resident word-processing formats.

Potential research use

If you need to review a large number of previously identified web sites, an offline browser can afford you the chance to do so. If you need to make a presentation of web sites that requires printed materials, or if you wish to convey web content to somebody who doesn't have web access, Web Buddy's export features. Both programs would work quite well for a researcher who wants to sort through sites and then download them for review by a third party individual (a librarian doing this for an attorney for instance).

Perceived Positive Impacts

Offline browsers in general provide the opportunity to quickly review the contents of any number of web sites without the hassle of waiting for images or large files to load. Web Buddy's installation procedure allows you the opportunity to designate a separate drive location (e.g. removable drive such as Zip or SuperDisk) for the download directory. WebWhacker has been around for some time now, and it allows for very deep, comprehensive downloading of sites. It works well to have WebWhacker running in the background while browsing the web, just waiting for you to "whack" sites that you need to obtain.

Potential Negative Impacts

Offline browsers can be hard drive hogs, and if you don't actively delete pages that are no longer of interest to you, space on your local drive can disappear quite quickly. Due to their nature, offline browsers also require that you leave your computer running (with an open Internet connection) for potentially long periods of time, while the software does its work, which might be frowned upon by MIS staff in a larger organization. Users who have dial-up access to the Internet will have to allocate time when the computer and modem connection can be dedicated to the "offline" downloading.

Worth noting: One collection of offline browser programs is listed at the site: Internet Product Watch, under their Offline browsers index page.

 

Web Site Monitoring

Product info: Highlights2 from Tierra Communications

Description: A program for monitoring and reporting changes to individual web sites, customizable based on criteria such as frequency, filtering and storage options. Users create their own profiles of web sites, and changes to web sites are reported with a highlighting feature (colored/boxed text) as inserted by the software.

Potential Research Use

Do you find yourself going back to a similar page (or set of pages) from time to time to see what has changed at that site? Do you currently use features of bookmark collection programs to report when there have been changes to sites that you have collected. If this is the case, a program like Highlights2 should make these tasks significantly easier. Possible uses that I can see for this: Congressional committee pages that list hearings or "What’s new" pages of agencies or companies.

Perceived Positive Impacts

Changes to pages are highlighted in a manner that is quite easy to scan. Instead of simply alerting you that a specific URL has changed, Highlights2 actually presents the changed information in a different color of your choosing. Filters can be applied to pages that look for or ignore specific word occurrences.

Potential Negative Impacts

Can become slow if you elect to sore images as well as highlighted links locally. Necessitates monitoring of pages that have already been identified to be relevant. This program works best with pages that don't change on a daily basis, and it will probably take some degree of testing before one can develop the right balance of pages to be monitored. Though Highlights2 will download the underlying text for new links (e.g., new press releases as listed on an index page), you essentially monitor one page at a time.

Worth Noting: Tierra Communications also offers a corporate version of Highlights2, which adds the feature of allowing an administrator (librarian, MIS staff, etc.) to maintain user profiles of selected sites. In larger organizations that use the web for a lot of research, this could prove to be an extremely valuable option for accessing the web. The employed method of monitoring web sites differs from "push" services such as the Pointcast Network. For a quick and obviously vendor-biased "white paper", see Tierra Communication's, Pull vs. Push: Who Will Deliver The News?

 

Web Printing Utilities

Product Info: WebRecord v.2.0 from Canon Software Publishing.

Description: A printing utility that runs in the background while you are browsing the web, recording the sites that you have visited, downloading the contents of those sites. WebRecord also functions as a utility to pull down groups of web sites (all on a given host, all referenced from a given page, etc.). All features and utilities of this program are geared towards producing a printed product of the sites that are gathered.

Potential Research Use

WebRecord is great for fulfilling requests such as: "print out that company's web site so I can read it" or "get me all of their press releases."  It can be useful for tracking sites that you visit in researching a given topic, whereby you can have a printed record of your progress once you are finished. Other options allow you to print selected web sites in a search session without having to go back to them individually, and/or to get a printed list of links that are employed at a given site

Perceived Positive Impacts

WebRecord is geared towards producing a printed end product, and it does it quite well. Users have the option of including a table of contents at the beginning of reports, which are based on web page URLs and correspond to the actual printed pages. There is also the option to include a summary of references, which mimics a bibliography at the end of the report, noting all referenced internal and external URLs. WebRecord works wonderfully for eliminating the tedium of printing any number of known-quantity requests.

Potential Negative Impacts

Both versions of the software appear to be heavily-biased towards Canon printers, which limits the availability of the more attractive presentation formats and can make printing out "non-simplified" pages painfully slow. Doesn't always work well with frames-based sites. If you employ the software while browsing, it can slow down browsing noticeably, as WebRecord essentially competes for any available bandwidth while you continue to browse.

Worth Noting: Initially this software was bundled for use with a number of Canon's (mostly bubble jet) printers. If your organization has purchased a Canon printer in the last two years, you might first check to see if this program came along with it. Version 1.0 of the software works quite well for doing most of the printing tasks, but a number of quirks have been ironed out a bit with the newer version (which also has more bells and whistles).

 

Conclusion

The above programs are only five of the dozens of specialized browser-enhancing products that are available to help you in performing research and interacting with web sites.

If you think that your research responsibilities could be enhanced in any of the noted areas, I recommend that you check out one or two of the titles in these categories see what will best enhance the environment in which you work. Before settling on a specific product, try an evaluation copy of one of the titles that sounds interesting. For starters, there are limited evaluation copies available for all titles reviewed in this article.