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Using RSS to Create and Enhance Current Awareness Services

By Jason Eiseman, Published on November 22, 2006

 

Jason Eiseman (MLS) is the Computer Automation Librarian at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt in Portland, Oregon.

Current awareness has long been a staple of the services provided by corporate librarians. The kinds of services included in the scope of current awareness included: routing journals, tables of contents, and manually monitoring local news, industry, and topical journals for items of interest to the library users. With the advent of ubiquitous subscriptions to online services at the desktop, information vendors introduced electronic alert services. These types of alerts often involved setting up a search to run automatically, at customizable time intervals. For example, you could run a search once a day, once a week, once a day during the business week, etc. The downside of such alerts was often that you had to pay for the search every time it was run, even if no results were retrieved. In addition, there was the question of whether or not you wanted to receive an email every time the search was run. Getting an email three times a day, each one telling you that no results were found, is an inefficient use of time and resources.

The availability of news and information on the Internet provided new problems and opportunities for corporate librarians. Now, we're often expected to monitor competitors, clients, potential clients, even our own firms, using a variety of different sources. Managing these various sources, filtering relevant content, and distributing that content has become an increasingly difficult task. However, new technologies offer a way to manage that information more effectively. RSS may be the most promising information management tool to come along in recent years. Adding RSS to your technological arsenal can enhance the current awareness services you provide, and enhance your ability to effectively manage organization-wide information.

What is RSS?

You may have seen RSS defined any number of times and still not understand it completely. RSS, as defined in Wikipedia, "is a family of web feed formats." Such a vague definition may not help, but the Wikipedia RSS page is a great resource for learning about RSS. Don't worry about what the letters stand for, Rich Site Summary, Really Simple Syndication. All you need to know is that RSS is a format for displaying syndicated or frequently updated content.

Consider, for a moment, all of the content that changes on a site like the NY Times.com. If you want to monitor this website for updated news, it doesn't take much time; you just check it a few times a day. But what if you also want to monitor CNN.com, ABC News.com, Fox News.com, or the Wall Street Journal online? [note: subscription req'd for WSJ full-text] What if you want to monitor the updated content on your favorite blogs? Suddenly the number of websites you must visit and check for updated content is time and cost prohibitive. By publishing the content from their websites as RSS feeds, these websites allow you to subscribe to and monitor all of these updates in a single location.

Sometimes RSS feeds can be difficult to find. Often you must look for orange buttons that say or . There is a new button being promoted as the standard for RSS feeds, . Sometimes, you must simply look for the word "subscribe" or "feed" to find the RSS feed for a website. Often you have to look at the bottom of the page or in the sidebar to find the link to the RSS feeds. Once you have become familiar with looking for RSS feeds, they become much easier to locate.

Why RSS?

RSS has several natural advantages over traditional alert services. The first advantage is that setup is often easier for RSS feeds. One need not worry about receiving emails with no results or how often a search runs. If there is new content RSS feeds will notify you of the new content. RSS feeds are generally less costly. Even many sites which require logins, purchase, or subscriptions, will distribute some information via RSS feeds. You may not get full articles or complete access for free, but usually you can get enough information in RSS feeds to know whether or not a news item, search result, or blog post is worth investigating.

RSS also allows you to distribute content in a variety of formats. Most RSS readers allow you to email individual items to other people. In addition, with RSS you have the added capability of disseminating that content via the web or an intranet. If there is a news source or search which would interest a group within your organization, the RSS format allows you to easily distribute those items. Microsoft Sharepoint, and other popular portal and intranet products are making it easier to incorporate RSS feeds. For standard web-based intranets there are many tools which can help you convert RSS feeds into widgets that can go onto a web page.

Aggregating and Consuming RSS

There are many ways you can use RSS feeds. The simplest way is to use an RSS Aggregator to read all of your RSS feeds in one place. Aggregators, also known as Readers, are programs or applications, that aggregate all your RSS feeds in one place. Some Aggregators are desktop software programs that launch from your PC, others are online and accessible from any computer with an Internet connection. Some aggregators are free, others require a subscription or license purchase. RSS Aggregators often work differently, but they should all share some common functions. Aggregators should allow you to easily create and manage folders, subscribe to feeds, unsubscribe from feeds, and more. Different Aggregators sell themselves on different features. The Wikipedia article I linked to earlier in this paragraph should help you find the right RSS Aggregator for you.

Consuming RSS is slightly different from Aggregating RSS. I mentioned earlier that you can take RSS feeds and repurpose them in a variety of ways. This is known as consuming RSS feeds. Consuming RSS feeds can be a great way to keep intranet or internet pages current and dynamic, and keep your users informed on the latest trends in specific subjects. This article discusses specific tools for consuming RSS later.

RSS Tools, Tips, Techniques, Tricks

There are simply too many websites producing RSS feeds to name them all. To name just a few would be a disservice to the many wonderful RSS publishers out there. Instead, I will share some of the tools and techniques I use to create first-class current awareness services. I use these tools to keep myself and my users well informed. So well informed, that an attorney once accused me (jokingly) of spying on him because I found a picture of him fishing in a small, local newspaper.


[click to enlarge]

Beginning with the free resources, I always run a Google News search.

Google News is not as comprehensive as many pay databases, but it picks up some business and financial journals. It also often indexes local publications that have a web presence, but are not indexed by the larger pay databases. Once I'm comfortable with the search, I save it as an RSS feed.

Now, I can subscribe to the RSS feed for the Google News search results like I would for any other information source. When new search results match my criteria, they automatically appear in the RSS feed.

You may be surprised at how many good hits you can find in your Google News RSS feeds.

The image on the left shows the Google News results screen. Enclosed in the red square is the link to the RSS feed for the search results.


Next, I want to know what's going on in the blogosphere. There are many blog search engines, none of them are perfect. However, Technorati is the premier blog search engine. Like Google News, Technorati allows you to save a search as an RSS feed. New results appear in the feed like any other new item. The image below shows the Technorati search results screen. Enclosed in the red square is the link to the RSS feed for the search results.

Technorati is also a great way to find subject-specific blogs that might help you stay up to date. A search for "Employment Law" brings up 35 blogs (as of early November, 2006). Technorati, though, is not the end-all of blog finding. Don't hesitate to search for RSS feeds from more traditional information sources. Staying on the employment law theme, most attorneys are familiar with the Employment Law Memo. However, many attorneys may not be aware that if you visit the Law Memo website you'll be rewarded with a variety of free update services from this reliable resource. Many of these update services include RSS feeds. Ross Runkel's Employment Law Blog, Arbitration Blog, Employment 101 series, NLRB law memo, Arbitration law memo, and more are all available via RSS feeds. Other publications like Law.com, Jurist Paper Chase, and the ABA's Law Practice Today all have RSS feeds. Not every publication has gotten on board with RSS, but you might be surprised to find your most trusted legal news provider has an RSS feed.

Many law firms and organizations are also publishing their own blogs on their websites. Any current awareness search involving any type of organization should include a search for blogs published by that organization. Often these blogs are easy to find, and are published on the organization's website. Obviously you should subscribe to the RSS feeds for any and all blogs published by the target organization. These feeds can be an important window into their organization. You can learn about corporate culture, important organizational players/stakeholders, and firm processes and procedures, all by simply subscribing to a blog's RSS feed.

Unfortunately, the Google News search, and the Technorati blog search are not all encompassing. Many web pages could slip through the cracks of these searches. Google's regular web search does not allow you to save the search as an RSS feed. If you would like to receive Google web search results as an RSS feed, you can use a service called Google Alert. Google Alert allows you to create a search in Google and deliver the results via an RSS feed. Before you use Google Alert you should know that the free version is a limited version. You also only have the option of having the search run once a day. To gain more options and more advanced features you have to use their pay service.

Some RSS Aggregators have their own tools to help you find news and information. The RSS Aggregator I use, Newsgator includes tools that can be a great addition to your current awareness arsenal. Newsgator allows you to create searches that search the millions of feeds Newsgator indexes. Newsgator calls these "Smart Feeds," and I find them to be even more reliable than many other tools. These smart feeds allow you to create a keyword search or a url search. These searches search RSS feeds, not websites. So whenever a website with an RSS feed publishes a link that matches your url search, or a keyword that matches your keyword search it shows up in your smart feed subscription. The free version of Newsgator includes the ability to create a limited number of smart feeds, while the premium version allows you some additional searches. Newsgator Smart Feeds have become some of my useful and trusted feeds.

Being able to search for websites that link to a specific url is a great tool. It can be a good way to see what people are saying about specific products, software, articles, or anything tied into those specific url's. I also like the url search because you don't have to worry about misspellings, or changes to names. This is especially difficult when researching law firms. I have seen my own firm name alternately as Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, Schwabe Williamson Wyatt, or even just Schwabe. But if they link to our website at http://www.schwabe.com, there is no mistaking the organization. Of course this assumes that every mention of a company or organization will link to their website, which isn't always the case. But as many law librarians know, searching the web, current awareness, and competitive intelligence are more art than exact science.

Westlaw Watch is another valuable tool for any attorney or law librarian with current awareness needs. Westlaw Watch allows you to create a search in any of Westlaw's databases and have the results delivered in a variety of formats, including RSS. The Clips allow you to monitor a person, company, news subject, or your own custom monitoring subject. Single source monitors allow you to monitor whenever a database is updated. This single source monitor is great for getting alerts when you want to see all the articles from a single publication, or all the cases from a specific court. The best part of Westlaw Watch is that setting up the alerts is free if you already have a user ID. You can distribute some information, a list of articles, a list of cases, a short description for free, and not pay anything until you want to access the full document. If you are not familiar with Westlaw Watch you should contact your representative for a demonstration.

The image below shows an example of a folder used to monitor an organization. You will notice a Google Alert, a Newsgator url search, a Westlaw Watch for the firm, a Google News search, and a Technorati keyword search. There are other searches I can do. I could run additional Westlaw Watch searches; I could run searches in additional search engines, and databases. However, this is a fairly comprehensive collection. I feel confident that this type of search is going to pick up much of the information I'm looking for. In the case of my own firm I feel comfortable that I know what's being said about us. In the case of other firms, potential clients or other organizations, I know when they are showing up online or in the news.

Managing RSS Feeds

Managing your feeds is an important part of the information management aspect of using RSS. The image above shows one way feeds can be managed. You can create a single folder, and all the feeds related to an organization or topic could be stored in the folder. All new items from the feeds can then be viewed at the folder level rather than having to view the results from each individual feed (one of the benefits of RSS). The image below shows feeds organized into a folder where I will keep all of my Oregon news, information, and cases.

Unless you are researching organizations like Microsoft or Google which will have many new items and results show up in your RSS feeds, the amount of new information you have should be manageable. Even if the total number of feeds is large, if you've organized them well, there should be small numbers of items in each folder or group. Even for large organizations like Microsoft you should be narrowing your search so your results don't become unmanageable anyway. If necessary you could divide the folders by source. For example, you could have a Microsoft - News folder, Microsoft - Cases, Microsoft - SEC, and so forth.

Managing your feeds and current awareness searches includes deleting feeds (in some Aggregators it involves simply unsubscribing). There are a variety of ways to monitor feeds to see if they are producing good information. One suggestion from the blog RethinkIP, is to put blogs on probation. This involves creating a Probation folder where you store "underperforming" blogs and feeds. Feeds that continue to not suit your needs should be deleted after some time. Some Aggregators, like Newsgator, allow you to set up feeds so you can be automatically unsubscribed if the feed hasn't been updated in a specified amount of time. The downside of this is that you may not be notified when you are unsubscribed.

Distributing RSS Items

As RSS Aggregators becomes more widely adopted and Enterprise RSS solutions become more mainstream the best way to distribute these alerts may be by making it easy for attorneys to subscribe to them. Indeed one future task for law librarians may involve creating, collecting, and disseminating RSS feeds to user's aggregators. Once an attorney is using an RSS aggregator, simply sending them an RSS feed link may be enough to keep them informed.

For now, however, you may have to do some of the hard work yourself. The responsibility may be up to you to filter and disseminate individual items from your own RSS aggregator. The image below shows a news item from an RSS Aggregator. As you can see you have a variety of different options for distributing information. Most RSS Aggregators offer options similar to the ones in the image below. You have the ability to simply email an item, send it to the clipboard, blog about it or post it to the bookmarking service del.icio.us. Blogging can be a great way to disseminate information from RSS feeds. Some RSS Aggregators allow you to post directly to your blog (depending on which blogging platform you use). However, you can also manually create blog posts for items of interest you want to disseminate to a wide audience, even if this is an audience inside your organization.

For advanced RSS users, del.icio.us also provides some interesting options for disseminating information. Del.icio.us is an online bookmarking service that allows you to save links to an account. You have the ability to also add descriptions of the websites and titles for the links you save. One of the cool aspects of del.icio.us is that you can subscribe to the RSS feeds of del.icio.us accounts. This means that you could subscribe attorneys to an RSS feed for a del.icio.us account, or post the RSS feed for that del.icio.us account on an intranet page. Whenever you posted an item to the del.icio.us account, attorneys would be notified. This has the added bonus that attorneys would only be notified of the individual items you recommend for them, you could filter out the items that have no use.

One final way to disseminate information from RSS feeds is through an intranet or portal, although this can be difficult and require some technical know-how. This is best used for subject-specific intranet pages. Remember our earlier search for Employment Law information sources? RSS would allow us to use those resources to create a dynamic, relevant Employment Law intranet page. Many portal products are starting to incorporate the ability to read RSS. Microsoft Sharepoint has several options for working with RSS feeds, most notably the Sharepoint Web Part.

If you have a simple web-based intranet, incorporating RSS feeds can be even easier. Websites like Grazr, FeedDigest, RSS-to-Javascript, and others allow you to take RSS feeds and put them on any web page with just a few lines of code. You should be careful about doing this. You must check the terms of use on all external products you use, and you must also keep in mind security concerns. However, if successful, creating intranet pages with RSS content can be a great service to your users. One of the benefits of this is that your intranet page will always be up to date with fresh, relevant content. If you really know your programming languages you can use PHP, ColdFusion, or some other language to create intranet pages that read RSS feeds.

Conclusion

Hopefully, newcomers to the RSS phenomenon will read this article and be enticed to start using RSS to help with their own information management needs. Maybe more advanced RSS users will be sparked to create or enhance current awareness services in their own organizations. Creating RSS alerts is simply one solution to an information problem. To get the full benefit of this new technology you must examine how this can work in your organization. Do you provide current awareness services to your organization, does RSS hold the potential to make it easier to provide these services? Using RSS requires some creative thinking, thinking beyond the traditional limitations of various methods of current awareness. I can say with confidence that the tools and techniques described in this article have helped me create some well-received and reliable current awareness services, and have the ability to help others as well.