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Faulkner's Practical Web Strategies for Attorneys: Do Something More With Your Web Browser Homepage

By Frederick L. Faulkner IV, Published on November 12, 2006

It is probably the most taken for granted webpage you visit every day-the infamous homepage that appears each time you open your Web browser. Many see it as just another page that they immediately click away from once their browser is open. Others actually change it to something more meaningful or interesting. Traditionally, the homepage, is usually set by someone else at first, but with the expansion of the Web 2.0 era and the greater adoption of RSS you can actually do more with your homepage than ever before.

The problem with homepages is that you only get to choose one page. If you are lucky enough to be able to switch this page (some companies lock down their computers so this feature is disabled) you are forced to make the difficult choice of picking a page that suits your needs. Many choose a search engine, a news site, or another favorite website. With personalized pages becoming more common place, it only makes sense to maximize that experience to get the best of both worlds. At the end of this article I'll take you step-by-step on setting up a personalized homepage with one of the services I mention below. So let's see what is available for you to use and how you can get the content you want all in one spot.

Typical Homepages

Common homepages include a company's homepage, your Intranet, major news sources like CNN.com or NYTimes.com, major search engines like Google or Yahoo!, or an ISP or computer manufacturer branded homepage like Comcast.net or Dell's homepage. While all of these pages are fine and you can get great content from them, there is still something lacking, and that is the ability to make them really personal to you. If you are like me, you have a plethora of bookmarks from sites you visit regularly, why not have all their content in one organized place? Why not be able to open your browser and not only see information those sources, but also have a To Do list, a sticky note pad, or a preview of your Web e-mail account? Now you can and it is not hard to set up. So where do we start?

Websites You Can Personalize

Companies like Google and Microsoft are providing the ability to create personalized homepages instead of your default browser homepage. Other established portals like MSN and Yahoo! are enhancing their "my" space features to give you more options to add content and add pages to them. Finally, there are Web 2.0 companies building spaces specifically for customized homepages that are tapping into the far reaches of the Web to give you your one custom homepage.

To give you a more personalized portal, each of the examples below provide a standard set of modules that you can customize, as well as access other pre-defined modules to add to your homepage. They also allow you to define content to be filtered into your homepage from other sources such as your favorite blog or website that provides a RSS feed. Each page is has multiple columns so you can keep the modules organized. Modules can be dragged and dropped into different columns, additional pages, or deleted all together.

The first three, Google, Netvibes and Windows Live, are very similar in how they work. Each offer multiple columns and tabbed pages approach. MyYahoo! and MyMSN are more traditional content portals and are laid out differently than the other three. They provide two columns and access to their other services very easily. Depending on your personal taste, one may or may not be better suited for your needs. Personally, I use Google's personalized page because I use many of Google's products which integrate nicely into my homepage, but each of these below are top rated in their offerings.

With the ability to add content from almost any source that publishes an RSS feed personalized homepages can be powerful sources of information. Adding the content is very simple. Google, Netvibes, and Windows Live all provide pre-defined "widgets" and "gadgets" to add to your pages. Usually by clicking the "Add Content" link you will be presented with categories for different types of information you can add. Then it is as easy as finding one you want and clicking "Add to page". If there is a source not available in their listings you can add that source via their RSS feed (if available). Google makes it easy by adding a link by their search box called "Add a source". Netvibes and Windows Live provide similar features as well. Coming up I'll take you step-by-step on how to create a personalized page with Netvibes and how to add pre-defined as well as custom content to those pages.

How Legal Professionals Can Take Advantage

For many legal professionals, staying abreast of developments in certain industries is critical to cases and overall daily work. The ability to have current awareness tools and other personal interest information available in one source is both powerful and efficient. If you are not using a news aggregator yet to monitor industries or topics, a personalized homepage may be one way to ease yourself into the concept. It can, however, be very cumbersome if you have a lot of modules of feeds on one or two pages. With that in mind, personalized pages are a better choice when you are looking for quick snap shots of information. A news aggregator is the better technology alternative to track and monitor many sources, such as an entire industry.

For example, I monitor the Web, legal, and marketing industries on a regular basis. While I could set up three separate tabs in my Google homepage for each industry, I have at least 20-60 feeds in each category. Taken together, those pages would be difficult to manage and track, so I still use a news aggregator for the majority of my news feeds.

I use my homepage to monitor the ABA's reputation online via a few custom search feeds and our own internal RSS feeds which we publish. I also have a few tabs set up for personal items and general news. The main tab is set up with some widgets that help me get things done like a To Do list, a notepad for larger notes and thoughts, access to my Gmail account and my Google Calendar. This allows me to open up my browser, see what is on the agenda for the day, and organize my tasks by priority. I can also quickly see who has been talking about the ABA overnight and what we are publishing out to the world via RSS feeds. For me, it takes less than five minutes in the morning to get up to speed and then start my day.

Making a Personalized Homepage

To help you get started with a personalized homepage, I've documented the steps you need to go through using Netvibes. I chose Netvibes for this example because it requires no additional account set-up besides an existing e-mail address. You don't need to have an account with Google or Microsoft as you would for Microsoft Live or the Google Personalized page. In this example, we'll set up the account, add content to the main page, and create a new tab and add content. So let's get started!

Note: If you don't have access to adjust the homepage of your browser you can still create a personalized page - you will just need to bookmark it and go there every time you start your browser.

Step 1. Starting out. To get started with a personalized page, visit Netvibes, www.netvibes.com. Once there you will need to create an account so you can personalize this page.

Step 2. Sign In / Create a New Account. Click the Sign In link in the upper right corner. A Web 2.0 looking window will overlay the screen with Existing User and New User choices. Select Sign Up Now!. Provide an e-mail address and password. This will be how you identify your personalized page from everyone else's. Once your account is created you will be able to modify the modules, add tabs, and they will be retained for your own account.

Step 3. Title your Page. You will want to add a page title for your personalized page. The text at the top of the page that says "Type your page title here" is editable by clicking on it. You can name it anything you want. I called mine Fred's LLRX Start Page.

Step 4. Adding Content via Pre-defined Gadgets. Before we add content to your page, take a look at the pre-loaded items. If you don't have a Gmail account or don't care to see the colorful looking pictures via Flickr you can delete the module by clicking the "X" in the module header when you hover over it. Once you have deleted the modules you don't want to retain click the "Add Content" in the upper left hand corner. A taskbar will appear on the left side of the screen. In that taskbar a series of categories and types of modules will appear. You can hover over any of the links to see more about that particular module. If you click the link an example module will appear. If you want to add it to your page, click "Add to my page." Fill in as many modules and gadgets as you desire. If you want to see more modules you can check out the Netvibes Ecosystem for more custom modules created by other users.

Step 5. Adding Tabs. You may find that your main personalized page is getting pretty full from the modules you are adding. To help organize your modules Netvibes, just like Google and Microsoft Live, has tabs you can add. To add a new tab click the "New Tab" link next to your General tab. You can then label the tab anything you want. For example if you want to put all your search modules on a second page, you can call the tab "Search." Once a tab is created you can drag and drop any module on any tab and it will move the module to that tab. To add new content to that tab you would use the same process as Step 4.

Step 6. Adding Content via RSS Feeds. If the modules and gadgets provided by Netvibes and the Netvibes Ecosystem do not provide specific modules of content you desire, you can add your own RSS feeds to your Netvibes page. Say for instance you want to add the LLRX RSS feed to your personalized page to see when the next issue is published. To do this, surf to LLRX.com and click on the orange XML icon at the bottom of the left sidebar. Copy the URL and then go back over to your Netvibes account. Click "Add Content" and select "Add my feed" link at the top. There you will paste the URL for the LLRX News Feed into the top box and click "Add." A module showing the last five entries in the RSS feed will be displayed in a module on your personalized page. You can edite that module to show up to 9 entries by hovering over the top of the module and clicking the "Edit" link. You can do this for any RSS feed from any Web site. So if you prefer CNN news to MSNBC or WashingtonPost.com you can add any CNN feed to your personalized page.

Conclusion

Personalized homepages give you the ability to create quick snapshots of information that you may visit on a frequent basis. Making a personalized homepage your start page for your Web browser ensures that you can access that information quickly at any time. Adding new content to a personalized page is easy, and you can even drag and drop them to any column you want with the click of a mouse. Now that you know how to create a personalized page, take advantage of your homepage and maximize it to provide all the information you need in one central location. If you are using a personalized homepage, let me know what you like about it and ways in which you find it useful.