In the broad field of increasingly sophisticated Web news reading tools—Web search engines, syndicators, and aggregators—a new contender hurtled out of the starting gate last week, and it looks like a winner. Inform Technologies, LLC (http://www.inform.com) introduced a Web news and blog commentary search system that tags and score the elements of each item, making for results with greater relevance.
What's the Difference?
There are already a number of news aggregators out there, but Inform offers several things that it says are new. The system's differentiating technology uses a series of information structuring techniques and natural-language interpretation to autocategorize and group news stories into thousands of categories. The text of stories is shredded to isolate the important elements of each. Once the elements have been identified, one can easily connect and read news on any person, place, organization, topic, industry, or product.
So, for example, a user may go to Inform and read a Boston Globe article about Hurricane Wilma and its effect on crude oil futures. The story appears as it would on the Globe's own Web site (including advertising) within a central frame flanked by links to other sections of the Globe.
Inform's front page is selected by editors. Beyond the front page, news is located using computer algorithms that search nearly 1,000 Web-based news sources and 100 top blogs. (Inform's staff of 55 employees, half of whom are based in India, add several new sources to the system each day.) Inform then builds an index of important elements in the article; it's a "smarter" system since it can find relationships between a particular search and related concepts (unlike the keyword-based search of Google News, which would miss "I.B.M." and "International Business Machines" in a search on "IBM"). As another example, articles about terrorism don't always use that term, but Inform can ferret out the information and pull relevant content from articles on crime, domestic policy, politics, war, and conflict, to name a few.
Here are some other Inform features:
- Two icons appear next to an article. One allows the story to be flagged for later viewing, and the other can be used to start a search for stories related to the topic. Inform lets users search "news," "blogs," or both. Depending on the publication, users may even limit which sections of that publication they want to look at.
- "Discovery Path" icons help users navigate their searches by attaching new subject items or creating new searches.
- "Hot Channels" are for searching "Hot News"—everything from business and finance, science and technology, and sports and entertainment to gadgets, relationships, and food and wine. "Hot Subjects in the News" lets the searcher look for people, industries, companies, and products.
- Free registration lets users create their own banks of channels and sources. Inform will track what registered users read and make suggestions on their home pages based on past sessions (like Amazon.com does for its customers).
CEO Neal Goldman claims that his company is building the ultimate newspaper of the future. He likens it to "TiVo-ing the news." (Goldman's previous news technology venture, Capital IQ, offered subscribers a way to search for articles on the financial industry. Capital IQ was bought last year by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. for more than $200 million; it is now the software underlying the company's Standard & Poor's corporate data business.)
In comparing Inform to premium, subscription-based news databases such as LexisNexis and Factiva, Goldman said: "We're trying to bring that type of power to users for free." Inform is, in fact, being designed to integrate paid content, searching, and cataloging news that's typically been locked behind registration and subscription walls. Inform will index and analyze not only articles from NYTimes.com, for example, which requires user registration, but also from WSJ.com, a subscription-based service. Inform plans to keep 4 days of news in its index.
What's Next and Who's Watching?
Long-range plans for Inform include enhanced, subscription-only services, pay-per-view articles, archived news, and merchandise sales. The company plans to sell advertising on areas not already covered by articles from other publications. The site is currently in beta and, at least for now, Firefox and Opera fans will find that some features of Inform are not accessible.
One of Inform's competitors is Topix.net, which was founded in 2002 and currently aggregates from more than 10,000 online news sources. Topix.net differentiates its news information not only by categories, but by ZIP code targeting as well. Readers can access news via the Web site, partner feeds, RSS feeds, and e-mail alerts. Alerts are not yet available from Inform; Goldman promises that RSS functionality is on its way. Inform believes that its services, such as customized news displays and searches of postings from prominent blogs, give it the competitive edge.
Another competitor is Moreover Technologies, just acquired by VeriSign ("the leading provider of critical infrastructure services for the Internet and telecommunications networks" - see today's Weekly News Digest), which announced the purchase on Oct. 17, the same day as Inform's debut. Moreover culls from more than 12,000 handpicked, editorially ranked news sources from more than 100 countries and in 36 languages.
Information Is Power
Information can also be exhausting. Industry specialists see Inform as a great option for professionals who might be tracking stories about a particular industry or company. For the average user, and even for rabid newshounds, it might be one more way to avoid short-circuiting the brain with information overload.